The Difference Between Innovators and Entrepreneurs

I just received a thank-you note from a student who attended a fireside chat I held at the ranch. Something I said seemed to inspire her:

“I always thought you needed to be innovative, original to be an entrepreneur. Now I have a different perception. Entrepreneurs are the ones that make things happen. (That) takes focus, diligence, discipline, flexibility and perseverance. They can take an innovative idea and make it impactful. … successful entrepreneurs are also ones who take challenges in stride, adapt and adjust plans to accommodate whatever problems do come up.”


Over the last decade I’ve watched hundreds of my engineering students as well as ~1,500 of the country’s best scientists in the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, cycle through the latest trends in startups: social media, new materials, big data, medical devices, diagnostics, digital health, therapeutics, drones, robotics, bitcoin, machine learning, etc.  Some of these world-class innovators get recruited by large companies like professional athletes, with paychecks to match. Others join startups to strike out on their own. But what I’ve noticed is that it’s rare that the smartest technical innovator is the most successful entrepreneur.

Being a domain expert in a technology field rarely makes you competent in commerce. Building a company takes very different skills than building a neural net in Python or decentralized blockchain apps in Ethereum.

Nothing makes me happier than to see my students getting great grades (and as they can tell you, I make them very work hard for them). But I remind them that customers don’t ask for your transcript. Until we start giving grades for resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition, tenacity and having a passion for products and customers, great grades and successful entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation (and anecdotal evidence suggests that the correlation may actually be negative.)

Most great technology startups – Oracle, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Tesla – were built by a team led by an entrepreneur.

It doesn’t mean that if you have technical skills you can’t build a successful company. It does mean that success in building a company that scales depends on finding product/market fit, enough customers, enough financing, enough great employees, distribution channels, etc. These are entrepreneurial skills you need to rapidly acquire or find a co-founder who already has them.

Lessons Learned

  • Entrepreneurship is a calling, not a job.
  • A calling is something you feel you need to follow, it gives you direction and purpose but no guarantee of a paycheck.
  • It’s what allows you to create a missionary zeal to recruit others, get customers to buy into a vision and gets VC’s to finance a set of slides.
  • It’s what makes you get up and do it again when customers say no, when investors laugh at your idea or when your rocket fails to make it to space.

17 Responses

  1. Inspirational as always Steve Blank

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  2. These are so good, and this is one of your better ones.

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  3. A great point.

    Do you think entrepreneurship can be taught in any way?

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  4. Great, but it leaves me open the question: should we teach to be called? Is there a piece of currriculum missed in our scholastic system?

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    • We already teach “to be called” when we teach art appreciation to primary and middle school students. While we don’t assume they will become artists and we don’t know which ones will, we give all of them an appreciation for what’s possible.

      Entreprenuers are closer to artists than any other profession. We need to teach entrepreneurial appreciation at the earliest possible age.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It doesn’t hurt to be an expert in some of these areas though.

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  6. Your posts always provoke my thinking, and I appreciate that!

    If there is a negative correlation between grades and entrepreneurial success, then why have you not changed your grading rubric to what you sense to be the better reflection of entrepreneurial skills? Wouldn’t the negative correlation suggest a change may be warranted? At least perhaps experimentation with new methods to better guide a student to develop the kinds of skills that are better predictors of success?

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  7. The best scientists and entrepreneurs are young children from the beginning of their existence, for whom experiments are the basis for getting to know the world. They are not afraid of experiments and failures (which is the verification of what does not work).
    If children behaved like adults, they would never learn to speak and walk.
    Features describing a good scientist as per The art of scientific research by W.I.B. Beveridge is a description of entrepreneurial activities
    “..In many respects the research worker resembles the pioneer.
    He explores the frontiers of knowledge and requires many of
    the same attributes : enterprise and initiative, readiness to face
    difficulties and overcome them with his own resourcefulness and
    ingenuity, perseverance, a spirit of adventure, a certain dissatisfaction
    with well-known territory and prevailing ideas, and an
    eagerness to try his own judgment.
    Probably the two most essential attributes for the research
    worker are a love of science and an insatiable curiosity…”.
    I think that the three basic pillars of educational programs at every level are: art, ethics, and economics and based on that, a practice of ‘The art of scientific research’ as an entrepreneur.

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  8. From my understanding, Innovator may not be entrepreneur. Innovator invent something but not guarantee market accept. But entrepreneur sell something (may not be unique) that market accept.

    I believe entrepreneur can be taught.

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    • I like the definition of innovation as a two side action: 1) creativity 2) adoption.(prof. Benoit Godin – INRS – Canada) If you do not make a market adopt your invention you are not an innovator, you are just an inventor. In this way, I think that today’s innovators are entrepreneurs. The viceversa it’s not true, cause you can be an entrepreuner without inventing anything.

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  9. Thank you for this article!

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  10. This reminds me of the “E Myth,” as in, the entrepreneur myth. Just because you’re good at something (painting, graphics, songwriting, physics, software engineering, welding, writing, walking dogs, zebra taming…), doesn’t mean you can automatically make a successful business of it.

    In the beginning, you work IN your business. But if you’re successful, soon you work ON your business. The difference is you become the one expanding and building the systems that allow people to work in your business.

    But that’s hard when you started the business to branch out on your own and do what you love to do best (tame zebras). This is why so many small businesses fail. They cling to the work they love and neglect the systems necessary to keep that work going.

    All this to further resonate the point, the entrepreneurial skillset builds systems to allow innovators to do what they do best.

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  11. Steve, as a young entrepreneur this really resonated with me! Thanks for posting:)

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  12. I love the distinctions between the entrepreneur and creativity. It’s not that the two have to be mutually exclusive but an entrepreneur has that uncanny ability to execute that makes them such a rare commodity. In a weird way I kind of feel they are similar to movie producers, they take the creative work done by the film team and mould it into a sellable product.

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