Jim Duffy: You need true grit if you want to be an entrepreneur

TVs dragons are like gladiators with very fat wallets. Picture: BBC
TVs dragons are like gladiators with very fat wallets. Picture: BBC
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WHAT does it take to be a successful entrepreneur? Jim Duffy reckons he knows the key to changing the world

There are many adjectives that are used when people talk about entrepreneurs. The usual stuff emerges in conversations on the social networking site LinkedIn when the topic of entrepreneurial qualities and traits comes to the fore. I agree with many that come up so often – words like positive, optimistic, determined, passionate and persistent. All pretty accurate, to be fair. These are all stock answers as the wave of entrepreneurial verbiage, emanating from the US, has hit us over the past five years. Websites like Inc.com and Entrepreneur.com espouse the usual stuff. You know what I mean – “five traits of an entrepreneur”; “three characteristics of a great start-up”… bla la bla… But, what is it that really delineates entrepreneurs from others in our society?

I guess if you were asked about the TV show entrepreneur, types you have seen on offerings like Dragons’ Den and that especially awful show The Apprentice, then you will have your own adjectives. Of course, TV can always skew things. The camera will always turn to show Duncan Bannatyne at his worst – looking a bit grumpy and dismissive of a statement one of the would-be entrepreneurs makes. I suppose sitting there filming all day would make you pretty grumpy. Especially when you see some of the muppets that turn up and pitch their business with no clue as to what lies ahead in the Dragons’ questioning. It’s all showbiz, of course.

I always ask myself why I am not a fan of this particular programme, Dragons’ Den, despite it running for years and being so successful for the BBC and some of the new start entrepreneurs who have appeared on it. Well, the truth is that it shows entrepreneurs for what they really are. Now let’s not kid ourselves in any way shape or form here. Entrepreneurs, true entrepreneurs, want two things. Firstly, they want to solve a problem that they have noticed. They have seen something that they can change. They have picked up on something that does not work. They have flipped something on its head and can disrupt it. Secondly, they want to make money. How awful, I hear you say. How dirty... Well, I’m afraid that’s the bottom line and that bottom line is what drives them.

This comes through loud and clear on Dragons’ Den. The competitive tension between the entrepreneurs to get the best deal they can from the contestants shines through in how they act. It is brutal: gladiatorial in nature. Why else would they rip 30 to 40 per cent out of a start-up business? They can smell the deal and they want to win. There is no other way to describe this. True entrepreneurs want to win, and win over their competitors big style. It’s a survival of the fittest psyche, which takes no prisoners. I see it day in and day out in the Entrepreneurial Spark Hatcheries across the UK, where the top 10 per cent are driven to excel in whatever business area they are working in. They want to be first among equals and they want to be successful, while reaping the financial rewards. It is the same in all business accelerators and incubators across the globe. Albeit, we distil a collaborative and “giving back” attitude in all our entrepreneurs in the Entrepreneurial Spark programme. That is so important to foster in this new generation.

But being successful and building great teams and working with investors is not easy. Far from it… Raising a million pounds from investors or venture capitalists does not happen overnight and there are so many things that can go wrong and impact this that many of us would give up on numerous occasions and choose the easier life. The ability and capacity needed to knit together a deal on an investment term sheet that works now and in 18 months’ time, when you want to go for £20m with fresh investors, only exists in a few. These are the true archetypal entrepreneurs who can navigate those choppy waters over long periods to realise value – that’s big pots of cash to you and me. And the one thing that differentiates them for me above all else is… grit.

In classic John Wayne style, true grit is what makes our entrepreneurs stand out. If it was all about talent, then so many more successful entrepreneurs per capita would be produced in the UK. Talent gets you only so far. When the chips are down, it takes more than talent in your field to get the deal over the line. I see lots of talented people wither on the vine. If it was all down to luck, so many more entrepreneurs would be successful and we would have more jobs created and value generated in the economy. I know lots of lucky people who are just not taking it home to mama. It is a gritty personality that never gives up and lives way beyond what is comfortable for many of us, in a world of ambiguity and danger, that makes the gladiatorial entrepreneur. And you’ll notice I am not specifying male or female here. I don’t think gender comes into it.

There is something steely, something tough, something edgy about the word “grit”. Try saying it without gritting your teeth. It is grit personified in passion and a totally focused persistence and perseverance that is the hallmark of a successful entrepreneur.

True grit is the key to achieving real, tangible success in the long term and I can see many new entrepreneurs here in Scotland and in the UK now showing their teeth as they want to change how things are done, while making a few bob.

• Jim Duffy is Head of #GoDo at Entrepreneurial Spark