Changing and adapting to fit opportunities is crucial to starting a business.

This is an undeniable fact. When an opportunity presents itself, a successful entrepreneur can focus clearly and commit wholeheartedly to developing a solution. At times, this will mean changing their approach and adapting in order to find the product or service to resolve an evolving problem. 

While ego, confidence, or even stubbornness are often presented as common traits among successful business leaders, it is typically through this willingness to change that entrepreneurs are made. 

Yes, some enter the world of business possessing characteristics that provide a head start – self-confidence, creativeness and passion are some that stand out. Yet, putting an emphasis on natural ability when examining the entrepreneurial mindset neglects factors such as practical training, education, experience and adaptability. 

Ultimately, there is no concrete definition of what an entrepreneur is. Describing how to become one is a challenging task. By loosely defining entrepreneurship as the activity of setting up and managing a business, what are some the characteristics shared by entrepreneurs? And what is the relative importance of nature and nurture in the development of a business leader?

Characteristics of a typical entrepreneur

Firstly, the list of characteristics that typically make an entrepreneur is extensive, with countless books dedicated to this alone. 

Again, there is no definitive, agreed-upon list. But there are evident characteristics shared among those that run successful businesses. 

Vision – seeing the bigger picture and identifying opportunities, including using advantages, such as a gap in the market or competitors’ weaknesses. Having a vision enables them to stay focused until a problem is pursued to resolution.

Purpose – understanding the reasons behind what they are hoping to achieve. Knowing their purpose means an entrepreneur is more explicit about the sacrifices they will make. Being passionate about what they are doing maintains motivation and keeps them resilient. 

Autonomy – needing to be their own boss. Often, they will find it difficult to conform to rigid structures, like the traditional 9-5 office job. Instead, they usually crave the opportunity to control their own destiny.  

Risk-taking – having enough self-confidence and the ego to be willing to take risks in order to achieve profit or success.


Can you learn these characteristics? 

Many studies ask this question. Examining whether we are born with innate personality traits or learn and nurture them throughout our life. While it appears exposure to entrepreneurial role models helps raise future businesspeople, there is no guarantee that an ‘entrepreneurial gene’ will carry these traits over. 

It is an ongoing debate that, for now, has an unknowable conclusion. Therefore, concentrating on the debate, specifically the nature argument, when considering what makes an entrepreneur seems counterintuitive. Instead, we should focus on those with the vision to recognise the changes they need to make to start a successful business. 

Developing business acumen is essential to entrepreneurship. If one discovers they no longer wish to conform to the rigid workplace they find themselves and start their own business, they must adapt by identifying the essential enterprise skills they are lacking – for example, studying how to effectively research markets and opportunities, in turn enabling them to manage or balance the risks one must take in business; or understanding how to build a solid business plan, keep a company’s finances in order and access capital to grow. 


The pandemic has shown how people can adapt 

During periods of economic instability, such as the COVID pandemic, there is generally an uptake in entrepreneurial activity. This can be for several reasons. For example, solutions are needed to new problems, such as the number of new startups created to support the development of new vaccines and COVID testing. 

Also, in these periods of instability, you see older, less agile businesses disappearing – those that cannot adapt will be replaced by those who remain relevant to the climate. Finally, there is necessity entrepreneurship, when people begin to lose their jobs and have no choice but to look towards their own ventures to make a living. This is evident in the large uptake in over 50s starting new businesses during the pandemic. 

Creating a startup is a venture that should not be taken likely, but we should celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit that has been on display over the past two years. 

The key now is for those who are early on in their business journey to develop the right skills to ensure success. Training, education, mentorship, networking – these will all help nurture a person’s entrepreneurial talents, regardless of the characteristics they are born with. 

Crucially, a business leader must be ready to shapeshift. They must be prepared to adapt – as individuals and as a business – as the world around them evolves. Knowing how and when to shapeshift is the challenge, but again, the more emphasis an entrepreneur places on honing their skills and knowledge, the better placed they will be to achieve this. 

‘In the startup world, a good idea often isn’t enough’

Mr Jonathan Styles is a Senior Lecturer in Enterprise at Masood Entrepreneurship Centre, The Alliance Business School, at The University of Manchester. Mr Styles is part of the team that delivers the University’s online PGCert Entrepreneurship, which allows students to study part-time alongside their working life and learn how to take their business ideas into practice.