Six entrepreneurial mindsets and what leaders can learn from them

Predictions of socioeconomic gloom and doom may abound, but a growing band of entrepreneurs have the mindset, skill and drive to improve everyone’s lives, both this year and far beyond
Entrepreneur's Mindset
Man in suit walking into the light

At the peak of the hippie era in 1969, US pop duo Zager and Evans became one-hit wonders with their chart-topping single In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus). The string-laden psychedelic protest song was a diatribe against the march of technology. It predicted a future in which humanity would be brought down by its own innovations, featuring lines such as “everything you think, do and say is in the pill you took today”.

As we look hopefully for an end to the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis and rampant inflation in 2023, it’s evident that both society and business have changed considerably in recent times. The year 2525 may be a long way off, but the 21st century has truly come of age. 

Take entrepreneurship, for instance. This has transformed since the turn of the millennium. It was a dirty word in the UK when I moved here from the US in 2000 – few parents then found pleasure in the idea that a child of theirs would become an entrepreneur. But no more: entrepreneurship has since shown its potential as a force for good, creating many more opportunities for many more people and making the world a better place.

Changing the world, one entrepreneur at a time

Consider Elon Musk, who has almost single-handedly made electric vehicles relevant. Or Sunil Mittal of Bharti Enterprises, who worked out how to bring mobile telecommunications to rural India profitably – improving millions of lives in the process. Or Eric Favre, the engineer whose mission to deliver barista-quality coffee to consumers at home created Nespresso, one of Nestlé’s most remarkable growth engines. He achieved this while working inside a large company, no less.

From my two decades of research into what makes entrepreneurs entrepreneurs, and how they differ from the rest of us, I’ve learnt that many of the most successful exponents possess one or more of six mindsets that enable them to challenge assumptions, overcome barriers and mitigate risk as they seize the commercial opportunities before them. 

A mindset has been defined as the mix of beliefs and thoughts that comprise a person’s attitudes, preferences and habits, which in turn determine how they interpret a given situation and respond to it. In simple terms, successful entrepreneurs’ interpretations and responses differ from those of their more conventionally minded peers in business. 

Entrepreneurs’ mindsets often cause them to reject the conventional wisdom that large, well-established companies tend to accept without question. Entrepreneurs often fly in the face of what’s taught in business schools about matters such as corporate strategy, finance and marketing. 

The six rule-breaking entrepreneurial mindsets

Saying “yes, we can”. When asked by a prospective customer whether they can do something promising that’s entirely unfamiliar to them, entrepreneurs say “yes” first and work out how later.

Applying problem-first, not product-first, logic. Entrepreneurs know that their businesses will thrive if they solve their customers’ genuine problems.

Asking for cash; riding the float. By getting customers to pay them in advance and paying their suppliers later, entrepreneurs put that spare cash into growing their businesses. Musk is a notable exponent of this approach.

Thinking narrowly, not broadly. Once they have successfully established themselves in a small market, entrepreneurs know that they can learn from that experience and expand their businesses. Favre has done this.

Begging and borrowing (but not stealing). Borrowing the resources necessary to start something new beats investing in those resources hands-down. This has been Mittal’s preferred approach.

Seeking forgiveness later, not permission beforehand. When the regulatory landscape is uncertain, entrepreneurs simply plough ahead.

Knowing what these mindsets are and doing things differently in consonance with them are separate things, of course, but it is possible for you and your team to adopt them.

Get ready for the future 

I don’t share the dystopian view of the future that Zager and Evans presented. We humans are too ingenious to lose our souls to science. And I don’t believe we’ll get to a point, even in 502 years, where AI-based tech will be running all our affairs for us.

What is more than likely is that many of us, perhaps most people in the world, will be running our own small enterprises. Those that grow fast and become bigger companies will create nearly all new jobs on the planet. By virtue of Moore’s law and further advances in digital technology, we’ll be running businesses with a global reach – virtual experts, able to do business anywhere. Imagine a world full of people exercising their creativity and providing value to each other.

Looking at the world in 2023 and beyond, I can see a bright future for us on the horizon. Our shift towards entrepreneurship and our sheer adaptability are positively inspirational.

John Mullins is associate professor of management practice in marketing and entrepreneurship at London Business School. He is also the author of Break the Rules! The six counter-conventional mindsets of entrepreneurs that can help anyone change the world.