What Makes Great Entrepreneurs Think Differently?

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Think outside the box. Take risks. Turn obstacles into success. We’ve all heard these motivational platitudes before. So, why do so many of us struggle to actually apply them to our daily business lives?


Our mindset dictates what we believe to be possible both in life and business. Yet the way we think can either be our greatest asset or our biggest detriment. It’s easy to read or hear “think outside the box,” but it can be much more difficult to put this advice into action!

Successful entrepreneurs understand that is a lifelong process. They make it a priority to have the right mindset for expansive thinking and explosive business growth. They objectively evaluate mistakes and apply lessons learned to future projects.

Most importantly, they value their own time above all else, treating it as a valuable commodity that should be spent investing in themselves and their business.

Entrepreneurs versus corporate executives: How does mindset differ?

Recently, I read about a fascinating study by Saras Sarasvathy, a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. Sarasvathy wanted to dig deeper into what made successful entrepreneurs so different. Through rigorous interviews and research, she concluded that successful entrepreneurs rely on what she calls “effectual reasoning.”

Successful people like these don’t start out with concrete goals and let themselves become disheartened if they fail to meet these achievement marks, Sarasvathy concluded; instead, they continually assess how they can best leverage their strengths to utilize available opportunities.

Looking at Sarasvathy’s study, an observer might recognize this approach as being different from that of most executives. Corporate executives, after all, follow causal reasoning. They set a singular goal and focus on identifying and implementing the best ways to achieve this goal. 

Yet both approaches are valid in their respective settings: In a corporate structure, it makes sense to set specific, achievable goals and to work toward these goals. But when you’re starting a company, your ability to pivot quickly with market direction will be critical to your success.

Maintaining a blind focus on specific goals could keep you from seeing other opportunities. In essence, you’d be missing the forest for the trees.

Four entrepreneurs share their advice for success.

Want to think more like an entrepreneur and adopt an “effectual reasoning” approach to your thinking? Here’s a peek inside the restless, creative minds of today’s top entrepreneurs:

“Always think ahead and never stop dreaming,” Chris Clifton, the president of , told me. He said that he urges his fellow entrepreneurs to always stay one step ahead of the competition by staying in touch with their customer base at all times. Entrepreneurs don’t have the luxury of testing endless product features and iterations with every market segment.

Instead, to gain an intimate understanding of a customer’s needs — and ultimately out-innovate the competition — Clifton recommends developing a close relationship with key customers. “Your customers are your best brand ambassadors,” Clifton said. “Ask them what they need your product to do differently, and make that happen,” he said. “Never stop dreaming of ways to innovate.”


“Failure is only failure if you don’t learn a lesson,”  Emanuel Kronitz, the founder of , said to me. He pointed out how fear of failure is commonly cited as the reason people choose not to start their own companies or invent new products.

There’s a negative social stigma attached to failure, Kronitz, says, not to mention very real financial consequences if a company collapses and takes the founder’s savings with it.

While entrepreneurs are aware of these risks, they choose to take them anyway. That’s because they view failure differently than we do, Kronitz says. “Failure is only failure if you don’t learn a lesson,” he says. “Founding a business is extremely risky, and you will make mistakes along the way. As long as you can learn from these mistakes, you are not failing. You’re growing.”

“Keep a childlike wonderment alive,” Leslie Bradshaw, a managing partner for , said. She added that she prefers an entrepreneurial approach to life that keeps her “childlike wonderment alive.” As we mature into adults, she says, many of us lose our curiosity, our willingness to take risks (and to not worry about what others think) and our passion for exploration.

Bradshaw says that successful entrepreneurs keep these traits alive. She told me: “The more traditional companies I worked for out of college not only didn’t foster these traits, they flat-out discouraged them.” Well, those traditional companies clearly missed out: Bradshaw helped Guide close a $1 million seed round in February 2013 and secure a demonstration spot at SXSW.

“Never stop improving,” was advice that came from Jeremy Johnson, co-founder of . He said that this advice goes for personal growth and for improving the world around you. Every product or service you use today was invented by someone no smarter than you. So why not continue inventing and improving upon it? he points out. “We believe almost everything can be improved upon in some way. We start to imagine what could be instead of what is . . . [but] the world is malleable and many of the rules that exist are more like guidelines.”


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