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What attributes make a successful entrepreneur?

Ability to flow with changes, focus on what the market wants or what we can reasonably project from both hard data and intuition that the market will want, hard work, focus on task, willingness to listen to outside influences, etc.

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

A focused business plan where the team allows the business direction to change as one body, and does not become fractured by changes that result in a business getting on a horse every day and trying to ride in more than one direction. Experience helps, but is attained if one has the desire to stay the course and see the business through to its eventual success or failure. Money helps, but the type of business will impact how much of that is ultimately needed, and too much money often does more harm than good as the company moves too fast when they are just learning to ride their bike, making injuries all the more palpable.

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

You learn what you have to learn to stay in business, or you perish. Not having an MBA, I can’t reflect on how it hindered me. Many friends who have MBAs say the connections they made had more of an impact on their success that what they learned in the MBA program long term. If I were to do it again, I’d get a JD with an MBA which I think is the most powerful combination.

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?

Academic education was required up until the point that I graduated from college. True experiential learning happens whether you want it to or not, but it is more prized after you gain control to direct it to areas that most impact your personal interests, desires and goals, and therefore I think it has more long term depth than academic education, but both play important roles, as without Academic learning the nature of the experiential learning would be different.

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

1) the business is a business, and the death of a business does not equate to the death of the founder – going through a really ‘bad movie’ makes you appreciate the good ones and I would have never expected to learn so much from the challenges of a failed IPO

2) that good advice is priceless, and the money that I thought I saved on good legal, accounting, etc. in the early phases of my business cost me far more than I saved

3) that my employees don’t need to know anything more than what they need to know to be effective in their very clear and defined job descriptions – the idea of being a visionary is an initial draw to many, but once they start working for you it become a threat, and is best kept under a dark cloak until specifically unveiled with clear details on how the ‘change’ to the old vision affects them – because that is all they really care about.

What have been the keys to your success?

Ability to flow with changes, focus on what the market wants or what we can reasonably project from both hard data and intuition that the market will want, hard work, focus on task, willingness to listen to outside influences, etc.

What advice would you give to an aspiring young entrepreneur?

Get a great coach that has experience in your industry, then get a great coach that has no experience in your industry, and listen to them both.

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

Good To Great
Corporate Lifecyles
How to Win Friends and Influence People
Anything on Negotiation – Herb Cohen is my favorite
Anything on Selling – Zig Ziglar and Tom Hopkins stand out

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

Cash flow in competency – and effectively having a plan that incorporates that into the business – we bootstrapped so we learned to work on the cash flow from three months prior, In other words, spikes in cash do not make a trend until you have sustained them for three months, so if it is January, spend the cash you had available in October and you are less likely to spend your way into trouble.

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

Trying to merge with another company and not realizing the impact on the two different cultures. I’d spend a great deal more time focusing on compatibility and not just the numbers.

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

Wireless bandwidth and connectivity have my attention now. The use of those tools with the ability to integrate data to make life flow with less friction will still be a subject of discourse in 20 years. I believe a much larger percentage of the work force will be working from their home offices and telecommuting in the next five to ten years. I run my new business from my home and value the freedom and flexibility.

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

Worst – The fact that you often work 80 hours a week as an entrepreneur to avoid working 40 hours a week as an employee.

Best – The possible returns for your efforts monetarily, personally, professionally.

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

14-A College Degree
12-Knowledge of Accounting and Finance
11-Knowledge of Marketing
5-Leadership and the Ability to Inspire
6-Ability to Communicate Effectively
4-Having the Right Advisors
10-Good Networking Skills
7-Motivation and Ambition
15-Having a Good Idea or Plan
3-Being Able to Build a Solid Team
9-Being Able to Execute
13-Having a Bias towards Action

Are there any other thoughts, insights, or advice for aspiring entrepreneurs that you’d like to add?

I look for a burning desire to succeed and a great attitude over any other attributes for a potential entrepreneur.



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

Todd has over 14 years experience in the financial services industry as a licensed securities, insurance, real estate, and mortgage lending professional. Todd founded three companies; Capital Savings Co, Inc., Advantage Capital Mortgage, USA, and PlanMax Financial. These three companies closed over $2 billion dollars in residential and commercial loans before being rolled into a Nasdaq IPO in 1999. Todd was a two-time Inc. 500 winner, a three time KPMG Fast 50 winner, and the 1998 NC Mortgage Lender of the year. Todd has a Bachelors of Science in Business Administration from the University of North Carolina.