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Another day, another “eye-roll” moment. Sigh. Yet another article on the “rules” or “secrets” to becoming a successful entrepreneur – usually written by someone who has never been an entrepreneur, much less a successful entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship advice is getting similar to those late night get-rich-quick real estate commercials, or like weight-loss plans and diet books. And the demand for such packaged advice is just as great. There are just as many people looking for shortcuts as their are those proffering recipes, rules and ‘secrets’ to success.

Sorry, Inc.  I don’t mean to single out your popular publication.  And, Naveen Jain, the author of today’s article, is one of my favorite writers on entrepreneurship – one of the entrepreneurs whom I respect the most.  His articles on Forbes and Huffpo, and elsewhere, are always of the highest quality.  Pardon me, my friend, for deconstructing your article today titled:  10 Secrets of Becoming a Successful Entrepreneur | Inc.com.   It’s the genre of advice that I attack, not the messenger.  The “10 secrets” hit all the right points for me to illustrate my point.   I suspect that the editors of Inc. had more to do with the selection of the subject matter and content, than the author.

Today, as I’m feeling less professorial and more curmudgeonly than usual, I will throw some flaming darts at just a few of the ‘secrets’:

Deconstructing the Top-10 Secrets of Becoming a Successful Entrepreneur


“10. You must be passionate about what you are trying to achieve.”

What field can’t you become a success without being passionate?   Other than the guy who inherited his money or his job, isn’t passion for your field a common trait or requirement?   Have we ever heard the Michael Phelps’ of the world say “I really never cared too much about being an Olympic champion, I just showed up and it just happened.” Passion, Persistence, Dedication and Drive – aren’t these the universal ‘secrets’ for success?

One of my favorite tweets says it best:


“9. Great entrepreneurs focus intensely on an opportunity where others see nothing.”

The author’s point was about “focus” as a success factor.   Absolutely.   Perhaps there are some people who need reminding that you should not set out to become a successful anything – no matter how much talent you possess – unless you are willing to focus your energies on your goal.   Even the great Michael Jordan would not play both basketball and baseball at the same time – despite athletic talent and ability in each.

“8. Success comes only from hard work.”

Another truism.  But is this really a secret?   The problem, not only with entrepreneurial success, but with success every other field, is that there are always a few outliers:  Those who got lucky, or who started out with unusual advantages (like inheriting money).  Worse, is not the outliers, but those who achieved success by making it look easy.   Most people are looking for quick fixes or a shortcut to success.  I suppose that explains the popularity of articles revealing the secrets to success.   It’s never a secret.  It’s always hard work.  But if you have passion (see #10) then the hard work can be lots of fun.

“6. Trust your gut instinct more than any spreadsheet.”

This advice is in the same category as “there are no shortcuts or formulas”  – if there were, then everyone would be a success.    I’m actually not so sure about this one as a success factor – let alone a secret.   Successful entrepreneurs like the author, Naveen Jain, have learned that trusting their instincts over formulas and data is a good strategy.  For others, they have a talent for leveraging or interpreting the data.  Some people are Captain Kirk – full speed ahead based on their emotions.  Others are Mr. Spock – logic and data are their guide.   The secret is to understand which personality you are, and use it to your advantage.

“4. Rely on your team. It’s a simple fact: No individual can be good at everything.”

Actually, this is one of the few pieces of advice (secrets) that might not deserve to be the target of criticism.   In fact, I want to be clear that all of the advice is valid and valuable for entrepreneurs and all others seeking success – it’s the premise of “secrets” that I dispute.   But if there is  one counterintuitive piece of advice for entrepreneurial success, this might be the one.  Entrepreneurs, particularly first-timers, enter the fray trying to do it all themselves, or thinking they can handle all aspects of the job.   Most entrepreneurs were experts or specialists in some field, often technical, as they embarked on their first venture.  And like most experts, there is some understandable pathological tendency to think that their expertise extends to many other areas – and they either make lots of assumptions or lots of novice mistakes. This is often the downfall of many entrepreneurs, and learning its lesson indeed be one of the few secrets for entrepreneurial success.

“3. Execution, execution, execution.”

If anything is not a secret, it’s the requirement for entrepreneurs to take action and execute!  Other fields, for instance management, scientific research or design, there is room for successful people who are best at planning, thinking, writing, designing etc.   Not entrepreneurship.    While not a secret – the advice of “Execution, execution, execution.”  is always one that needs repeating.

“2. I can’t imagine anyone ever achieving long-term success without having honesty and integrity.”

And I cannot imagine a field where this is not good advice (much less a secret).  Okay, well, maybe honesty and integrity don’t count in politics. And I have my doubts about economics and certain sectors of the auto repair industry.  Other than those – honesty and integrity are essential success traits.   But if this advice was is new to you, um, well, you might have other issues that need attention before you look at becoming an entrepreneur.

“1. Success is a long journey and much more rewarding if you give back.”

I would not classify this as much of a secret, as I would more of a subtle lesson.   Prior generations of entrepreneurs often were so focused on their work that the “giving back” aspect did not occur until well after their success was established – like Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation.  These successful entrepreneurs became mentors, advisors, investors, and benefactors.      But today’s generation of entrepreneurs don’t wait.  They try to Giving back is an integral part of their work  (this is one of the main tenets of Metapreneurship).

Sure, it only takes an hour or two to read the Steve Jobs biography or to watch Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to success in The Social Network – roughly about the same time it takes to watch The Biggest Loser on TV.    In all these cases, these incredible success stories took years, even decades of focus,discipline and hard work.
These lists of Entrepreneurial rules and secrets remind me of the latest fad diet or trendy fitness technique. The majority of people want quick-fix, magical solutions. Every diet guru’s checklist and every expensive diet plan always ends with the same clause: “Our plan, along with a healthy diet and regular exercise, is guaranteed to make you lose weight.”
Channeling my best valley girl accent: “Well, yeah-aah!” In fact, you can ditch the entire list of secrets, and just eat reasonable portions, go easy on desert and exercise regularly. There’s no secret. It’s just hard work.
Just Google “Entrepreneurship Secrets” and you will see hundreds of articles – thousands, when you add the pithy “5 steps to … success” articles. But really, there are no recipes. There are no secrets.  It has never been a secret.   There usually are no secrets to success in any field.  It boils down to hard work, discipline and dedication. It’s simple. Almost every knows what needs to be done. The secret is that so few are willing to do the hard work. The secret is to actually do the hard work.
But you knew that already.




Written by CJ Cornell

CJ Cornell

Serial Entrepreneur. University Professor. Software Engineer. Media Executive. Venture Capitalist. Researcher. Marketer. Advisor. Mentor. Author and Speaker. Founded or co-founded nearly a dozen companies in software, digital media and television.

For the past few years I’ve been Co-Director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship and Professor of Digital Media & Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, and the university’s first full time Entrepreneur-in-Residence. Currently Visiting Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at New York Institute of Technology and Managing Director at Propel Ventures LLC.


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