Six entrepreneur mindsets

I recently logged in to a webinar hosted by the London Business School, where I listened to entrepreneurship professor John Mullins talk about his new book, Break the Rules!: The Six Counter-Conventional Mindsets of Entrepreneurs That Can Help Anyone Change the World.

I got to know Prof Mullins many years ago when he was the adviser to USIU on case studies they were developing.

I worked on one of these, about an IT company whose CEO I was, and I have kept in touch with him ever since.

In 2014 I also wrote an article about an earlier book of his on entrepreneurship, Getting to Plan B, in which he revealed that we would never have heard of some of the most successful business founders if they would have stuck to their original Plan As.

For over 20 years Prof Mullins has been exploring what sets successful entrepreneurs apart from other business people and from those who fail to reach their goals.

In the webinar, he took us through what he has found – including through having been an entrepreneur himself before entering academia.

It is that successful entrepreneurs exhibit one or more of the six break-the-rules mindsets through which entrepreneurs challenge assumptions, overcome obstacles and mitigate risks.

Here they are:

1. When you’re tempted to say “No”, instead say “Yes we can”. Then figure it out.

2. It’s the customer’s problem that matters, not your solution. Problem-first, not product-first.

3. “Moving the needle” doesn’t matter much to entrepreneurs. Think narrow, not broad.

4. Entrepreneurs get things done with almost no money. Ask for the cash, and ride the float.

5. Make the future winnings yours. Beg, borrow, but don’t steal.

6. Don’t ask for permission. Beg forgiveness later.

Each of these six mindsets can be learned, he has seen, by anyone, in any business setting large or small, old or new, create thriving sustainable businesses that grow and prosper.

And during the webinar, he quoted examples from entrepreneurs we are all familiar with, who practised at least one of them.

He referred to Dell PC founder Michael Dell, who in harmony with Mindset two ensured the company made products that were trusted to solve the problems of their customers; to Nike founder Phil Knight, who aligned with Mindset three when he started, narrowly focusing on products for elite athletes; to Tesla founder Elon Musk, who followed Mindset five by obtaining deposits from customers even before the car was launched that financed their production; and to Uber founder Travis Kalanick, who in keeping with Mindset six didn’t ask for permission before challenging the modus operandi of traditional taxis.

He might also have mentioned Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson, who saw the need for more customer-friendly flights and despite lacking experience in the domain just went for providing what no other airline did, in the firm belief that he could and that customers would be attracted to his offering.

In his book, Prof Mullins describes strategies for overcoming the daunting obstacles that stand in every innovator’s way.

He shows how to challenge assumptions and mitigate (not avoid!) risk – often by externalising it – in order to take advantage of opportunities. And he takes us through the steps we can take to make one or more of these mindsets our own.

He ended his webinar by asking which of the mindsets are already embodied within us personally, and which others can we learn to apply to a challenge we are currently facing.

Entrepreneurs ought to act like revolutionaries

In my last article, I started writing about the lessons from David McCourt’s book Total Rethink – Why Entrepreneurs Should Act Like Revolutionaries. There I focused on what he saw as the personal attributes of successful entrepreneurs, and in this one, I will be reporting on McCourt’s experience regarding the business side of entrepreneurship.

McCourt, himself a highly successful serial entrepreneur in the field of telecommunications – a self-professed “revolutionary” in that domain – tells us that while in business and in life generally, everything is changing so fast, with the problems we need to solve entirely different from how they used to be, the ways we think and how we make decisions have changed little since the times of agricultural and industrial societies.

The traditional wisdom, he observes, has been that improvements are best introduced incrementally, with large established corporations planning to increase their turnovers and profits incrementally, and governments changing their laws incrementally. However everything is moving too fast for that to be an effective solution any longer, and we must all revolutionise the way we think and the way we behave in order to be more entrepreneurial.

In an article he published in The Irish Times around the time his book appeared in 2019, McCourt relished the thought that because revolutionaries threaten the status quo – and for many their comfortable way of life – they are often very unpopular. But he strongly believes that upheaval is essential if we are to cope with the challenges the rest of this century is bound to throw at us as the alternative could well be even worse.

Technology is progressing so fast that many are getting left behind, forced to “stand back and watch as the future shoots by”. So if we are to succeed we must “take a risk and ruffle the surface”

Today’s technology goes beyond previous linear approaches, he observes, with algorithms sorting through billions of pieces of data to find patterns and connections unrecognisable to humans. It is also cutting out the middle man, as crowdsourcing is taking the place of bank managers; Airbnb, Expedia and replacing the travel agent; and Amazon having thrown the world of retail into upheaval.

The combination of technology, social media and the way people now absorb information – particularly the younger generations – means that the top-down centralised way we have been running the world for the last couple of centuries is no longer a viable model to follow, he warns, adding that the enormous opportunities available could easily slip through our fingers “due to the greed and conservatism of the establishments that dominate the economy”. Ouch.

In the book, he also complains about how too many corporates stifle inconvenient smaller competitors, and about the short-term thinking of too many companies. To make matters worse we suffer from the over-regulation of the business environment by government, seriously inhibiting innovation and entrepreneurship.

(Including and not least here in Kenya – with the notable exception of how the Central Bank allowed the introduction of the disruptive Mpesa system… plus now watch out for swift moves by the Capital Markets Authority.)

McCourt is not just focused on beating his competitors or maximising his wealth. He is equally concerned about the many who are left behind, and here he is looking way beyond revolutionary business entrepreneurs for solutions.

“A revolutionary entrepreneur,” he states in his article, “is anyone who wants to make a difference in the world. After all, change isn’t confined to business. Today’s healthcare is being transformed by advances such as 3D printing, remote diagnoses and electronic health trackers, education is being rebuilt by e-learning and video classrooms.”

McCourt is aware that lots of changes are needed beyond those brought about by technology. “There are so many structures in our lives that need reinventing – and I mean total rebuilding: the political system, diplomacy, taxation, wealth distribution, the refugee crisis, to name but a few,” he challenges.

“I became an entrepreneur for the joy of doing things differently, to rethink the model and to change things in ways that would eventually bring benefits to everyone,” his article concludes.

I’m sure that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos would applaud that, as his recently launched Courage and Civility Award indicate.

The question I leave you with is whether you are simply an incrementalist… or whether there’s something of the revolutionary in you.