During her years as a consultant and entrepreneur, Amy Wilkinson became fascinated with why some people succeed at taking an idea and turning it into a large company while others fail. She saw success had nothing to do with age, gender, education or which coast you live on. The same was true for having a good idea and access to capital — neither was enough in itself to guarantee success.
After 200 interviews with entrepreneurs, Wilkinson believes she has cracked the secret to successful entrepreneurship. In her new book, The Creator’s Code, she identifies six skills she says are essential to grow and scale a multimillion dollar business: the ability to find new opportunities, focus on the long-term, react quickly, learn from failure, listen to others' ideas and be generous. Naturally, those are simplifications and Wilkinson fleshes them out with her unique spin, plenty of examples and concrete advice on how to develop the skills if you don't have them.
Wilkinson, whose resumé includes being a White House fellow, a McKinsey & Company consultant, a Stanford lecturer and a Harvard fellow, believes anyone can be an entrepreneur — and that even people who never plan to start their own business should learn to think like one. Amey Stone spoke to Wilkinson for The Fiscal Times about the skills necessary to take a new idea and turn it into a large and successful business.
The Fiscal Times (TFT): You identify six key skills, from focusing on long-term goals to learning to fail wisely. Which of the six are the most important?
Amy Wilkinson (AW): There are six and the real key is that you have to do all six. It is a lot easier to do two or three. You might be good at finding a gap [that you can fill in with your own idea], focusing on the long-term and harnessing cognitive diversity. But if you’re not good at failing wisely, making quick decisions and unleashing generosity, you’re probably not going to make it. You need to hone all six of these simultaneously in order for your ideas to take off and to scale a company that could be of $100 million or more. That is when the magic happens.
TFT: Let’s talk about failing wisely. We’ve heard we should learn from failure, but you turn that into a measurable goal.
AW: The old way of thinking about work is that you need to have a perfect track record. But in the new economy, everyone should set what I call a failure ratio. If you are going to test new things, to strive to get ahead, you are going to get it wrong sometimes. Everyone needs to set their own ratio — 10 percent, 20 percent or 30 percent — and accept that you should fail that percentage of the time. If you don’t, you’re not going to be a pioneer and discover the unexpected. You don’t want the ratio to be zero. That doesn’t work.
TFT: How does one pick one’s self up from failure? Do you have any tips for coping?
AW: Another key concept in my book, along with having a failure ratio, is that creators should have a growth mindset. I got this from Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford. Her research shows that some people have a “fixed mindset” and believe people have innate talents and set traits. But those with a growth mindset believe people can continue to learn, move forward and improve. If you have a growth mindset and you fail, it’s not so bad. You say to yourself, “Great. I’m better for this. Now I know.”
Another strategy for coping with failure comes from the world of improv comedy. They have a tool called “yes and.” It basically means you have to accept the premise and move on. In the context of failure, it means thinking, “Yes, we came up short and here’s what we’re going to do about it.” There is a next step. Figuring that out is a big part of failing wisely.
TFT: You talked to some really high-profile entrepreneurs for the book — Elon Musk of Tesla, Pierre Omidyar of eBay, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn. How did you get access to such top company founders?
AW: Friends and friends of friends. But the truth is, entrepreneurs are very willing to tell their own stories to inspire others to do the same thing. They have all struggled and they have lessons to share. When I told them I wanted them to tell their story so that other people can emulate their success, the answer was always yes.
TFT: Which entrepreneurs stood out? Were there any surprises?
AW: They all have different personalities. There are things I learned that surprised me about how they work. For example, Sara Blakely, the creator of Spanx, lives five minutes from her office. But she turns it into a 45-minute commute by driving a big loop. That’s unexpected. She says it gives her a little space to think creatively, to come up with ideas, to transition from home to office. A number of entrepreneurs said they create space like that by walking.
TFT: Some of the keys to entrepreneurship have always been true. Are there aspects of the creator’s code that are only true for this generation of start-ups?
AW: Some things are tried and true: Find a gap you can fill — that probably doesn’t change a lot with technology. But there are some skills that technology has changed quite a bit. For example, the ability to network, to bring together a bunch of people with different ideas — that can be enabled by technology. Some companies are using prizes online to reward scientific discovery. There are new ways of communicating, such as flash teams. It is much easier for groups to come together virtually to solve a problem. Before teams had to be in same physical workplace.
Another example is in the chapter about gifting, which is akin to the idea of paying it forward, or being generous. With the current amount of transparency online and through social media, if you’ve been generous, people will know it and they will want to work with you. It used to be that you were only known to your team. But the speed of communication has spread.
TFT: Is having an MBA important?
AW: It’s not essential to being a creator, but I do believe it helps. These days it doesn’t take a lot of time or money to get new business ideas off the ground. But it’s good to be surrounded by peers who also want to build businesses. In business school, you are with all these other people who can become allies and it can be a very important factor in your success.
TFT: What policy changes could the government implement to help more entrepreneurs succeed?
AW: The biggest policy change would be immigration reform to allow more H-1B visas. [These allow U.S. companies to hire foreign workers for certain hard-to-fill occupations]. Data show we benefit tremendously from foreign-born talent in the U.S. that helps power our companies and grow and scale new ideas. We have attracted really bright innovators with math and science skills to come to our universities. We want that kind of talent to remain in the U.S. to power our country’s innovation engine.
I also think the government has a role in creating an ecosystem that makes it easier for small businesses to get started — to file taxes and other paperwork and to deal with regulation. We need to make all that as easy as possible.
TFT: What is the main thing you want readers to take away from your book?
AW: Being an entrepreneur is accessible to everyone. You can be a baby boomer starting a business for the first time. You can be in college or graduate school. You can be working inside a big corporation and be a creator of a new initiative.
In general, most people need to be more entrepreneurial. This is something young people can start to learn in school. We are all responsible for our own careers. There will be disruption. You won’t be able to anticipate what will come next. Learning to be more entrepreneurial can help you navigate and be more effective in any professional environment.
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