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Lessons Learned from Successful Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs are a special breed of high achievers. They create things, get things started: businesses, clubs, churches, associations, even nations. Their motivations vary. Not all want to be rich. Not all want to produce a Fortune 500 company. Some are motivated by pleasure or civic pride or the desire for fame. Mary Madden, president of Information America, told me she and Burton Goldstein started their company because it gave them freedom and flexibility.

Entrepreneurs see a world that is incomplete. It probably does not yet have what they intend to create. If it does, it needs something else they just thought of.

They differ markedly from one another. But there are similarities. One of the most prominent similarities is the ability to perceive clearly. The ability to perceive clearly is important to many high achievers, but essential for the entrepreneur. Here is what the entrepreneur perceives:

Voids. A college student, Frederick Wallace Smith, conceived of a dependable overnight delivery system for letters and small packages. It would require a vast network of planes, trucks, messengers and electronics that did not then exist. That perception led to Federal Express.

Defects. A cartoonist perceived that most amusement parks of his day were shabby and boring. Why not create something that was improved ? a theme part that was sparkling clean and exciting? That perception led to Disneyland.

Opportune time. Ted Turner was watching Home Box Office one evening and realized that time had come for his small Atlanta-based station to go on satellite too. That perception led to the SuperStation and later to CNN.

Syntheses. Parker H. Petit, CEO of Healthdyne, say his success as an entrepreneur comes from his ability to synthesize data. Petit believes he "can look at a set of circumstances, the market, a product or whatever and see order and opportunities in those variables that other people seem to see and just don't piece together."

Continuing education. When Burton B. Goldstein, chairman of Information America started the company, one of his board members told him: "If you are still in business three years from now, you'll be in a different business." Goldstein says that observation has turned out to be true. "You have to be comfortable with the fact that you are on a road, a learning curve and you are going to learn stuff and you are going to change."

Continuing education is really is an extension of the process that brought about the entrepreneurial venture in the first place. That first vision may be 20/20, but it is more likely that the first vision is only a rough approximation or the "shape of the answer," as author Horace Freeland Judson puts it.

Continuing education is essential because of changing technology. A group of managers recently told me that the technological competence of the average college graduate today will be obsolete within three years or less. What they said is true in most fields because of the pervasive impact of the information revolution. If you don't keep on learning, somebody else will, and put you out of business.

Continuing education is essential because the target audience is changing. No creative activity is more audience-driven than entrepreneurship. If people do not buy the new product or patronize the new store or join the new organization, the venture dies. The target may be a moving one or a fickle one. Tastes may change. People may move physically. So, the entrepreneur must keep on learning about the target audience.

Still another similarity: the ability to do mundane tasks well.

What separates entrepreneurial activity from other creative acts is its emphasis on the practical. Entrepreneurial activity is a creative act, and, as such, is cerebral. It may even grow out of pure research. But entrepreneurs must do the thousand-and-one tasks involved in transforming an insight into something tangible.

Xavier Roberts of Cabbage Patch fame told me that people continually approach him with ideas they believe will make a fortune. "I don't need more ideas," he said. "I need people who can implement ideas." He knows from experience, Roberts was selling his loveably ugly little creatures at flea markets and financing his business on credit cards long before the idea became a national craze.

"Think small," an entrepreneur by the name of Fred P. Burke once told me, "Many people who have these grand visions never can take their eyes from the sky and put them down to the little-bitty takes that have to be done right here, right now, this minute."

Gene Griessman, PhD, is an Atlanta-based author, workshop leader and speaker. His books include Time Tactics of Very Successful People and The Words Lincoln Lived By: 52 Timeless Principles to Light Your Path. To learn more about Dr. Griessman's products and speaking engagements, visit him online at www.presidentlincoln.com.

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