The 7 Most Important Traits of Entrepreneurs

What worked for some of Canada's top entrepreneurial success stories

Written by Rick Spence

Are there specific personality traits and practices that will help you succeed as an entrepreneur?

There are no guarantees in business. But you could do worse than adopt the approaches that worked for some of Canada’s top entrepreneurial success stories.

Possess a burning ambition to succeed: Success doesn’t mean achieving wealth, fame or power. It means having the will to work hard and use every opportunity to build your reputation, experience and financial clout.

Jim Balsillie is co-CEO of Research in Motion, the Waterloo, Ont. company whose BlackBerry is battling Apple’s iPhone for top-banana status in the smartphone market. Balsillie, 49, started working when he was 10, selling Christmas cards door to door. The same drive to excel that took him to Harvard Business School was evident in his teens, when he worked in maintenance jobs, ran a student-painters operation, managed a children’s camp — and held five paper routes.

Spot niche opportunities in growing markets: Entrepreneurs are always eyeing new opportunities and business models. Kevin O’Leary, one of the multimillionaire investors on the CBC’s Dragons’ Den, was a TV sports producer in the mid-’80s when he teamed up with a software developer to commercialize a printing program for business. At the time, numerous small software companies were writing useful programs, but few understood marketing or distribution.

O’Leary created SoftKey Software Products to license other people’s software and sell it under one brand name, through conventional retailers, for under $30. The developers could continue to sell their software under their own brands; no one would know their software was being sold at a discount by SoftKey. Following the model of the paperback book, O’Leary created a new market for software by emphasizing price and convenience.

Be bold about risk: The first Canadian to be named “Global Entrepreneur of the Year” was accordionist and fire-breather Guy Laliberté of Cirque du Soleil. His vision: a circus for adults, with no animal acts, and a sophisticated mystique that owed more to ballet and theatre than to Ringling Brothers (with lofty ticket prices to match).

After the debuting of their first show to rave reviews in Quebec City, Laliberté kept on taking chances. Instead of cloning hit shows by creating “touring companies,” he re-invested profits into creating all-new shows, at $25 million each. Risk-taking, says COO Daniel Lamarre, “is part of who we are. Every time we come in a comfort zone, we will find a way to get out, because being comfortable in our business is very, very dangerous.”

Demand more from your people: Being a leader demands you to be caring, nurturing and motivating. But it doesn’t mean you have to be a softy.

Vancouver retailer and media entrepreneur Jim Pattison started out as a car dealer who became notorious for firing his worst-performing sales person every month. While that practice may be too harsh for most entrepreneurs, it ensured that every employee understood the organization’s goals. And it focused them on what they had to do to succeed.

Don’t reinvent every wheel: When Toronto financier Christine Magee and a few colleagues were looking for a ground-breaking retail concept to invest in, they searched North America for exciting new players. In Seattle, Wash., they found a mattress retailer with a promising brand, a consumer-friendly style and a catchy radio jingle. Magee bought the rights to duplicate the company’s systems north of the border.

The result: Sleep Country Canada, which quickly won market share from laggard department stores and furniture retailers. Thanks to Magee’s commitment to leverage a successful concept rather than build from scratch, Sleep Country hit the ground running and avoided the many mistakes startups tend to make. And that jingle is still playing.

Focus on customers: Ottawa entrepreneur Terry Matthews has been involved in more than 40 startups, including Mitel and Newbridge Networks. He claims a success rate over 90% — or 10 times the average. His secret: he works with customers from the start to ensure his firms are building things that companies want to buy. As he said in a recent speech, “You must go out and talk to customers.”

Pinch your pennies: Canadian journalists always scorned Roy Thomson, founder of the Thomson chain of small-town newspapers, for excessive penny-pinching. En route to building his media empire, Thomson cut corners and hoarded nickels wherever he could — including, famously, counting pencils and upbraiding staff who asked for new ones too often.

Every entrepreneur knows how fast cash slips away when you’re not paying attention. You need up-to-date policies and systems stipulating who can spend how much money in your company. The Thomson family now ranks among Canada’s greatest philanthropists. The moral: spend your money after you’ve made it, not before.

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