It’s the people, stupid

Sahil MerchantWhat is the most important personal trait for an entrepreneur?


Do you need to be really smart, determined, inspirational, visionary, organised, innovative or creative? Ideally, a bit of each would be great.


What about from a functional perspective? Is it best to have experience and skill around strategy, operations, technical details, accounting and finance, legal matters, marketing or sales?


Again, all of those are desirable.


A number of people about to start businesses have asked me about the most important trait, and while answering “all of the above” is obvious, it is also a cop out.


I have been around lots of very successful entrepreneurs. A few have been as dumb as dingbats in the traditional academic sense.


One is an excellent salesman, but can’t abide numbers.


Another is a strategic genius who can disaggregate business models faster than anyone I know, but hasn’t got a marketing bone in her body.


Entrepreneurs can hire expertise. They can hire numbers people, marketing folk, sales managers, operational experts, and even personal assistants to keep them organised.


Yet, every successful entrepreneur I have ever met has one trait in common.


They are all people’s people.


Business is all about people, and never more so than with a start-up. Most businesses want to have customers.


Most have suppliers of some sort. And then there is that small matter of staff. When building up a brand, product or service, others don’t have the benefit of reputation and track record to go off.


Most of the time, they agree to deal with a company because they like the people. And for a small growing business, that means you.


So, when someone came to me last week and asked me: “I’m thinking of going out on my own with that idea about XXX – I have it all planned out and reckon I can execute it without having to waste time on all that irrelevant people stuff I have to currently deal with – what do you think?”; I didn’t quite know what to say.


Actually, I did. I just didn’t know how to say it diplomatically.


What defines a people person?


All of this is not to imply that a successful entrepreneur has to be the life of the party.


What I am talking about has no correlation with being an extrovert. In fact, there is a mistaken perception that introversion is incompatible with entrepreneurship.


Being a people person, in my opinion, has more to do with the factors you let influence your decision-making process.


Logic and rationality are all fine traits and need to drive entrepreneurial strategy. However, the biggest failure I have seen from the consulting world is where very smart people come up with very sound “answers” only to have them fail on execution.


People execute logical strategies, not businesses. And people are influenced by things such as whether you were rude to their life partner at the Christmas party.


As an entrepreneur leading a small growing organisation, you need to be sensitive to these issues.


It is easier in a large corporate to say that you shouldn’t have to care about such petty things, but when I was running my company, I just wanted the job to get done.


If human factors were impeding my business, I needed to deal with them, because I didn’t have a staff of HR folks or experienced senior managers.


Even if I did, who is to say that these human issues don’t exist at that level as well?


Being a people’ s person in my mind means taking into account irrational emotions when considering decisions that need to be implemented.


Understanding what pushes people’s buttons, and being able to get the best out of them as a result, is crucial.


From a scientific point of view, negotiation is supposedly all about matching incentives. However, to understand incentives, you need to first appreciate people’s motivations.


If being a people’s person is not a trait you count as your own, I don’t think you can build a successful business.


That’s a fairly black and white statement, and someone is bound to point to an exception, but perhaps the exceptions in fact highlight a more desirable entrepreneurial trait – being damn lucky.


If you don’t like the thought of relying on luck, I hope you are good with people.


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