From tunnel vision and a thick skin to dogged determination and ‘persassion’, Michael Pilgrim, writer and co-founder of Highbrook Media, takes a wander round the mind of the entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs are a breed apart. They are driven and impatient. They are risk-takers and rule-breakers, sometimes difficult in their youth.

These attributes are essential for kick-starting a business, but then how do such buccaneering personalities fare when dealing with the likes of the VAT Flat Rate Scheme (HMRC Notice 733)?

Felix Dennis, the late multi-millionaire publisher, fits most of those descriptions, including the rebellious streak. He was jailed in 1971 for his part in publishing the scandalous underground magazine Oz.

He once wrote: “Tunnel vision helps. A thick skin helps. Stamina is crucial, as is a capacity to work so hard that your best friends mock you, your lovers despair and the rest of your acquaintances watch furtively from the sidelines, half in awe and half in contempt.”

Dennis, whom I knew, owned magazines, including Maxim and The Week. He had both a broad imagination and an attention to detail – a rarity even among self-made men. He could do vision, but also demanded precision. Right down to the way his ironed shirts were presented.

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Try and try again

Sir James Dyson, clearly a man who also likes domestic precision, has described the key to success as “dogged persistence and in the end you make it look like a quantum leap”.

Will King, founder of King of Shaves and The Entrepreneur in Residence Company, gave me a simple formula for the successful entrepreneur: “To paraphrase two global sports brands, ‘Impossible is Nothing. Just do it.’

“The single word that makes a successful entrepreneur is ‘persassion’ – an invented word that brings persistence, persuasion and passion together.”

Here I must declare an interest. I started my company Highbrook Media this year, supplying journalism to companies. So I agree with all the above. And would add brass neck, a good suit and a deep attention to what your customers actually want to buy.

Have you got entrepreneur genes?

So let’s get scientific. Gallup research from 2014 identified a list of 10 qualities that entrepreneurs share.

These include:

  • business focus (you know, taking decisions that might make money)
  • confidence
  • creative thinking
  • determination
  • being a knowledge-seeker, a promoter and a risk-taker

Nothing surprising there. So let’s turn it round. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Bill J Bonnstetter of research firm Target Training International, identified skills most entrepreneurs don’t possess.

Testing serial entrepreneurs on their mastery of 23 practical skills, Target found four lacking:

  • empathy
  • managing themselves and their time
  • planning and organising
  • analytical problem-solving

Oh dear. Hardly the required qualities for good people management, let alone HMRC Notice 733.

How to hire the right people

Perhaps the way entrepreneurs end up running successful companies is by hiring people who do have such skills.

Patrick Drake, co-founder of grocery and recipe delivery service Hello Fresh, should know. His company hit £2m turnover in its first year. How does he maintain entrepreneurial spark and do detail?

Easy. “Hire people better than you so that you can focus on the bigger picture,” says Drake. “Everything comes down to hiring the absolute best you can find and never compromising.”

Charlie Mullins, founder of Pimlico Plumbers, fits the traditional entrepreneur mould. He left school at 15 without qualifications. He now says it was a mistake; he should have left at 14. After completing a plumbing apprenticeship, he started Pimlico Plumbers in 1979 with a second-hand van and a bag of tools. Today, the company turns over £20m.

He says: “We require our people to do things our way, exactly, and to have the correct attitude. After all, as soon as they come to work and put on our uniform or step into their van, they are a reflection of the brand.”

Mullins has instinct and attention to detail. I once wrote an article exploring whether I could make more money as a plumber than a journalist. I asked to go out with a Pimlico Plumbers engineer. It was only agreed after a 10-minute phone conversation with Mullins. He was checking I was all right. As I say, attention to detail.

Growing your company

Ian Gordon, senior teaching fellow at Lancaster University Management School, lists these qualities for an entrepreneur:

  • a willingness to bear calculated risk
  • a vision of the future shape of the company
  • the ability to collect capital to launch a new venture

So what’s the difference between an entrepreneur and a chief executive? Gordon says: “CEOs should not be involved with the day-to-day operations of the business; they have teams of people for this. Entrepreneurs are heavily immersed in every aspect of the company and either don’t have enough staff to delegate or simply don’t want to.”

Charlie Mullins agrees. “Business owners set direction and strategy, but it’s up to the workforce at the front line to deliver. You need to make sure they are happy.”

Will King says a big company is just a small company with more complexity. “The key to running a big company is to master the art of delegating to great people. If you want to run a big company successfully, you always need to hire A+ people, that is, people better than you. If you hire Bs, Cs or Ds, you’ll pretty soon end up Zed.”

So the key to moving from impatient start-up to steady corporate is to hire great people, trust them and treat them well. Then you will reap the rewards. And have crease-free shirts.

Additional reporting by Hazel Davis

Any musings to add to the above? Let us know in the comments below. 

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