The three traits of successful entrepreneurs
As a professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business, Jana Raver looks at how people overcome the challenges of starting a business. Jana has identified three factors that predict the likelihood a business owner will excel or fail. She explains why these matter, and what entrepreneurs can do to succeed.
By Hailey Eisen
Launching a business is extremely difficult. Half of all new businesses fail. What fascinates Jana Raver is the notion of psychological resilience — or the capacity of entrepreneurs to try, fail, bounce back, and try again.
“One of the most challenging and stressful occupations you can have is to be an entrepreneur,” Jana explains. “And often you have to do it alone.” As a professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business, Jana has long been interested in entrepreneurship, not only because of its challenges, but also its unique opportunities.
“As faculty members, we basically live and work as entrepreneurs,” Jana says. “We have to launch research projects from the ground up, and, like a business, we have to secure funding, hire teams, and ensure results are met in a timely fashion. We’re familiar with failure.”
Having held organizational administration positions and worked in HR between her undergraduate and graduate degrees, Jana brings real-world experience to her research. When the opportunity arose to launch a research project on psychological resilience among entrepreneurs with Ingrid Chadwick, associate professor at Concordia University, Jana leapt at the opportunity.
“We wanted to understand how individuals can overcome the challenges of entrepreneurship and be successful despite all the hardships they face,” she says. “We were also looking for ways to identify individuals who would be better equipped to succeed at the helm of startups.”
Jana’s research studied first-time entrepreneurs over a two-year period as they developed, launched, and operated new businesses. The research specifically looked at individuals enrolled in a government-backed program to train new entrepreneurs and it measured their resilience levels before the participants even began creating their business plan.
“You want to keep one step ahead of your competitors, go out and talk with your customers and potential customers, understand what their needs are, and be creative in the ways you solve for their needs.”
“Then we studied them and the way they thought about entrepreneurship and behaved as entrepreneurs over the next two years. We were able to predict whether they would ultimately be successful and still have viable businesses two years later.”
Jana’s findings are of value to both individuals starting their own businesses and investors looking to identify entrepreneurs likely to excel. Most successful entrepreneurs share three tendencies, she says: psychological resilience, a challenge mindset, and proactive behaviour.
An individual who is psychologically resilient will be able to fail fast, take an experimental approach to a new business, and not let setbacks be indicative of failure. Resilient entrepreneurs bounce back with a new idea or approach, Jana explains.
Even more important than resilience is a challenge mindset that allows a person to see obstacles as opportunities to learn. “The way you mentally approach the game is so important,” Jana says. “The mindset of success is one that says, ‘Hey, this is hard, but I can get through it.’ It’s about catching yourself before you go down the path of doom and gloom.”
A challenge mindset can be learned, and people can train their minds to be more growth-focused. How? By treating problems — be they financial or logistical — as obstacles to overcome, as problems to solve, and as opportunities to learn, Jana explains.
Finally, proactive behaviour is an indicator of startup success. “You want to keep one step ahead of your competitors, go out and talk with your customers and potential customers, understand what their needs are, and be creative in the ways you solve for their needs,” Jana explains. “The key is to never rest on your laurels.”
Based on her research, Jana has developed helpful advice for entrepreneurs (that she’s applying to her own work, too). Her suggestions include:
- Focus on self-care. Some people think it’s selfish, but taking care of oneself is the opposite of that. To be a successful entrepreneur, eat well, sleep well, and pursue activities that calm your mind — so it’s ready to handle whatever comes up.
- Surround yourself with supportive, positive people. Quite simply, it’s hard to get into a challenge (or growth) mindset when surrounded by people with fixed mindsets. Instead, spend time with people who will build your confidence, challenge you to think outside the box, support your ideas, and stand by you — even when you fail.
- Fail Fast. Accept that failure is part of the entrepreneurial process. See failures as opportunities to grow. If something doesn’t work, it’s the idea, not you, that failed. Then move on quickly and try again.
Over the long term, success hinges not just on your skills and knowledge, but also on your ability to recover, remain focused, stay energized and show up motivated every day; in other words, your ability to be resilient. Queen’s Executive Education offers in-person and online programs for managers and entrepreneurs looking to build their resilience. Learn more here.