Essence of the entrepreneurial spirit: What does it take?

In this second part of a three-part series, Elise Mitchell continues her reflections on the entrepreneurial adventure.

I'm fortunate to have been mentored by three legends who all built successful agencies. Over the years I worked for them, I had a front-row seat to observe their entrepreneurial prowess. Many times I asked myself: What does it really take to do this?

Do you ever wonder what's required to bring your vision to life? Is there a secret formula for success?

I spend a lot of my time these days talking to fellow entrepreneurs who have built amazing agencies. Each has a unique and powerful story. As different as they all are, they also have a lot in common. I see in them qualities that were hallmarks of my mentors and foundational in my own entrepreneurial experiences. And, in fact, I find myself accessing these qualities once again in my new role to build a global public relations network.

Think of the times you have been a builder – charged with launching an initiative, creating a team from scratch, or establishing a new market for a product or service. Challenges like these require us to reach deep within ourselves and draw upon those traits that are essential for success. Here are a few that have been critical in my entrepreneurial journey.

  • Passion -- I love public relations. It's all I've ever wanted to do. When I started Mitchell Communications Group in 1995, I used that passion to power my dream to build what I hoped would be a different kind of communications agency. It kept me going when times got tough, and helped me motivate others around me to bring their best forward. Deep belief is infectious, and the more you believe in a vision, the more easily you'll attract others to join you – and stay with you – on your journey.
  • Versatility -- While it might look glamorous on the outside, being an entrepreneur is pretty pedestrian at times. You can be a strategic adviser by day, but you can't be above sweeping the floors and locking the doors at night. In the early days, I created every invoice and signed every contract. By rolling up my sleeves back then to get the basics done, I learned first-hand the critical aspects of the agency business: HR, finance, operations, legal, culture, and marketing. This kind of grounding helped me understand the nuances of my company in ways I could never know otherwise. It also gave me a better feel for when it was time to hire specialists and how to effectively transition and entrust these tasks to others when we brought them on board.
  • Curiosity -- I freely admit I'm a business geek. I love to learn about industries of all kinds and am constantly wondering what makes companies tick. Insatiable curiosity has served me well as an entrepreneur, and being an avid reader and networker ensures I've got a steady stream of insights and ideas coming in. The drive to know is powerful. Your identity as a lifelong learner will help you up your own game, and also make you a more capable counselor. To keep this drive alive, we have a robust internal talent-management program at Mitchell designed to encourage our team members to continuously develop themselves. We also take an “immersive” approach to the business, in which we strive to know and understand our clients' businesses from the inside out. Deeper understanding leads to better strategy. That's why we've climbed drilling rigs and walked the floors with retail geniuses. What can you do to create a more powerful climate of curiosity for your team?
  • Financial savvy -- While I wasn't a financial expert when I started the firm, I knew how important it was to run a fiscally sound business, and I figured it out along the way. Today I understand the finer points of GAAP, which doesn't make me a very interesting dinner date, but it has helped me do a better job of running a profitable enterprise. Your new initiative won't realize its greatest potential if you're not grounded in the fundamentals of financial management. You've got to understand and appreciate practical principles such as: materiality, revenue recognition, interpreting financial statements, and leveraging key drivers in the business. If you're looking for ways to enhance your financial savvy, I recommend a book called Finance for Executives: Managing for Value Creation, attending executive education, or if nothing else asking a CPA to spend a half day giving you a crash course on the basics.
  • Taking risk -- The best business model for a startup is one that constantly evolves in response to a rapidly shifting marketplace and knows how to take calculated risk. Entrepreneurs are rarely short on ideas; their bigger challenge is knowing which ones to pursue. The trick is to balance risk and discipline to yield solid results. This begins by having a clear understanding of your value proposition, knowing where you can win, and playing to your strengths. We've established some unique capabilities at Mitchell through the years such as training and facilitation, in-house video and photography, and building a national network of project employees. Each area has proven profitable and differentiating, but there are many more ideas that never made it past the drawing board. Thank goodness. Don't be afraid to think of what could be, but have the good sense to figure out if anyone will really pay you for it

These are just a few of the many qualities I've needed to help bring my entrepreneurial vision to life. What do you think it takes?

Elise Mitchell is CEO of Mitchell Communications Group and Dentsu's Public Relations Network.

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