If you’re a born entrepreneur, you probably never felt comfortable going with the flow. Even as a child, you were likely trying to control the tide of conformity. Tony Lacavera certainly was. He is one of the most independent-minded people I know. When he started WIND Mobile, Canada’s first new national wireless carrier in a decade, he had to contend with loads of opposition from the country’s telecommunications giants. After he stepped down in January 2013, he went on to do something that was just as challenging—launch Globalive Capital, a venture fund that invests in domestic technology, media, and telecom companies. In both cases he dealt with plenty of naysayers who told him that his dreams simply weren’t possible. But he’s used to facing resistance because he has been questioning conventional wisdom and trying to do things his own way his whole life.
At the age of six, he became fixated on the idea of getting past the fence between his backyard and his neighbour’s. Walking around would be just too easy—what would be the fun in that? Instead, he jerry-rigged a ladder and climbed over. When his mother discovered what he’d done, she banned further climbing on the quite reasonable grounds that she didn’t want him to fall and break his neck. So Tony found a toy shovel and spent the next three weeks digging a trench underneath the fence.
As Tony’s story suggests, the desire to be an entrepreneur—which is, essentially, the desire to do things your own way paired with the stubborn conviction that you should never stop trying—seems to be innate and often reveals itself pretty early on in life. (Think of Charles Chang’s two-dollar comic books.) That’s certainly what most of the 200 US entrepreneurs surveyed by Northeastern University’s School of Technological Entrepreneurship told researchers. They conceded that, yes, the practical business skills required to launch a venture can be learned, but about two-thirds of respondents said natural desire—not necessity, not training, not a cratering economy—was what drove them to call on those skills in the first place by starting entrepreneurial ventures. Only one percent said higher education had motivated them at all. In fact, most were aware of their desire long before they got out of high school. Some 42 percent launched their first business ventures in childhood and, significantly, the vast majority of them felt confident they would succeed. In other words, from the time they were kids, they thought, behaved, and felt like entrepreneurs.
Those statistics don’t mean that if you didn’t start a website when you were in kindergarten, you’re temperamentally ill-suited to becoming an entrepreneur. Like I said—I didn’t start a business when I was a child, either. Instead, I got married—at 19!—and started having babies. But like Tony, I always had a stubborn independent streak, and I was hell-bent on doing things my own way.
One of the first jobs I got after graduating high school was as an administrative assistant at a university. My fellow employees spent their time doing what our boss hired them to do—answer phones, file documents, type up correspondence, and so on. But I thought I would be able to contribute more by having in-depth conversations with my co-workers, my boss’s colleagues, and pretty much everyone else I worked with in order to develop stronger relationships with the team and get a better understanding of how my work fit into the bigger picture. It’s not that I was avoiding my duties; I was simply trying to redefine my job description in a way that allowed me to add as much value as I could. But my boss—who had hired a secretary because that’s precisely what she needed—viewed my tactics as insubordinate and fired me.
I never saw the value of following what I viewed as pointless rules, so I was a terrible employee, forever questioning authority and coming up with my own bright ideas about how to do things better. Looking back, I can see that I had the spirit of an entrepreneur. I just didn’t know what to call it back then or what do with it.
Entrepreneurs are not unlike singers, artists, or other creative types in one important respect: we view what we do as a calling. Our work is far more than a job. It’s a passion, a way of life that both defines and expresses who we are. It doesn’t feel optional, because we can’t imagine doing anything else and being happy. A lot of us have tried working for other people. But we’re either lousy at it or dissatisfied with it, or both. “It’s not a good fit,” as I was repeatedly told when I was being fired. Striving for independence, even though it’s difficult and involves insecurity and risk, just feels better—so much better that it seems like the only choice.
Of course, the price of your fierce independence is that you’re often left facing challenges alone, especially early on when you haven’t yet built a team to support you. It’s not easy, believe me. Having inspirational mentors or supportive friends and family members can be a godsend. But you can survive and thrive without them, so long as you have an entrepreneurial temperament. All of us have something to prove, generally, and “no” isn’t just a word we don’t like to hear—it’s an aphrodisiac that makes us fall even more in love with our own vision and venture.
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Excerpt from All In © 2013 by Arlene Dickinson. Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. All rights reserved.