In 1928, a young man from Modena, Italy, discovered the harmony between man and machine. Enzo Ferrari loved racing. He ate, slept and breathed car racing. After fighting in World War I, and coming home to his family firm demolished, Enzo went back to the one thing he wanted to do: racing cars. Surprisingly, he wasn’t especially good at it.
Still, he focused his attention on what he loved, and after countless hours of practice he got better. In 10 years, Enzo learned a skill that crafted winners out of local amateur drivers. Alfa Romeo, a major car manufacturer, took notice and hired young Enzo Ferrari to build cars and support drivers.
After ten more years, Alfa Romeo finally convinced Enzo to create a car for the consumer, rather than just the race track. Thus, in 1947, any man could posses the thrill, luxury and pure power of the racing circuit in his own garage. A brand empire was born.
There is no doubt that the father of one of the most-recognized luxury car brands had passion and skill. More notably, though, Enzo found a way to create value – for himself, his drivers and eventually car lovers everywhere. The creator of Ferrari autos stumbled onto the essence of commerce – generating value, despite having a relatively narrow set of skills and interest. A craftsman first, he seems an unlikely candidate for the cover of Forbes, at least for this day and age. He seems to be a throwback to the time of artisans, but, upon further examination, his path to business stardom seems very similar to those of modern-day captains of industry.
A successful entrepreneur must have a profitable skill, a way to create value. Despite what we might learn from an MBA course or a Hollywood interpretation of commercial pipe dreams, a firm handshake and an iron will may be useful, but they alone will not get an entrepreneur far without skill.
Becoming a successful entrepreneur is more than just performing a task, however. It is a knack learned by doing, and the doing requires a leap of faith. It takes a special kind of guts and self-assuredness to dive into debt, solicit investments and bet one’s livelihood, years of hard work and possibly one’s financial reputation onto an idea. Or, perhaps not. The difference between the Hollywood image of a star businessman and the real thing is that the audience hardly ever sees the grind, the 10,000 hours of practice or the intermediary steps.
This gradual approach is not very sexy, but it is honest about the stupefying amount of work it takes to start a successful business. It goes without saying that the skills you choose to develop must be important to you. Passion will go a long way in making the learning curve bearable, and the eventual success will be more rewarding because you are exercising a meaningful skill.
The Intermediary Steps
It is likely that you already have several marketable skills. There are probably ways to use these outside of work. Becoming a billionaire CEO is a hard goal to reach, but getting local recognition for your skills is not that difficult, and is a useful step in the right direction. Pick an activity that you like, and find a way to apply whatever skills you have to that pursuit. Discovering your passion is a complex process in itself, so the results might be clumsy at first, especially if your job and your passion are not closely related.
A simple approach that comes to mind is starting at the first thing you find enjoyable, and trying to tease out what specific aspects make you feel good about the work. This is how you can get closer to knowing what you could stand doing constantly. If you can take one function of your job and do it obsessively, and still feel good at the end of the day, you have a good start at understanding what your passion may be.
Once here, you can start getting better at the skill that makes you happy. This will be the foundation of your success. If you can create a business doing something that makes you happy, work will become a reward in itself.
You have some grasp on what you want and like, great. Since you are trying to get the 10,000 hours of practice in, why not do something good with it? Maybe your local church needs accounting help, a new website or someone to write its newsletter. Whatever your job is, there is probably a way to usefully apply it to the improvement of your community. Sure, you’ll be working for free, but being a nice guy with a skill is sometimes enough to find paying clients.
This step is an easier, smoother transition into the learning curve. It’s hard to find the time and dedication to sit in your living room (or your parents’ garage) and practice a skill for hours on end. Getting out and seeing that your skills can actually help those around you is a reward that makes the practice go quicker, and reminds you of why you are trying to improve yourself in the first place.
Moonlighting, freelancing, independent contracting
At a certain point, you will be well known enough to get paying clients. Little-by-little you can build your network, gain professional recognition and have the opportunity to work with a diverse group of clients. Suddenly, you are not just trying to please your boss. Instead, you are thinking on the level of pleasing clients, and you discover how to apply your craft in a marketable way. This is good. You are learning how to be an entrepreneur – and you are doing so for only the cost of your free time.
Eventually you will have to make a receipt. Eventually you will have to report your extra income to the IRS, and maybe get a professional license. Each new challenge will teach you something about another aspect of running a business. In essence, you are already running one – a one-man show with you at the center. The more income you gain from your hobby, the more secure you will be in your ability to do what you like commercially. The more satisfied clients you have, the more new clients you will find. Most importantly, every step will get you a bit closer to that goal of creating something with your passion.
Knowing your limits
On your slow and painful march to the top, however, is a need for a skill that is absolutely crucial for any professional, let alone a successful entrepreneur. Business is a team sport, and eventually you will find some activity at which you are just terrible. This is also good. It is impossible (or at least very unhealthy to try) to create a commercial venture as a one-man show. The number of skills you will eventually have to acquire will start growing exponentially. If your business is baking cookies, then learning how to make a sleek website, a marketing strategy and a smooth-working supply chain will distract you from the baking. Let’s face it: multitasking is a useless buzzword, and no one does it well. What’s worse, you won’t perform tasks you don’t like with the same care as you would do something you are passionate about. You’re an adult now, it’s okay not to force yourself to do boring chores. Instead, pay someone else to do it.
Only by admitting that you need the help of others will you create real growth opportunities for your new business. All the challenges you encounter require skills – skills you’ve sacrificed for the purpose of being good at something you love. Trying to deal with everything by yourself would be you turning your back on your passion for the purpose of learning something meaningless to you.
There is a reason, for example, that Ferrari didn’t sell cars until 10 years after the company’s founding. Enzo Ferrari hated anything that distracted him from racing. He is famous for despising his customers. Trying to make a man like that deal with commercial cars was difficult enough; making him worry about accounting would have been all but impossible.
Finding people who have the skills you lack will add health and vitality to your enterprise. What’s more, you will now be giving a chance to another moonlighter or contractor to get better at what he or she does. You now create opportunities for others, and this is capitalism as it should be, a beautiful and useful thing.