I did a brief interview with the founder of The Optimists Voices. After reading the interview, you can find the founder,
Victor Perton, on twitter at @OptimistsVoices.

What is your business opportunity?

Asking people “What makes you optimistic?”

How did it start?

I came back to Australia after working across North and South America as a Trade Commissioner and then working as Senior Adviser to the Australian G20 presidency. Everywhere I had travelled and worked, there was a rightful admiration for Australian leadership, innovation, “get up and go” and humour. However, in Australia, I found bleak conversations about Australian leadership. It made no sense to me. I founded The Australian Leadership Project and have asked over 1200 Australians about what makes a good Australian leader. It became clear: there are millions of Australians leading in Australia and globally with the three key Australian leadership traits of (1) “egalitarian leadership”, (2) “self effacing humour”, and (3) “no bullshit plain speaking.” So why the disconnect? My Eureka moment was the Global Integrity Summit 2017 where I keynoted on a panel I had proposed the Board, “The Case for Optimism.” The reaction was incredible. It was clear people wanted stories and messages of hope and optimism. Optimism breeds action while pessimism paralyses.

What is the most important trait of a successful entrepreneur, and can it be developed over time?

Realistic Optimism. Generally, entrepreneurs are natural optimists but it’s important that they generate optimism in their team, their friends, family and beyond. Demonstrating gratitude is hugely important from a thank you to the waiter, the bus driver and the street cleaner to the leaders in their ecosystem.

What is the largest source of stress from operating your venture?

I don’t get stressed in work and business. I look for the joy and happiness. I recently delivered a workshop in prison and was asked by the prisoners to return. On the return, a notorious convicted criminal returned for a second workshop and told the other prisoners to listen to me: he said optimism was crucial to survival in prison but even more important in the outside world to succeed and not to return to prison. To be a recidivist was to be a [expletive] he told them. What joy I got from hearing his interpretation of my work with his fellow inmates.

Has entrepreneurship developed a sense of purpose in your life? If so, can you describe how?

No. My sense of purpose is derived from helping other people to become more optimistic and happier. My entrepreneurial venture was derived from that purpose. My nickname at the G20 was “Captain Happy.”


Is Entrepreneurship For Me?

In my prior post, I asked “What is Entrepreneurship?” Such a large question cannot be answered in one blog post, but I am hoping that the discussion was helpful. Now I want to explore if entrepreneurship is the right thing for your life or not. This is the exact question I posed to my class, and I am thrilled to share our discussion with you!

The combination of my students’ wonderful minds and my ugly writing!

How is Entrepreneurship Different From a Job?

First, I asked the class to write down as many differences as they could between entrepreneurship and a normal job. As you can see in the photo above, they came up with a lot of great examples. What we found interesting is that each difference brings unique advantages and disadvantages. For example, not having a boss does offer a lot of autonomy to pursue your passions more easily. Yet, nobody watches an entrepreneur to remind them to do their job! Thus, being your own boss requires self-discipline to consistently work hard without anyone reminding you to.

Another important difference is that the sources of stress, and options for coping with them, may be different. A job may have stressors related to an unfair, uncaring, and mean boss, which the employee may have little control over changing. Entrepreneurs do not have a boss, but as a result, may deal with the loneliness of having nobody to talk to that will understand their challenges. Thankfully, entrepreneurs have more flexibility in coping: a lonely entrepreneur can dedicate some of their “work” time to building a network of entrepreneurs who can they vent to and seek advice from (see my earlier post for advice on building that network). In short, entrepreneurship is different from a job: these differences are not necessarily good or bad but do need to be understood!

Who is the Ideal Entrepreneur?

Given that entrepreneurship is different from a job, what kind of person does it take to succeed as an entrepreneur? In other words, who is the ideal entrepreneur? Patience, optimism, confidence, the list goes on and on. But, can these be developed? In short, yes. For a longer answer, I would encourage you to watch this very cool entrepreneurial story, but don’t forget to come back here afterwards!

We agreed as a class that the takeaway of this discussion was even if you don’t view yourself as an entrepreneur now (as in, you do not believe you have entrepreneurial characteristics) that does not mean you cannot become an entrepreneur. If you decide to be an entrepreneur, then: (1) many of these characteristics can be developed over time and (2) you have the autonomy to design your environment to emphasize your strengths. In other words, you can become more patient, more optimistic, and more confident, and you can structure your work in a way that facilitates that!

Thus, in closing, no matter who you are and what your background is, you can be an entrepreneur! Please leave a comment below to let me know what you think about this post. If you have a friend who is interested in entrepreneurship, please share this blog on your social media!

The first question to ask yourself if you are interested in entrepreneurship is “What is Entrepreneurship?” I teach an Introduction to Entrepreneurship course and, as indicated in the prior sentence, focus the first day on answering this question. Below I will summarize the activity I employed to try to get my students active, engaged, and thoughtful in trying to answer this difficult question.

First, after I provided large notecards to everyone, I asked the class to independently “draw entrepreneurship.” Afterwards, they took turns explaining what they drew to a partner and why it represented entrepreneurship to them. There was an incredible amount of diversity in the drawings. One young lady seemed to be describing a process of idea generation, adding value, and receiving payment. One gentlemen drew an ominous cave to represent the uncertainty of entrepreneurship. Yet another gentleman used the simplicity of a mere hammer, demonstrating that entrepreneurship takes hard work and the ingenuity to use the same tools for a variety of different situations. Takeaway: entrepreneurship can look like many different things!

Second, I asked my students to write a definition of entrepreneurship. I intentionally dissuaded them from writing the “formal textbook definition”, and instead asked that they use their own definition. Then, each student found a partner. Each pair of partners compared and contrasted definitions, ultimately deriving a new definition that they both agreed on. They repeated this process in groups of 4, and then groups of 8. Finally, each group of 8 wrote their definitions on the board. At this point, we identified several words that existed across all definitions. Some of the most noteworthy ones were: idea, opportunity, process, passion, and resilience.

Each of these words spawned an interesting discussion for the class:

(1) What is the difference between an idea and an opportunity? We concluded that an idea can only become an opportunity through making the idea tangible, but that through tangible action it becomes more clear if the idea really ever was an opportunity at all. Takeaway: If you have an idea, move quickly to figure out its efficacy, and iterate accordingly.

(2) When does “entrepreneurship” start? The initial answers to this were along the lines of “when the business is formed.” However, what did it take to form the business? Well…an idea! What did it take to form the idea? This is where the light bulbs went off in the room. Indeed, we realized that to have an idea and subsequently form a venture, you need the requisite prior experiences to make sense of the environment and see the opportunity. Takeaway: if you want to be an entrepreneur, cultivate unique and interesting experiences that will give you the foresight to see business opportunities in a particular field.

(3) Why do passion and resilience matter? As it turns out, entrepreneurship isn’t all it is made out to be! What they don’t tell you about entrepreneurship is that it can be very stressful. Do not expect to be sitting on a beach drinking margaritas! Many entrepreneurs turn out to be such hard workers that even if they achieve financial success to pursue such leisures, they struggle to do so. Passion for your business and resilience to stressors are a very important part to a holistic strategy to cope with entrepreneurial stress. Takeaway: when looking for business ideas, consider starting with asking yourself “what do I like to do?”

Third, we played a game called “entrepreneurship or not entrepreneurship.” Everyone in the class stood up. I said a phrase, such as “Creating the first desktop computer” and the class responded in one of two ways: (1) if they thought it counted as entrepreneurship, they clapped loudly twice; conversely, if (2) they did not believe it was entrepreneurship, they raised both hands in the air. Admittedly, the whole thing was a bit silly, but I have an 8:00 AM class, so I need to be creative with waking everyone up. Here were the phrases:

(1) Developing Facebook

(2) A self-employed personal trainer

(3) A self-employed photographer

(4) Starting an accounting firm

(5) Starting a small pizza restaurant

(6) Opening a lemonade stand

(7) Selling a pre-existing product online

There was a lot of debate, but ultimately the entire class agreed that each phrase did count as entrepreneurship, despite their differences in degrees of innovativeness. Takeaway: You can be an entrepreneur in many ways; it isn’t always about developing the next big innovation, although it can be!

In closing, instead of me giving you a definition of entrepreneurship, I would like to ask you to give me your own definition! Please leave a comment below: how would you define entrepreneurship?

About 3 and a half years ago, I entered the Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Organizations PhD program at the University of Tennessee (UT). I have been very fortunate to be surrounded by top-tier scholars here at UT who helped me navigate my development as a researcher and teacher. Below, I’ll briefly describe my favorite thing about the academic profession and tie it to actionable advice for new entrepreneurs.

My favorite thing about academia is the mentorship process. It seems hardwired into the community that when someone needs help: help them! I have found evidence of this both at UT and in the much larger academic field of management, which spans the globe. Within the UT department, I have lost count of the number of times that I have walked into a faculty members office with a question, and had them immediately stop what they were doing to give me their full attention. Often times, these faculty members must know that: (1) my question is probably a bit silly and something I could find on my own if I tried hard enough, (2) their choice to help me likely does not influence their pay, and (3) answering my questions is an interruption to the important work they need to accomplish! Nonetheless, every time I walk into their office with a question, I get their full attention, and leave the office with actionable steps to improve on the issue I had.

Within the broader academic community, it is very hard to describe exactly how committed everyone is to helping each other out. Fortunately, I have an exemplary circumstance to make it clear! I am a member of the Academy of Management Entrepreneurship Division. My first time attending the Entrepreneurship Division Social, which is likely termed ‘social’ as a way to encourage more informal discussion, I instead chose to walk around with a tiny notebook and pencil, asking as many people as would listen to me for advice on a data collection I was preparing. So, imagine you are at a social event, and this crazy person is going around asking you to work for their benefit by picking your brain for 15-20 minutes. Would you help them? How many people do you think gave me advice at this meeting? I’ll tell you: 100% of the people I asked for advice, gave me advice. All in all, this amounted to over 15 scholars, all of whom had far more experience than I did, and whose contributions made the study possible.

For an early stage entrepreneur, what is the takeaway here? In short, those who have already been where you want to be are the best ones to ask for advice and guidance, and they are also likely the most willing to give it to you! If you want to learn more about entrepreneurship, or want advice on an idea, get out there and start talking to the entrepreneurial community! Here are some actionable steps to get you started:

  1. Practice your introduction. You need to start with something concise that introduces yourself and gets right to the point. For example, when I introduced myself at the Entrepreneurship Division Social, I always started with the same thing: “Hi, my name is Mike Lerman, and I am a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Tennessee. I study entrepreneurial well-being, and am currently working on a study to understand how entrepreneurs experience stress. Would you be open to giving me some advice on the project?”
  2. Develop a list of questions that you want the answer to. You don’t necessarily need to print it out and carry it with you, but the process of thinking through the questions that you need answers to most will go a long way towards helping you drive the conversation.
  3. Find where the entrepreneurs are! Wherever you are, there are likely entrepreneurs lurking around. Look for: (1) local entrepreneurial support organizations (here at Knoxville we have the Knoxville Entrepreneurship Center; http://knoxec.com/), (2) small businesses, (3) those around you who may know entrepreneurs.
  4. Document while they are talking! Carry a small notebook to write down the important things they are saying. The benefits of this are twofold: (1) it helps you remember what they are saying, and (2) it shows that you care about their advice!
  5. Implement and Iterate! At this point, you have successfully found an early-stage mentor who has given you advice and likely their contact information. Put forth an honest effort to accomplish whatever task they gave you as quickly as possible (without sacrificing quality). Then, touch base them with your results and further advice. In speaking with several academics and entrepreneurs, one of the biggest reasons a mentorship does not develop is because the mentee simply does not follow the advice of the mentor. Of course, this defeats the entire purpose of getting advice to begin with!

In closing, I can speak from experience and say that I would have had no shot making it through the PhD program without excellent mentors. In fact, the willingness of the entire academic community to assist me in various ways has proven to be my favorite part about the profession. If you want to succeed as an entrepreneur (or in any profession), finding a strong mentor and implementing their advice could be a strong influence towards your success!

Does anything about this post stand out to you? What are you thinking after reading this? Please leave a comment below to let me know! Thank you for reading!