With prospects for jobs and economic growth bleak in many places, the idea of being master of one’s destiny can be tempting. But not everyone harbors an entrepreneur within, pushing them to bring to life a business they have only dreamed about. According to Pino Bethencourt, management consultant and professor at the IE Business School, it’s a question of training. In her book Take the Reins: Do You Dare to Change? Bethencourt uses practical exercises and the testimony of respected entrepreneurs to help readers reinvent themselves. Her book is a practical manual for helping us change how we see the world. An edited transcript of an interview with Bethencourt follows:
Universia Knowledge at Wharton: At a time when the unemployment rate in Spain is about 19%, you launch a book with the message that anyone can start a business, that it is only a question of training. What is the first step that people have to take to launch a business? Do they have to change their mentality?
Pino Bethencourt: The first step is to specify what product or service he or she can offer the market. This condition is necessary but not sufficient. My book focuses on the emotional dimensions of taking this product or service from an idea to reality, since there are many people who have an idea but never gather up the courage to carry it out. In this sense, the definition of “entrepreneur” in the book is a broader one, incorporating all people who assume risks daily, and who manifest their ambition in projects that bring people together around a business plan; who bet their reputation and seek to improve their environment in some way. For the book, I interviewed entrepreneurs, but also singers and dancers, as examples of undertakings that we don’t always consider.
To start a business, you have to be ready to completely change how you see the world, how you think and you are. Having a product or service that others are prepared to buy means you have to trust yourself to bring something to the market and offer it, and to do business at a fair price for the value that it contributes. You also need to build your trust in the market where your customers are — the risks that you face and the real opportunities that are hidden behind those “good deals” that only rarely work out well.
UKnowledge at Wharton: What skills must people develop to start a business?
Bethencourt: The main skill is to navigate when there is uncertainty and deal with risk. An entrepreneur doesn’t have a boss who orders him around and, as a result, has the freedom to make mistakes that he or she would never have in a set job. The entrepreneur must also learn to keep on working when times are bad, and trust in his or her strategic plan. A job done well brings results.
On the other hand, each decision that an entrepreneur makes involves the risk of mistake. You have to learn to live with risk, to measure it well and to keep your eye on it always to identify danger signs. These skills are contained in the two dimensions covered by the book: trust in yourself and in the future. The act of starting up new projects, assuming risks, and running without a clear direction are supported in both dimensions. Trusting in yourself helps the entrepreneur set up greater challenges and deal with more challenging risks because you think you can overcome them. This is anchored in the concept of yourself on the intellectual side, but also in how much you value yourself on an emotional level. The capacity to motivate yourself is an important component of this confidence. Finally, intelligent stress management is a key for the entrepreneur because the greater the stress, the more vulnerable he or she is to changes in spirit and to bad decisions.
Trust in the future is not simplistic or dreamlike, but reflects a clear knowledge of the market’s opportunities, and choosing options that are better adapted to the entrepreneur. You have to perceive the risks and understand your vulnerability in different situations, and nourish your conviction in the project as a key emotional force for continuing to feed your desire to work.
An important subject to consider when developing both sorts of confidence is the contagious impact of the people with whom the entrepreneur interacts. It is essential to seek friendships and alliances with people who are dynamic and optimistic, and to learn how to protect yourself from the less optimistic input of those who come from companies, family members and even the media who might sabotage emotional strength.
UKnowledge at Wharton: Which skills are harder to learn?
Bethencourt: This book is dedicated to the part that is harder to learn: precisely, the emotional dimension. This is not something you learn by reading books or by watching other people. Western educational systems only teach us how to study technical subjects. In a sense, you can only learn to be brave by throwing yourself into the swimming pool, by experiencing the danger of drowning and proving that you can defend yourself and get out of the water. Experience lets us better define ways to face risks and make ourselves more daring.
If an entrepreneur has a good project and is committed to it, the hardest part is already done. You acquire the tools when you are convinced of what you are doing, since people are looking for confidence and self-assurance. That’s how you get customers, investors, suppliers and collaborators.
UKnowledge at Wharton: Your book is a practical guide for people to develop their entrepreneurial talent. How do you propose to train people in these skills? What points do you stress?
Bethencourt: My book is a manual full of exercises for facilitating reflection and introspection. Encouraging the reader to look for real experiences, I provide questionnaires and tools to analyze his or her behavior in those initial attempts. There are thousands of books and Web pages that provide the technical knowledge necessary for launching a business: how to write your business plan, how to find financing, and what steps you have to take to find customers. But to put this technical advice into practice, an entrepreneur has to feel strength and courage. My book teaches how to build and maintain this strength throughout the project.
The book also illustrates how the human mind reacts to changes and crises, and it shows the relationship between our skill at overcoming changes and the skill to run a business. All of the entrepreneurs profiled in the book have undergone many changes to their initial vision, and have lost many battles along the way. But they regained their strength rapidly, accepted their losses and acquired a new attitude of acceptance that let them cultivate new growth.
UKnowledge at Wharton: What would be the ideal laboratory for people to start to develop that entrepreneurial spirit: the family, university, working experience?
Bethencourt: Experts say the key ingredients of the entrepreneurial spirit — confidence in oneself and in the future — are learned during the first years of our lives in a family setting. The first step for developing the entrepreneurial spirit is for parents to avoid overprotecting their children, encouraging them to experience and rewarding them when they pick themselves up after they fall. Later, high school and college can provide examples of entrepreneurial discussion groups and courses, and set in motion projects that teach students that you can change the world around you if you take the risk. If high schools and universities reward proactive students, they instill an attitude of daring that continues to grow throughout the student’s professional career.
UKnowledge at Wharton: In your book, you collect professional testimony from the founders of the low-cost airline Vueling, the Aldany beauty salon chain, and Work Center, a company that provides digital reproduction and printing services. What is the first lesson these entrepreneurs have learned? What do they have in common?
Bethencourt: They all began by having experiences from a very early age. They learned to take risks by taking risks. To the extent that they were overcoming small risks, they realized they could take on greater challenges. It is like levels in video games: If you undertake small projects, you are preparing yourself to challenge yourself on bigger and more complex projects. And the projects that turn out badly are the ones that teach you the most about picking yourself up again.
UKnowledge at Wharton: Is there any difference between entrepreneurs in Spain and in other parts of the world, such as Latin America?
Bethencourt: Of course there are many differences. The cultural context of each country defines the models of success and, more specifically, how much each person must risk in order to triumph in life. In Spain we have a very conservative culture that you can see from the enormous protection that parents provide for their children, which stunts their sense of initiative. But you can also see that many people are looking for fixed employment, and that people laugh at entrepreneurs because of the lack of job security. We have to move from being a culture in which the bureaucrat is the cleverest one and the entrepreneur is the craziest one to a society that is entirely the opposite. Our best hope for the future of our country lies in our entrepreneurs, those of today and those who have yet to come.
UKnowledge at Wharton: Do you believe this is a good time to be an entrepreneur?
Bethencourt: It depends on what you mean by “good time.” It is always more comfortable to choose the easier, less risky road. But that road is, ironically, the worst trap of them all because we wind up being more fragile and, suddenly, the day comes when things end without warning.
At this time, being an entrepreneur is the only professional road for most of us. Necessity will push us to assume greater risks, and it is going to make becoming an entrepreneur easier than it was in the past. In the United States, it is easier to establish new companies because people help you when you dare to try. In Spain, we are going to start to help ourselves because we will be impelled to become entrepreneurs and we will begin to appreciate the enormous value that is contributed by someone who bets his personal wealth on creating a company and generating jobs.
The only good thing about this crisis is that, as a result of it, we are all going to learn more about becoming entrepreneurs. That way, we will become like the characters in Avatar, the James Cameron film in which a native population confronts the more technologically advanced invaders from Earth; the local people [in the film] have inspired us so much with their way of life, which is so full of risk yet also full of rewards.