Nature versus Nurture in Entrepreneurs

Taking Sides
Are you are born with innate entrepreneurial talent or can you can be taught to operate like an entrepreneur?

Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, Jason Calacanis, founder of Mahalo.com, and Mark Suster of GRP Partners, have all weighed in on the nature side – you’re born being an entrepreneur or you’re not.

Vivek Wadhwa, Director of Research, Center for Entrepreneurship at Duke, the Kauffmann Foundation for Entreprenuership and others have the opposing view – you can teach people to be entrepreneurial.

I weighed in on the subject in a previous post.

Mark Suster, Vivek Wadhwa and Patrick Chung, Partner of New Enterprises Associates debated the subject on April 21st at Stanford. I’ll was the moderator (referee).

Take a look at the video below.

I thought it was a pretty good talk and worth listening to.

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14 Responses

  1. Nurturing to become an entrepreneur is crucial.

    Nurturing includes having access to a network of role models, experts who can provide meaningful and relevant advice/education, and peers who could share their war stories and compress the time needed to ride the natural learning curve.

    Anglo, white males seem to have perfected this network over the many years since the start of the industrial revolution. Minorities (Hispanics, women, etc.) are in the process of developing such networks (e.g. women in enterprise, ALPFA, TiE, etc.) but there is a lot of room for improvement.

    More specifically, funding sources friendly to and understanding of minorities’ own issues are scarce. This may be because the business model for an investor specializing in minorities (and their challenges) may not be attractive for LPs who just focus on ROI. Raising money for anyone today is challenging enough, just ask Alan Patrickoff (http://www.businessinsider.com/alan-patricof-greycroft-2010-7). If the investor’s business requires developing a layer of support for minorities, the likelihood of having an investor give minorities a real chance.

    Thoughts?

  2. IMHO the answer to the nature vs nurture beef is always both, as nature and nurture play off each other; your innate nature affects how the world nurtures you, which in turn effects your innate nature, etc. yin-yang principle.

    also, i never commented here before, so i just wanted to say that i really enjoy your blog. thanks, and keep up the great work — much appreciated! :)

    • Howdy Kid, I think I discovered Steve’s blog before Fred’s (Q4 2008/Q1 2009). Glad to see you commenting.

      What’s amazing to me from reading Steve’s blog is that the patterns he’s trying to tackle are being picked up by follow on gens. Eric Ries found a smooth transition/adaption of Customer Development in modern Agile coding practices.

      Plus Steve comes from an engineering background like myself which makes me hopeful I can survive the transition juggling of both worlds.

  3. Great discussion. My take on the final answer is that you have to have an innate “drive” to want to do more. The common characteristic of every entrepreneur I know is that they are never ever satisfied.

    I like the irrational belief that you are right too. This is also a common characteristic.

    There are always exceptions to the rule, but pretty much every single adult entrepreneur showed some trait of starting or tinkering with things when they were young. Lemonade stands, door to door sales, taking risk, not being satisfied, never giving up. You can see the traits from an early age.

    Again, great discussion.

  4. Peter Drucker will say that being entrepreneurial is a set of behaviors. If you choose to take a risk is that nature or nurture? If you choose to be honest is that nature or nurture? What about choosing to work hard or choosing to not give up?

    You cannot choose to be smart. You cannot choose to be a 7-footer or to slam dunk a basketball. There are some things that are clearly nature.

    Some people will say that a characteristic like resiliency is driven by nature. You can debate that all you want. The issue becomes more clear if you separate out what things can be 100% impacted by you – through the decisions you make – and what things are beyond your control (like random luck or raw intelligence or physical characteristics).

    If you are the type of person who thinks it’s mostly fate/nature, then you will tend to work less hard. If it’s not easy, if you are not a “natural,” then why bother?

    Successful people tend to work pretty hard. Is that nature or nurture? I view it as a matter of choice.

  5. First applause applause, I am CEO of a startup hardware/software and you are providing much needed education. Basically, I am risk adverse and rationale. The day i became irrationale was the day I knew my product customer connection was going to work. Our prototype is not, so today I am certifiable. Wow I am on the right track; thanks Subjectively I feel driven by our product and what it will do for customers. I do confess I am prone to wanting to change the world and have succeeded and failed, but never in business. What ever my nature, I believe it will take much nurturing and expanding of my nature for us to succeed in business.

  6. I believe in the nature argument on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and the nurture argument on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Weekends I think all entrepreneurs will go extinct anyway.

    For those who want to survey the whole debate, with some extra material: http://bit.ly/9K34a4

    In a way the nurture argument is a special case of Gladwell’s argument in Outliers. You can also do the nurture argument at the level of entire civilizations. Joel Mokyr’s “Lever of Riches” is basically a nurture argument for Europe vs. China with reference to the scientific+industrial revolution.

    Overall though, I find the nature argument more compelling.

    Venkat

  7. Its amazing that none of the so called experts on the panel once talked of company fundamentals, operations etc that effectively make the investments either a success or failure. the VC business is really in the “opinion” business, looking for patterns who write out checks with little operational scars to show. Its like asking an x-ray technician to opine on the quality of a CABG procedure. Sad, but no different than research analysts having all the power in the world in making or breaking companies in the late nineties. Its time LPs wake up and do its own principal investing…

  8. JH,

    I hear ya, but to be fair, the discussion is what contributes to someone being an entrepeneur, period, not necessarily a “successful” one, however you define success. So company fundamentals, operations, sales process, etc. are outside the debate, in my humble opinion.

    At OpenView Venture Partners (www.openviewpartners.com), I’ve come across many people with all the characteristics of entrepeneurs, running their own businesses, but not inclined toward process or cash management. That just means they’re not the best operators. They’re still entrepeneurs, whether they were born that way or picked it up along the way.

    Igor Altman
    http://www.openviewpartners.com

    http://blog.openviewpartners.com/blog/igors-insights

  9. You need to un-ask the question. Whether or not entrepreneurship is nature or nurture is irrelevant, and may make for fun debate, but is utterly useless in practical application. Someone who feels called to do something entrepreneurial is unlikely to halt their efforts because they wonder whether they have a natural, inborn ability to do it, or if they’re nurturing environment is/was sufficient. If anything, they will believe they have said ability merely by the fact that they feel the desire to begin such a venture, and there is no way to objectively tell them otherwise.

    It is an unfalsifiable claim, and therefore unscientific, regardless of whether you fall on the nature or nurture side of the debate. If an entrepreneur is successful, it would be easy to claim that it is due to some inborn trait of theirs (or some nurturing environmental factor). If an entrepreneur is unsuccessful, we can again point our fingers toward whichever factor (nature or nurture) we have chosen to back. As successful ventures are all but impossible to predict (check any VC batting average to verify), any mental model based on classifying entrepreneurship as nature or nurture is useful only in retrospect, completely non-predictive, and therefore, as I said, useless for any practical purpose.

    As one person mentioned previously, it is likely a mix of nature, nurture, and an infinite number of other variables and factors therein. For any argument favoring nature or nurture, there are too many real-life counterexamples that don’t support either theory.

  10. p.s. even your natural genetic expression (i.e., “nature”) is influenced by various environmental factors, i.e., “nurture”, so the argument is hardly a clean one…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics

  11. [...] Nature Vs. Nurture In Entrepreneurs [...]

  12. Hello Steve,

    This was good stuff. With regard to defining an entrepreneur, you would have to add another parameter called “choice”. A typically entrepreneur is the one who goes out of his way to create something out of nothing and does this by choice. He/she throws away the choice of cozy comfort zone to rediscover new ways of creating value.
    Even other skills like street-smarts, negotiations, people management, etc. can be acquired either by training or by winning people who can bring that skill set to the table.
    To that extent, all that one has to know are
    1. how to make money by understanding his/her business to the detail of every nut and bolt, and
    2. (optionally) how to win people.

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