Review: Inside the entrepreneurial mindset

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Daniel Isenberg is a professor of management practice at Babson Global.(Photo: Essdras M Suarez/ EMS Photograph)

Daniel Isenberg is a professor of management practice at Babson Global.(Photo: Essdras M Suarez/ EMS Photograph)

If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to become a successful entrepreneur, you’ll want to read “Worthless, Impossible, and Stupid: How Contrarian Entrepreneurs Create and Capture Extraordinary Value,” by Daniel Isenberg.

The fascinating book is colorful collection of stories based on business case studies that Isenberg compiled during the 11 years he taught classes on entrepreneurship at Harvard University.

Though the companies profiled are all very different, the entrepreneurs who made them successful have a number of things in common.

Isenberg is an entrepreneur, investor, speaker, consultant and former Harvard University professor who now teaches management practice at Babson Global.

He founded the Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project and recently served as an advisor to the White House on the “Startup America” initiative.

During a recent phone interview from his office in Boston, Isenberg said entrepreneurs are often dissatisfied. “Not necessarily angry and dissatisfied, but always thinking there is more to do, more to accomplish,” he said.

Most successful entrepreneurs started working when they were young, doing things like odd jobs and paper routes. “They like being independent, making money and the challenge of doing things that many other people don’t do,” he added.

Most importantly, he says, they have a “contrarian” mindset. “When you and I look at the glass, we see it half empty; they see it half full. Most of the people are moving in one direction, and they move in another.”

Having that contrarian mindset is vital, he says, because “It is very hard … almost impossible, to create and capture extraordinary value without going against the market … without buying low, when people think it’s garbage, and turning it into something that’s valuable … by doing things that other people think are worthless, impossible and stupid, and turning them into valuable, possible and smart.”

Isenberg’s book debunks popular notions about entrepreneurship — for example, you have to be young and innovative to be successful. “While being young and smart can be useful,” Isenberg says, “it’s not necessary.”

Many of his case studies show that “sometimes it’s very helpful to have a little bit of age. It helps to have expertise. It helps to be immersed in a given marketplace, or product, or technology, or whatever.”

However, he says, sometimes being on the outside looking in is what gives an entrepreneur the edge. There are many entrepreneurs who had no prior experience in the business that they eventually turn into a roaring success.

He also maintains that innovation is not essential to success despite it being a buzzword often associated with entrepreneurship. “Extraordinary value is often created from gaps in existing markets, from the copying of businesses from one market to another, or in industries that … few consider innovative,” he asserts.

Some examples of highly successful entrepreneurs profiled in the book include:

  • Vinod Kapur: founder and CEO of Keggfarms, a company in India which developed a new breed of chicken that is bigger, healthier and produces more eggs than regular chickens. “Kuroiler” eggs are sold as premium products in urban centers, and provide both income and much-needed extra protein for poor farmers in remote, rural areas.
  • Sean and Michael Dimin: co-founders and co-CEOs of Sea to Table, a direct marketer of fresh seafood from the waters of North and Central America. The fish that is now quick-shipped direct to high-end New York restaurants, used to go to waste because it could not be sold before it spoiled.
  • Robert Wessman: former CEO of Actavis, once a small generic pharmaceutical company based in Iceland that is now the world’s fourth-leading generics pharmaceutical maker with plants and offices in 60 countries.
  • John (Jay) Rogers: founder of Local Motors, a Phoenix-based company that crowd-sources automotive designs and then charges customers an average of $60,000 apiece to build their own dream cars in small manufacturing facilities scattered throughout the U.S.
  • Gabi Meron: founder and former CEO of Given Imaging, an Israel-based company that produces a tiny medical imaging device enclosed in a capsule. The video pill takes pictures on its way through a patient’s small intestine, and is much less expensive, dangerous and and invasive than traditional endoscopy.
  • Miguel Davila, Adolfo Fastlicht, and Matt Heyman: co-founders and co-CEOs of Cinemex, Mexico’s first high-end movie theater chain. It now the country’s leading multiscreen cinema developer and operator.
  • Atsumasa Tochisako: founder and CEO of Microfinance International, a Washington-based provider of financial services to a poor and traditionally underserved market segment. The company serves mostly low-income South and Central American immigrants who don’t have bank accounts.
  • Will Dean: co-founder and CEO of Tough Mudder, a New York-based company which offers extreme sports enthusiasts the opportunity to challenge themselves by completing military-style obstacle courses. The events, which are staged in locations all over the world, attract thousands of participants each year.

Isenberg is quick to point out that his book is not intended to convince people that they should become entrepreneurs.

“I’m not trying to paper over the difficulties,” he says. “There is a real potential for failure. I’m not really trying to make people be entrepreneurs; I’m trying to open it up to them as a possibility.”

However, though the possibility carries with it substantial risk, Isenberg asserts, “It’s more risky to work for a stupid boss, than to fail at my own thing.”

The willingness to take on great risk for the potential of great reward, plus a contrarian mindset that allows successful entrepreneurs to persevere in the face of great adversity, is what makes the personalities and companies profiled in this book so interesting.

Time and time again, throughout history, and in countries all over the world, creative, headstrong, savvy and tenacious entrepreneurs have found a way to spin straw into gold.

“I’ve come to believe that entrepreneurship is part of the human experience,” Isenberg says. “It’s like art, literature, music and poetry. I think that is beautiful, even though I may or may not be an entrepreneur. That was my real intention in the book.”

Bottom line: “Worthless, Impossible, and Stupid: How Contrarian Entrepreneurs Create and Capture Extraordinary Value” will challenge your assumptions about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur and provide valuable insights into why and how those who are successful made it work.

Destro is a freelance writer based in Akron, Ohio

Courtesy of USA Today

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