Building Business Skills for IT Entrepreneurship
Build an arsenal of business and people skills to turn drive and vision into any kind of real success.
To those who follow the equity markets, new business formation, and profiles of successful new companies, IT often looks like a veritable fountainhead of ideas, innovation, and success. But while IT is truly a non-stop source for ideas and innovation, not all such things automatically lead to success.
When it comes to driving the formation – and ultimately also, the success – of any new business, it’s impossible to overstress the importance of nuts-and-bolts business skills to develop products or services, bring in revenue, create a loyal customer base, and turn an organization into a well-oiled machine.
Can Entrepreneurs Learn Business Via Osmosis?
By definition, an entrepreneur is “a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk” (dictionary.reference.com). Much that is written on entrepreneurship tends to emphasize the need for and importance of initiative, as well as the willingness to accept and assume risks (often, well beyond what others might consider “safe” or “reasonable”). I can’t disagree with those qualities as both necessary and desirable in would-be entrepreneurs. But I can confidently assert that without a working and workable knowledge of business tools and practices, no amount of innovation or good ideas by itself will be enough to produce a successful, ongoing business venture of any kind.
What Does a Successful Business Need?
For any business to succeed it must have some or all of these resources or characteristics, all of which entrepreneurs must be able to obtain, manage, or foster within their nascent organizations:
- Money: It costs money to design and build products, or to create and describe services or content around which to build an organization. Money is needed to acquire space and facilities, and to create a workspace, then to pay for its ongoing use. Money is needed to fund research and development for a nascent organization’s source of future earnings, and often requires a long period of spending without any matching income while the start-up process is underway. When revenues begin to materialize, entrepreneurs must understand and manage cash flows (and supplement them with sources of credit) to make sure the organization has sufficient funding not only to keep functioning but to grow and expand. Understanding money -- how to find it, how to manage and monitor it, and how to match inflows and outflows -- is probably the most critical skillset any would-be entrepreneur needs to cultivate and develop to its highest possible level.
- Talent: Entrepreneurs themselves must have lots of talent, but even more important is access to other talented individuals who can drive and build a growing organization toward success. An entrepreneur’s people skills must generally be superb, because he or she must be able to find and attract the best and brightest, then keep them motivated and working like crazy toward impossible goals, often with substandard (or no ) compensation. But without a ready supply of good people, no business can succeed.
- Time: Entrepreneurs have to be able to both manage and stretch time. That is, they have to understand how long it takes to make things happen, get things done, arrange for resources or supplies to be available, and be very good at having people ready to work when the ingredients they need to do their jobs become available – and at having things working or ready when deadlines come around. This helps explain the hectic, round-the-clock schedule typical at so many start-ups, where management is simply trying to pull as many working hours out of the time available to them before the next deadline strikes, or deliverable comes due.
- Customers:There’s an old joke around the restaurant business where one waiter confides to another that “this would be a really great job if we didn’t have any customers to deal with.” The joke, of course, is that without customers there would be no job, because the business would fail utterly. Nascent organizations have to understand their prospective customers extremely well, and know how to find them and then serve them extremely well. This means marketing operations needs to figure out who those customers are, what they want, and how best to reach them, and sales operations to determine how best to put the organizations products, goods, or services into those customers’ hands as and when they’re ready to buy. The best entrepreneurs often understand how to turn happy customers into part-time salespeople for their organizations, ready to go out and help recruit still more customers!
- Vision and direction lead to execution: Entrepreneurs are rightly characterized as people of vision, strongly driven to achieve remarkable outcomes. But although vision and drive are important, it’s essential to provide a workable set of plans and firm guidance to ensure that vision gets translated into action and results at a tolerable cost in a reasonable amount of time. Most people get “the vision thing” whether or not they feel that they’ve got it themselves or not. Many people don’t get the need for consummate organization, management, tracking, and quick, decisive fixes and reactions as problems present, obstacles come up, or other bumps on the road to success must be managed.
- Active communication: Perhaps the most important role that an entrepreneur plays in any organization is providing information, advice, insight, and interaction to herd his or her cats toward the elusive goal of success. Within their organizations, entrepreneurs must work hard to keep conflict to a minimum, cooperation and collaboration at a maximum, and to make sure that all hands share a common vision, principles, and some ultimate set of goals. Outside their organizations, entrepreneurs must keep backers, financiers and investors happy, develop a positive public presence and image, and start building (or adding to) the customer base. Ultimately, all of these things require lots and lots of clear, interesting, and useful communication. Ample opportunities for listening and learning will also thankfully come along with this part of the job as well. For though talking to others is important, entrepreneurs would do well to always recall the old saying that “Nobody ever learns anything if they do all the talking.”
Ed TittelEd Tittel is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who’s worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written and blogged for numerous publications, including Tom's Hardware, and is the author of over 140 computing books with a special emphasis on information security, Web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.
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