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What attributes make a successful entrepreneur?

There may in fact be different attributes for different people. For me, I felt the need to do something on my own outside of an established culture. So, first, I would say a healthy independence. Second, a high degree of confidence. A sense that even if I fail things will be fine. Third, a willingness to get your hands dirty, answer the phones if necessary. Fourth, an inherent ability to sell yourself and your company. There are probably many more!

What do you believe are the necessary elements for a business venture to succeed?

1) You have to provide something that people actually want. You have to know the answer to this, not just assume they want what you provide. 2) You must have an unwavering respect for your customers. Treat them like royalty. 3) You must be able to attract people that complement your own personal skill sets. 4) you must be willing to let people do their jobs, you have to let go. 5) Cash is king, watch it like a hawk. 6) Make sure your adequately capitalized. I’d rather own 10% of a large enterprise than 100% of a bankrupt one.

How essential do you see an undergraduate degree or MBA being for an entrepreneur?

In today’s economy, where low value add jobs get shipped offshore, I think an advanced degree is critical. I don’t believe it necessarily means that it has to be an MBA. High value add companies are going to have to focus on innovation as a constant process. I think it would be highly desirable to have some form of technology or science in ones background coupled with an MBA.

What role has academic education played in your own life versus the role of experiential learning and what has been the relative importance of each?

I majored in Economics and that discipline is excellent in that it really teaches the concept of trade-offs and scarcity. At the time I went through college and into the working world an MBA or advanced degree was not as important as it is today. Had I to do it over I would have pursued both my MA in Economics and an MBA. I did have the opportunity to pursue significant professional development at the Wharton School and the Brookings Institute.

What are the three most important lessons you have learned about business and entrepreneurship in your lifetime.

    1. I would rather be 80% right and make a decision today, than 100% right and make one six months from now.


    1. Hire a CFO a year before you think you need one.
    2. Fire people six months before you think you should&ldots;.their peers are watching while you wait.



What have been the keys to your success?

1) Hiring good people. 2) Market timing. 3) Ability to attract capital.

What advice would you give to an aspiring young entrepreneur?

Don’t go it alone, it’s lonely. If you can’t find an experienced entrepreneur, find some friends to start with you. Ask for help when you need it. Everyone wants young companies to be successful. Form a good Board. Dot your I’s and cross your t’s on all the legal stuff so it does not come back to bite you later.

What books would you recommend to aspiring entrepreneurs? Which books have influenced you the most?

Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore

Describe some of the biggest challenges or obstacles you’ve have encountered as an entrepreneur? How were these overcome?

The downturn in the economy was huge. It required the shedding of non-essential business lines and a refocusing on core activities. It also fundamentally changed the capital markets requiring more focus on M&A activities.

What memorable mistakes, if any, have you made in business? What did you learn from them and how can they be avoided?

Remember an IPO is nothing more than a financing event. Don’t get swept up in investment banker hype. NEVER, spend sales and marketing dollars solely to influence Wall Street. Keep your sales and marketing dollars focused on near term customer acquisition.

What trends and changes do you see occurring in business today? What new technologies and industries will everyone be talking about in twenty years?

Businesses are much more willing to source labor offshore. As a result, it’s critical that you focus on value add propositions that are unique to the customers business environment. I don’t think we will see revolutions in technology. Rather, I think we will see continuing evolutions but at an increased pace.

What are the best and worst things about being an entrepreneur?

Other than the stress of initial startup there are no bad things about being an entrepreneur. You have control over your destiny, your calendar, and the vision is yours. What’s not to like?

Would you comment briefly on the importance (or unimportance) of the following attributes to an entrepreneur?

Very important, if you have a tendency to give up when things get tough&ldots;don’t jump in the water.

A College Degree
More important now than in the past but creativity and intelligence can come in all forms. Not necessarily required.

Knowledge of Accounting and Finance

Not that important at least initially, you can buy this help.

Knowledge of Marketing

Knowledge of your markets is critical. Knowledge of marketing less so, again, you can buy this.

Critical, not only for your personal well being, but your customers will place a lot of value on your own level of confidence.

Leadership and the Ability to Inspire
Essential, if you can’t convince others, you’re going nowhere.

Ability to Communicate Effectively
You either have to have this or you have to have a partner that is outstanding at this. You must be able to articulate the value proposition.

What could be more important? If you don’t have this, you won’t last six months.

Having the Right Advisors
Critical, you have to know what you don’t know and complement it. Good Advisors can also open doors.

Good Networking Skills
Pretty important but sometimes overrated.

Motivation and Ambition
If you don’t have this what’s the point of starting your own business?

Having a Good Idea or Plan
This is important but its also important to have flexibility in the plan. The one thing you know about a plan after you write it is that it’s wrong.

Being Able to Build a Solid Team
Unless you’re a one person show, this is perhaps the most important skill you will need.

Being Able to Execute
Again Critical

Having a Bias towards Action

Critical but not like a cowboy. Thoughtful action is appropriate.



This Distinguished Entrepreneur Interview Series article was written by Dave Rizzo, interviewed by Ryan Allis on 2/28/2005

Dave Rizzo is the President and CEO of MCNC and Chairperson of NCEITA, (North Carolina Electronics & Information Technologies Association). David Rizzo began his career in 1979, working for IBM in Boston, MA, first as Account Marketing Representative, then as Regional Marketing Program Administrator before moving within the company to other offices in the Northeast. In 1986, he moved to IBM’s Charlotte, NC office and was promoted in 1992 to Trading Area General Manager. Later in 1992, he left IBM to form Osprey Systems, Inc. In 2002, he was named the head of MCNC. Mr. Rizzo holds a degree in economics from the College of William and Mary and serves on the boards of several civic agencies in the Charlotte community.