What’s the difference between successful and struggling entrepreneurs

Through my work at Media-Wize I talk with and work with a huge number of entrepreneurs. Some have seen success while others struggle to get traction. What’s the difference? 


But that’s just not about time. Successful entrepreneurs get their experience in different ways. They choose and work with great co-founders. They hire the right staff at the right time. They commit to learning by reading. People forget that a great book by an expert is effectively a download of years of experience in hours.

Success is about more than seeing a way to do something smarter, better, cheaper or faster. Founders that have ‘made it’ have the confidence to back their ideas and take on the risk. And they can articulate a vision. But the ability to listen and respect the experience of others is perhaps the single biggest difference between successful and struggling entrepreneurs.

For example, I spoke with a prospective client over the last few months. They’ve got a great product idea, have done the work to create a prototype and have manufacturing capability. But the product is unrefined. It’s the brainchild of one person who likes to ask lots of questions but won’t consider that answers they don’t like may be valuable insights they haven’t had.

In the meantime, established brands that may have looked like dinosaurs have adapted and are now likely to squash that entrepreneur out of existence. 

At one level, the problem with this founder is clear; they aren’t listening to potentially valuable advice. But what they’re really doing is discounting experience.

Back when I was in high school, one of my science teachers said that there’s no way for us to start at first principles and re-learn everything that had been discovered by Faraday, Newton, Einstein and other great scientists. In order for us to progress we had to integrate their experience so we could go further. 

That’s abundantly clear today, as we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s no way a vaccine can be quickly developed if not for the work of molecular biologists, epidemiologists, geneticists, virologists and others over the last 100 years. Today’s scientists take the experience of the past and use it to improve the future. 

That includes the successes, like the eradication of smallpox, which claimed over 300 million lives over 3000 years of human history, and the mistakes such as the use of thalidomide.

In his book, Limitless, Jim Kwik talks about a discussion he once had with Bill Gates. He asked Gates if he could be given a super power, what would it be? Gates answered that he’d want to be able to read faster. A book allows a reader to integrate decades of learning and experience from the author into a few hours.

In talking to successful founders I discovered that they either have experience or they are prepared to take on partners and staff who bring experience to the table. Mark Zuckerburg may have started Facebook while in college. And he is just 36 years old. But look at the recruits he’s brought in around him. Most have extensive experience – something he leverages. 

Another start-up I’ve worked with has three very diverse co-founders; a business expert, a technical expert and design expert. They bring different experiences to the business. It’s no surprise that the company they created together is now moving from strength to strength.

When I started my working life as a school teacher, I was challenged by one of my instructors to not be someone who forged a 20 year career by teaching for one year 20 times. They challenged me to be a teacher who grew and learned over my career. Although I’m no longer a school teacher, I use the experience of the last 25 years and the lessons taught to me by mentors.

I’ve been asked many times what I think the difference is between successful and struggling entrepreneurs. I have no doubt that experience is the key. Whether that’s a founder in their 40s bringing life experience or a younger founder with the wisdom to listen and learn from those that have gone before, experience is crucial.