by Katherine Halek
While entrepreneurship can seem like a fascinating new world for anyone who’s just entering it, startup culture has been a staple of business for thousands of years. Take a look at some historical startups and their lessons as you consider your own venture.
History of Startups
The early roots of modern business can be traced back to trade during the Middle Ages. Investors who profited from the exchange of goods were always looking for safer, more efficient ways to bring cargo from distant lands to their shops. Adventurers like Marco Polo who brought Eastern craftsmen’s secrets home for imitation, as well as inventors who designed faster ships with better navigation, were in high demand.
As more structured society arose, so did the philosophy of mercantilism. Merchants in dominant countries raced to craft refined goods from the raw materials that colonies provided. These goods were then sold back to colonists at a profit. The market changed again when economists touted capitalism over mercantilism — giving everyone a new incentive to go into business for himself. This was when the modern understanding of entrepreneurship arose.
Centuries of innovation resulted in the most condensed surge of improvements the world had ever seen — the Industrial Revolution. This period really showed for the first time all that capitalism was capable of. It provided the entrepreneurs of this past century with helpful examples of what and what not to do as they built their own businesses from small ideas to massive corporations.
Notable Failures and Successes
- Peter Thiel made some bad investments and ended up losing his hedge fund. It’s best to play it safe when you’re investing your initial capital, since you may not have the personal wealth that he had to fall back on.
- Christina Wallace got too deep into the fashion industry before she realized that her business didn’t have the necessary capital to sustain them between sales cycles. Make sure you do thorough research on the demands of your chosen market before you sink everything you have into your venture.
- Hiten Shah, Robin Chase, and Sandi MacPherson were all too engrossed in their product development to find out what customers actually wanted from them. When you start something new, you must talk to many people who are likely to use what you’re selling, so they can tell you exactly what they want to see from your startup.
- Jack Dorsey and Kathryn Minshew were both kicked out of their own companies due to internal disagreement. For your startup team, you’ll want only those who trust your judgment and are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt when you mess up. On the flip side, though, they should be unafraid to call you out (respectfully) if an aspect of your behavior gets out of hand. This will head problems off at the outset before you reach passive-aggressive lockouts and burned bridges.
- Bill Gates had his traffic-counter technology upstaged by a free government version. Be careful to keep your ideas under lock and key and only go public once you’re well-protected by patents. Someone else can steal your thunder at any time, even if there is no foul play involved.
- Leo Babauta let his hesitancies keep him from starting his personal projects when he wanted to. Don’t rush into anything before you’re ready; but at the same time, don’t be afraid to take a risk once you’ve prepared all you can. You never know what will happen!
All of these individuals, and dozens like them, went on to become inspirational successes because they accepted and learned from their failures instead of hiding their heads in the sand. Here are some very useful tips from Entrepreneur on how to discipline your routine and stay positive. Following these suggestions will help you avoid the wasted time of unnecessary failure.
Time-Tested Characteristics of a Successful Entrepreneur
Enough talk about failure; let’s look at success. What makes an entrepreneur successful, and how do you know if you have it? Elaine Pofeldt at Forbes gives us some traits to look at:
- Are you willing to take risks when you know that’s the necessary move?
- Were you bored by routine, seemingly meaningless assignments in school or work?
- Have you inherited a natural aptitude for spotting opportunities?
- Are you aware of the business impact of every decision you make?
- Do you keep going in spite of resistance?
- Do you know how to delegate, so you aren’t swamped with more responsibilities than you can handle?
- At the same time, are you an independent thinker who can reach for your dreams without needing others to prop you up?
The good news is that these qualities can be cultivated. Everyone is born with each of these characteristics in varying amounts. Success becomes attainable when you find how they manifest in your life, determine which traits are your strongest, and attract others who have the qualities you lack to balance you as you launch your venture.
- A simple and intuitive product or service concept.
- A proactive approach.
- A strong basis in user experience.
- A proven need for the product or service.
- A small core team.
- Follow-through on new ideas.
- Thorough market understanding.
- A particular focus on branding and self-promotion, both online and offline.
If your startup idea lacks the potential for one or more of these, you may need to bring in some expert voices (friends, family, co-workers, boss, or other networking connections) to provide constructive criticism.
As many scholars are credited with saying, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Instead of making a series of preventable mistakes, look at past startups to see what lessons you can bring to your own enterprise. Part of being a successful entrepreneur is an ongoing willingness to improve on others’ examples. What are you planning to do
Katherine Halek is the lead advertising and print strategy advisor at Signazon and Easybanners.com, leading online printers that provide marketing collateral for thousands of startups around the United States. Katherine enjoys writing about small businesses, e-commerce, and the ins and outs of marketing. Connect with her on Twitter and Google+