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If It Walks Like An Entrepreneur...

One summer after my freshman year in college, I took a job selling high-end Kirby vacuum cleaners door-to-door. I thought it might be a good experience.

It was. I learned that based on my selling statistics (which were good, but not great), every non-sale got me 1/15th of the way toward a sale.

To stay super-motivated, I had to train myself to view a non-sale as having earned a hard $20 (1/15th of a full commission), rather than seeing it as a failure.

What does this have to do with being an entrepreneur? Quite a lot. Apparently, there is some magic ratio (depending on the circumstance) that any new idea will succeed. Every attempt - and every failure - gets you one step closer to the next success. I wasn’t aware of this magic ratio while I was selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door-to-door, but by seeing every non-sale as a stepping stone to a sale, I was well on my way to becoming an entrepreneur.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to the Caltech Entrepreneur Club, and it got me thinking about what it means to be an entrepreneur. Here’s the definition I came up with: if you walk and talk like an entrepreneur, you are one. And while some people assume this term strictly applies to founders of start-up companies, it applies just fine to employees, students, really anyone.

Here are some indications that you’re an entrepreneur, or are well on your way to becoming one:

1. You are fighting hard for some idea to be accepted, and you are willing to take on the associated reputational risk.

The more novel and unique the idea, and the greater the level of innovation, the tougher the barriers are to acceptance. Brand new ideas often require extensive education and persuasion to frame a new context–a context in which your idea, years later, becomes completely obvious.

It can be a big challenge. And it’s absolutely critical that the idea’s mouthpiece (you) deeply believes in and is accountable for the idea, especially for ones that ultimately fail (and inevitably, some of them will). Even ideas and companies that went on to enjoy great success were once upon a time mocked or disrespected by someone. And to quote the inspirational Randy Pausch, obstacles “give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”

2. From time to time, you work on tasks for which you have absolutely no expertise.

Breaking new ground often means you are doing something new. You have deep government experience, but want to aggressively pursue social channels. You know the video space, but now need to quickly understand the opportunities bridging online advertising. At Factual, we have deep database and machine learning expertise, but have had to learn about specific verticals like geo/local and health. Some of the best ideas result from specific intersections of experience and knowledge that few people have–so it’s a process of quickly filling in gaps in knowledge.

If you look back and can’t think of a time when you felt clueless about something, then you probably don’t tend to push boundaries hard enough. You probably aren’t an entrepreneur. Not yet, at least.

3. You view failure as a necessary stepping stone towards success.

You tried something new. It didn’t work. But that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Experimentation and trial-and-error is common in entrepreneurial waters. You simply must believe at heart that each failure gets you closer to success, and is therefore a necessary ingredient in the recipe for success.

Remember my experience selling vacuum cleaners? I learned to see every non-sale (that is, every failure) as bringing me one step closer to a sale (that is, a success). If you can relate, you just might be an entrepreneur.

4. Emotions can help navigate, but don’t give it the driver’s seat.

You have an idea, but your boss just isn’t willing to take a chance. It’s all too easy to get upset and view this as “out of your hands.”

But as an entrepreneur, you know the status quo is what it is because you have not succeeded in changing it…yet. You may have tried and run up against a brick wall. Why isn’t your boss convinced? Lack of trust? Credibility? That’s your fault. Risks appear too great? Again, your fault. Just not in the mood to try something new? Once again, your fault.

As an entrepreneur, you embrace the notion that neither you, nor your awesome idea, are owed anything from this world. And every trial and tribulation gets you a step closer to success. Along the path, it rarely helps to let your emotions get the best of you. The “take this job and shove it” approach won’t help if you are trying to change the status quo within your company.

5. You listen to those you trust, but trust yourself the most.

Advice is great at helping understand the general context and landscape, but you alone have the ability to synthesize that advice into a strategy as it applies to your own vision. It is very possible that no one else has the exact set of experiences, knowledge, personality and enthusiasm to get your idea going. You are the world’s expert with regard to some specific context or opportunity. If you believe this, you are an entrepreneur.

6. You are always a bit unsatisfied.

A part of you is just frustrated, shocked or horrified at the status quo. You may find yourself thinking, “I can’t believe people still do things this way.”

Then the optimistic you takes over. You think instead, “This is an opportunity to be an agent of change.”

Why hasn’t someone else done it? Maybe it’s harder than you think. Maybe you don’t fully understand all the issues yet. Maybe no one has stepped up purely by chance. No matter–this is your moment to set a new course, be a hero, and help countless people in the process.

Do you do a good job of balancing your pissed-off and your focused inner selves? If not, you may still be an entrepreneur, but you’ll need to work on this.

7. Finally–you love it.

Simply stated, if you are really excited about the challenges each day presents, you just might be an entrepreneur. The terrain might not be easy to trek, but for an entrepreneur it’s incredibly satisfying and fun to take on each new challenge.

Good luck, and keep on talking the talk…and most importantly, walking the walk.

[Originally published on Business Insider 5/24/2011]