The essential ingredients of a successful entrepreneur

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  • by John McKee

    When you hear the word “PASSION”, what comes to mind? 

    Likely it’s something emotional, connected to love, desire and matters of the heart.  And no, it’s not heavy rain in Ballymena!  The dictionary will suggest something like: a strong and barely controllable emotion. 

    Passion is something we often notice and admire when we see it in others.  Even when we don’t agree with their cause, if we see someone getting properly stuck into it, giving everything they’ve got, driven by this strong and barely controllable emotion, we respect them for it.  Why?

    My guess is that when we see passion in others or when we feel it ourselves, it’s indicative of commitment, determination, and a likelihood to overcome obstacles rather than run away from them.  Passion has a direct impact on outcome, it is a factor that makes a difference, and intuitively, we know it! 

    It’s perhaps a bit of a cheap shot to highlight some mega-successful entrepreneurs as evidence of this “edge” and the difference it makes but let me point out a few of the great and the good who fit the bill; that is, they are well known for their passion and the impact it has had on their ability to succeed:

                    Elon Musk

                    Anita Roddick

                    Steve Jobs

                    Richard Branson

                    Gordon Ramsay

                    Oprah Winfrey

    Very different people, very different businesses, but passion is something that they are all  well known for and none of them was shy in letting the world know it.  So, we can hopefully agree, there’s a link between this emotional state and success or achievement.

    Interestlingly, passion isn’t only noticeable in the mega-successful billionaires.  We notice and respect it everywhere we see it, even when it hasn’t led to fabulous riches or celebrity status. We can see it in the eyes of anyone who loves what they do, whether that be serving pizza, cleaning windows, exploring space or leading a country.  We know when people are passionate and we like to see it.  This is why we so easily remember the teachers from our youth who were passionate about their subject, and typically, we respected them for it, even if we didn’t like them or the topic.  Someone else’s passion makes an impact on those around them; we notice it, and we appreciate it.              

    Passion has another interesting effect on us… it makes us smarter.  I can’t quote a scientific study on this, but do your own snap survey if you’re in doubt.  Anyone you can think of (in any context) who is passionate about their particular subject, industry, hobby or sport always demonstrates a higher level of knowledge in that topic than someone who doesn't share their passion.  Being passionate about anything creates a kind of gravitational effect over knowledge; we will see / read / remember/ recount / ask / talk about things that we are passionate about, and as a consequence, we learn more about them and I would argue, become more passionate as a result.  It’s a self-feeding system. 

    This formula: start with your passion, feed it, and good things will happen is perhaps an oversimplification, and clearly passion is not the only attribute or causal agent that determines success, however I would argue that it’s more-often-than-not the determining factor, it’s what makes the difference.  We’ll pick this up in the sporting context in a second but first let’s look in more depth at its relevance for business.

    Passion is an emotion often synonymous with our view of the classic entrepreneur, but I would take it a step further and suggest that it’s not a symptom we see, it’s a causal effect.  In a business growth / entrepreneurial context, passion is not a “nice to have” or a useful tool for the aspiring entrepreneur, it’s an absolute essential, it’s the foundation upon which successful businesses are created and it provides a sustainable, concrete competitive advantage as businesses grow.

    In the world of start-ups, seed investments and entrepreneurship programmes, the P word is one of the first things any potential investor will look for in a pitching entrepreneur.  Sadly, the founder’s passion is often an afterthought when developing the pitch; technical efficacy, projections, valuations, market data (whilst important ingredients in any pitch) are obsessed over, rehearsed to death, only for the big P, the emotion that started the ball rolling, to be pushed out of the pitch altogether.  I’ve seen more than a few pitches where the pressure to get every number exactly right, to hit the time limit to the second and other perfunctory factors squeezed out the entrepreneur’s personality and personal passion, all to the detriment of their pitch. 

    I’m not big on advice, but if you’re in a start-up or are trying hard to grow an existing business, for goodness sake, be passionate about your presentations and bear in mind, one of your key objectives is to let your passion shine through; it’s what your audience want to see.  Everyone knows your numbers won’t work out like the forecasts, the hockey stick curve is probably more than optimistic, your product idea will need several iterations, your marketing message will be overhauled many times, but passion impresses from day 1.  For anyone out there who is raising one eyebrow at this point because you’re not passionate about your start-up or your product or the sector you work in… you might want to look for something else to do!!  

    But don’t take my word for it, let’s ask Oprah:

    “Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.“ - Oprah Winfrey

    Please don’t write this off as positive mindset, feel good “think yourself rich” stuff; God bless Tony Robins, but let me put forward how passion works in practice, how something intangible, an emotion, a state of mind, can translate into a real-world genuine winning edge.

    Let me suggest a few examples where passion = tangible gain:

    1. When tough times come, the darkness is descending and the hangers-on are not to be seen, passion is what sustains our belief and keeps us hanging on instead of giving up.  In sport it’s the love of the game that makes the training, the effort, the defeats, the suffering, the blisters, the late nights and early morning training all a part of a game we love.
    1. When we’re in a straight shoot out with a competitor, passion is oftentimes the deciding factor.  As consumers we can see when a supplier is passionate about their products, and we can spot a lack of it from a mile off.  In sport the post match interview with the defeated captain frequently throws up “they wanted it more than we did.”  This well used phrase explains why the better team on paper isn't always the better team on the pitch.  Passion can trump skill.
    1. Subject matter experts are always passionate about their subject, so if you want your business to be respected by customers and peers as a knowledge centre, passion had better be a core value.  If you love your subject, you’ll love to learn more about it, you’ll love to connect with others who share your passion and everyone else will notice.

    What does this mean for an existing business?  Well, if we want to win, we have to be passionate about what we do and why we do it and make sure everyone else knows it.  Otherwise we’re competing in a market with one hand tied behind our back. 

    What does this mean for a budding entrepreneur?  Whatever venture you’re drawn to, or whatever business opportunities you’re exploring, follow where your passion leads you.  It’s not enough to have a good idea, or to have found an enormous gap in the market; your idea and its opportunity need to ring your bell, they need to fill you with passion, that strong and barely controllable emotion. 

    Make sure it’s the other manager who says: “they wanted it more than we did”.

    If you’d like to discuss your passion, your business or your pitch I’d love to hear from you.  Drop me a line to and follow your passion!

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