Jobs and the Future of Work

6 skills that all extraordinary entrepreneurs have

Amy Wilkinson
Lecturer in Management, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Stanford University
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The Creator’s Code is based on interviews with 200 entrepreneurs who have started companies that generate more than $100 million in annual revenue or social enterprises that serve more than 100,000 people.

Some of these creators have started businesses that generate more than $1 billion in revenue every year.

Crisscrossing the country, I spent hours interviewing creators in technology, retail, energy, health care, media, mobile applications, biotechnology, real estate, travel, and hospitality, working to understand their approach.

Across my research, I witnessed individuals turning small notions into big companies time and again.

From the creators who invented online storage provider Dropbox (annual revenue $200 million), fast-casual restaurant chain Chipotle ($3.9 billion), discount airline JetBlue ($5.7 billion), to a myriad of other successful businesses, I found that they achieved entrepreneurial success in much the same way.

Without exception, creators describe their work as doing something much more than achieving financial ambitions—they aim to make a mark on the world. “This generation of technologists thinks about bringing people together to do all sorts of interesting things,” eBay founder Pierre Omidyar told me. “That’s intoxicating and incredibly motivating and creates a stage of human development that is fundamentally new.”

Analyzing nearly 10,000 pages of interview transcripts and more than 5,000 pieces of archival and documentary evidence, I worked to understand how creators, sometimes dismissed as unrealistic dreamers, not only come to disrupt competitors but also to reshape entire industries.

The research is based on grounded theory method, widely used in qualitative analysis. My extensive interviews were recorded and the resulting transcripts combed for common attributes that were coded and then grouped into concepts.

These results allowed me to identify the categories that provide the basis for developing the theory of six essential skills that enable the success of every creator.

To test and support my conclusions, I immersed myself in the literature relevant to entrepreneurial endeavor from the fields of organizational behavior, psychology, sociology, entrepreneurship, economics, strategy, decision theory, and creativity. I reviewed more than 4,000 pages of academic research, examined hundreds of studies and experiments, and consulted leading scholars.

It was a five-year odyssey that led me to six skills that make creators successful.

Creators are not born with an innate ability to conceive and build $100 million enterprises. They work at it. I found that they all share certain fundamental approaches to the act of creation. The skills that make them successful can be learned, practiced, and passed on.

1. Find the gap

By staying alert, creators spot opportunities that others don’t see. They keep their eyes open for fresh potential, a vacuum to fill, or an unmet need. Creators tend to use one of three distinct techniques: transplanting ideas across divides, designing a new way forward, or merging disparate concepts.

I characterize creators who master these approaches as Sunbirds, Architects, or Integrators.

2. Drive for daylight

Just as race-car drivers keep their eyes fixed on the road ahead, creators focus on the future, knowing that where they go, their eyes go first. Creators move too fast to navigate by the confines of their lane or the position of their peers.

Instead, they focus on the horizon, scan the edges, and avoid nostalgia to set the pace in a fast-moving marketplace.

3. Fly the OODA loop

Creators continuously update their assumptions. In rapid succession, they observe, orient, decide, and act. Like legendary fighter pilot John Boyd, who pioneered the idea of the “OODA loop,” creators move nimbly from one decision to the next. They master fast-cycle iteration and in short order gain an edge over less agile competitors.

4. Fail wisely

Creators understand that experiencing a series of small failures is essential to avoiding catastrophic mistakes. In the course of practicing and mastering this skill, they set what I call failure ratios, place small bets to test ideas, and develop resilience. They hone the skill to turn setbacks into successes.

5. Network minds

To solve multifaceted problems, creators bring together the brainpower of diverse individuals through on- and off-line forums. They harness cognitive diversity to build on each other’s ideas. To do this, creators design shared spaces, foster flash teams, hold prize competitions, and build work-related games. They collaborate with unlikely allies.

6. Gift small goods

Creators unleash generosity by helping others, often by sharing information, pitching in to complete a task, or opening opportunities to colleagues. Offering kindness may not seem like a skill, but it is an essential way that creators strengthen relationships. In an increasingly transparent and interconnected world, generosity makes creators more productive.

This story comes from “The Creator’s Code” by Amy Wilkinson.

The six essential skills are not discrete, stand-alone practices. Each feeds the next, creating synergy and momentum.

No special expertise is required to master the six skills. You don’t need credentials or degrees. The ability to turn ideas into enduring enterprises is available to anyone willing to learn and work.

Although everyone has strengths in certain skills and weaknesses in others, the more we exercise and increase our proficiency in each, the more we will be able to make the most of every opportunity.

When a creator brings together all six skills, something magnetic occurs. Creators attract allies—employees, customers, investors, and collaborators of all kinds. Customers become evangelists.

Employees turn into loyalists. Investors back the company with support that transcends financial returns.

Creators engage in meaningful work with the aim of making a difference. To become one of them, all you need is to understand and practice the six essential skills.

This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Amy Wilkinson is a strategic adviser, entrepreneur, and lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Image: A bulb hangs inside a restaurant in Madrid. REUTERS/Andrea Comas.

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Related topics:
Jobs and the Future of WorkFourth Industrial RevolutionBusiness
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