Are Entrepreneurs Born or Can They Be Taught?

You have got a great business idea and you think you could make a lot of money from it – what do you do?

Perhaps you set up your own company, dedicate your life to it, and through drive and determination make a fortune.

Or maybe you just forget about your idea, and quietly get back to your salaried day job.

While most of us fear we would be in the latter camp, the entrepreneurs of this world would undoubtedly have a go at the first option.

But what makes a successful entrepreneur like Richard Branson or Mark Zuckerberg, the people who set up and grow their own profitable companies?

Are entrepreneurs born with the skills they need, or can men and women be trained? Or perhaps, is it all down to a person’s early life experience?

Family background

Self-confessed “serial entrepreneur” Luke Johnson, who has led UK restaurant chains including Pizza Express, Strada and Patisserie Valerie, thanks his father.

Cardiff Metropolitan University

“My father was self-employed and still is, and at 84 is still working,” says Mr Johnson.

“Having that role model in the house of someone who didn’t want to work for anyone else, and wasn’t dependent on an employer, was very helpful.

“I have found over the years, having worked with many entrepreneurs, and having met hundreds of them, that they all have, in their backgrounds, a close family member or friend who is a role model, a self-employed person or boss running their own company.”

By contrast, Mr Johnson says starting a company would be a more difficult a proposition for people without any exposure to someone self-employed.

“If you personally come from a background where everyone is in a safe job, with a career which will surely last a lifetime, with a final-salary pension scheme, then the idea of starting out on your own without that security blanket can be very frightening,” he says.

Two economics professors, David Blanchflower, of Dartmouth College in the US, formerly of the Bank of England, and Andrew Oswald, from the UK’s University of Warwick, also agree that if a parent is self-employed it is a great deal more likely their children will go on to do the same.

‘Positive spin’

For UK business coach and turnaround specialist Peter Ryding, successful entrepreneurs are predominantly born that way.

“I would say the simple answer is 70% born, 10% nurture, and 20% trainable,” he says.


Luke Johnson
Luke Johnson says he couldn’t be an employee

Mr Ryding says such people have two core genetic characteristics, which he terms “adaptive thinking” and “seeing reality with a positive spin”.

“A person with ‘adaptive thinking’ can spot a business need, decide what skills are needed to address it, and then apply them quickly and effectively. They can then do this again and again as new needs or requirements arise,” he says.

“By ‘seeing reality with a positive spin’, what I mean is that entrepreneurs are better able to see if something is going wrong with a certain plan, and how to turn this into a positive by happily switching to something else.

“And for the 20% that is trainable – you can train people to manage stress, be better leaders, how to be tenacious, how to be humble, how to be positive. But if they don’t have the underlying genetics, it is hard to do that.”

Brian Morgan, professor of entrepreneurship at Cardiff Metropolitan University, says that while “inherited genetic factors” play an important role in creating successful entrepreneurs, most still need to be taught other vital skills.

“In general, about 40% of entrepreneurial skills can be thought of as ‘in the DNA’,” he says. “But 60% of the competencies required to create a successful and sustainable business – such as technical and financial expertise – have to be acquired.

“This can be through college courses, or by working for a few years with a large company in a sector that the budding entrepreneur is keen to enter, and to use that experience to acquire some of the fundamental business and networking skills.”

Prof Morgan adds that entrepreneurs who get such training “are more likely to pay attention to detail, and to place their start-up on a more secure footing”.

But while some experts on entrepreneurship highlight what they see as the vital role played by genetics, others cite different factors.

“I don’t think genetics is in this, it is a person’s early life experience which determines whether they could go on to become an entrepreneur,” says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School.

“Often from my studies, the entrepreneur has had a negative life experience when they are young, such as their parents getting divorced, or being bullied at school.

“And they survive this, they learn from it, and want to bounce back, or prove people wrong. This determination makes them far more prepared to take calculated risks needed to be a successful entrepreneur.”

Economic necessity

Whatever are the factors behind a successful entrepreneur, San Francisco-based technology investor Jennifer Moses, says that economic necessity on both sides of the Atlantic is making more people think about starting up their own company.

“There are fewer opportunities now in traditional professions, and necessity is the mother of invention,” says Ms Moses, a former Goldman Sachs banker who also used to be an adviser to former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.


Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg has proved his entrepreneurship credentials

“Many people are being asked to take redundancy and to take early retirement. And those people are going to have to find ways to generate income.”

Ms Moses adds that to be a successful entrepreneur does not mean you have to make millions of dollars.

“For me it’s about someone who starts a business, however small, which isn’t on top of an existing corporate platform. It is a very broad church.”

Luke Johnson agrees that the changing nature of the jobs market is making more people consider starting up their own companies.

“The workplace is a lot more fluid than it used to be, and taking charge of your working life can actually be a better choice, as you do, to a degree, control your own destiny.”

He adds that for him, this control is central, because he couldn’t work for anyone. He adds: “I’m totally unemployable.”