What Entrepreneurs Really Need


Even for Jeff Bezos, the decision wasn’t easy. In 1994, he had a good job on Wall Street, was set for a high-earning career, and had little reason to hope for anything more from life. But he noticed that Web usage was growing at a rate of 2,300 percent, and he wondered what sort of business plan might make sense in the context of that growth.

“I went to my boss,” he said in a 2001 interview, “and said to him, ‘You know I’m gonna go do this crazy thing and I’m gonna start this this company selling books online.’”

His boss led him out of the office and they took a two-hour walk in Central Park. They talked through what Bezos wanted to do and at the end of the walk, his boss suggested that it might be a better idea for someone who didn’t already have a good job. He persuaded Bezos to think about it for a couple of days.

In the end, what pushed Bezos to make the choice to leave a good position, to drive across the country to Seattle, and to start a new kind of business in a new kind of economy was the fear of regret.

“I knew that when I was 80, I was not going to regret having tried this,” he said. “I was not going to regret having wanted trying to participate in this thing called ‘the Internet’ that I thought was going be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that. But I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried.”

The success that followed, Bezos put down to a combination of good decisions (in the choice of product), hard work, and planetary alignment, but it was that move from salaried employee that made the difference. A lot of people noticed that Web usage was rocketing. Bezos was part of a much smaller group of people who were able to imagine the world that increased Web usage could build. He imagined online shopping: the desire to purchase online, the way people would choose and buy, how to use the data their sales choices generated, and the infrastructure needed to support the entire process.

He was part of an even smaller group that believed they could build what they could imagine.

First came the idea. Next came the belief that he could realize that idea—and finally came a willing to risk trying it.

For Bezos, the entrepreneurial process started with creativity.

It began with an act of imagination. It then moved to engagement with the creative process in order to realize an entrepreneurial intention.

That process isn’t unique to Jeff Bezos. In fact, one group of researchers have found that it’s true of entrepreneurs in general. In a recent survey, they tested the notion that creative self-efficacy(CSE)—a belief in our ability to produce creative outcomes—encourages the development of entrepreneurial intent.

The researchers surveyed over 200 students on entrepreneurship courses at major universities in Canada, asking them to rate from one to five statements about their creative self-efficacy, their attitude, their creative process engagement, and their entrepreneurial intentions. They rated their confidence in solving problems creatively, the positivity of their approach towards entrepreneurialism, their ability to generate multiple solutions to a problem, and their willingness to do anything to be an entrepreneur.

The researchers correlated the answers and found that the relationship between creative self-efficacy and entrepreneurial intentions is mediated by attitudes toward entrepreneurship. People with high CSE—who believe that they can not just dream up ideas but produce creative outcomes—had positive attitudes towards creative behavior. That feeling encouraged them to engage in a creative process. They identify a problem, look for information about it, and generate multiple ideas—what the researchers call “the creative idea production phases of creative problem solving.”

Someone with high creative self-efficacy is attracted to the stages of creative processes involved in building a business. They look forward to identifying the company’s key sales point or writing a business plan. (Bezos wrote his on the drive to Seattle.) They also expect a higher likelihood of success when engaged in those stages. Someone with  low creative self-efficacy expects to fail when they implement creative processes so they withdraw from them. They don’t even try.

For Jeff Bezos, then, it wasn’t enough to be able to see the potential in the growing Internet. Nor was it enough to imagine an online store at which anyone could buy what they wanted, starting with books. To achieve his intention of turning those ideas into a business, he first had to believe that he was capable of doing so, that while there was a chance that he wouldn’t succeed, there was a high enough chance that he would. He had to be confident that he could think of a workable idea; and he had to believe that bring that idea to life too.

So where does that essential confidence come from and how can we build it?

How to Build Entrepreneurial Creativity

The researchers conducted their survey in an academic setting, and their recommendations focus largely on education. “The results,” they say, “support the importance of fostering mastery experiences in our pedagogical practices and creative learning to help develop CSE mechanisms.”

Educators should expand teaching methods that integrate creativity processes with entrepreneurial activities. They should provide exercises in divergent and convergent thinking—the search for multiple possible solutions to a problem and the single best solution to a problem. Engaging students in creative activities would not only influence their entrepreneurial intentions, it would also promote their entrepreneurial behavior and lead to greater innovation, more product development, smarter marketing, and so on.

But students at business school don’t all plan to become entrepreneurs; many are happy to head off for a high-paying career as a consultant or a CEO at a public company. They’d be content to take the job that Jeff Bezos left behind. And Bezos himself studied electrical engineering and computer science. He doesn’t have a degree in business or entrepreneurship.

So while business schools can try to improve their students’ creative skills as a way to build their business confidence, the rest of us will need to try something else.

Past research, say the analysts, has shown that self-confidence comes from four major sources: mastery experiences, modelling, social persuasion, and judgments of our own physiological states. We’re more likely to believe that we can build something successfully—even a business—if we’ve already had experience of building something similar in the past. Those lemonade stands might be much simpler than an online business but they do provide some of the confidence we’ll need later.

Knowing other people who have built successful business helps too. Mentoring can provide practical skills but it also shows people that success is possible. If those people achieved it, so can you. And reassurance can have a real and measurable effect. In one experiment, researchers demonstrated how physical stamina can be mediated by perceived self-efficacy. They told one group that they had won a competition of muscular strength, and told a second group that they had lost. When they set both groups a new  test of physical stamina, participants who believed that they had high levels of physical strength displayed greater levels of physical endurance. Even if they then failed, those with a high sense of self-efficacy felt inspired to try with greater effort while those with low self-efficacy quickly gave up.

Positive feedback didn’t just give greater self-belief. It also gives greater resilience and the strength to push through the inevitable early setbacks.

Praise Isn’t Enough

So building an innovative new business sounds relatively simple. Have enough faith in your creative skills to be able to envision a new way of doing things. Use your experience, and the experience of others, to power your belief that you can actually build what you can imagine. Solicit feedback that reassures you that you have the abilities you need and can overcome the inevitable rejection and failures that plague every project, especially at the beginning.

But it’s not enough. Writing in the 1992 book, Self-Efficacy: Thought Control of Action, psychologist Albert Bandura noted that “the multiple benefits of a sense of personal efficacy do not arise simply from the incantation of capability. Saying something should not be confused with believing it to be so.”

That’s particularly true when those statements contradict pre-existing beliefs. No amount of reiteration, Bandura notes, would persuade him that he can fly. And the source of the belief matters too. “People cannot persuade themselves of their efficacy if they regard the information from which they construct their self-beliefs as unrepresentative, tainted or erroneous.”

So if you’re looking to follow Jeff Bezos and other entrepreneurs out of a good job and into your own, better business, first get creative. Practice creativity tests such as writing six-word stories, looking at problems from the perspective of different groups of people, or building a solution within set limitations. (Dr. Seuss’s editor once challenged him to write a story using no more than 50 words; the result was Green Eggs & Ham.)

That will give you creative confidence.

Start engaging with the implementation of the creative process. Drive traffic to a website. Create ads and track the results. Understand that you can put your ideas to work, overcome obstacles, and reach your goals.

And surround yourself with people you trust who point out how well you’re doing. Jeff Bezos had a wife who supported his early efforts, even if he’s not married to her now.

The result won’t be a guarantee of entrepreneurial success. It won’t give you a second Amazon. But it will give you the strength to implement your entrepreneurial intention, and ensure that you have no regrets however it works out.

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