This is a question I get asked and think about a lot. Apart from being a fascinating and elusive subject, it also forms a central piece of any investment decision I make as an investor.
While it's a difficult thing to define, I believe there are a few common attributes as follows:
Fill the room
A good entrepreneur needs to be able to talk about their business in a clear and compelling way - I call it an ability to 'fill the room.' This will usually be infused with their own personal story and include a powerful vision for the future. They're a storyteller, someone who is able to capture your imagination. You are drawn into the story and instinctively feel that you want to ‘turn the page.’
Subject matter expertise
It's a strong sign when an entrepreneur can demonstrate deep subject matter expertise in one of the key functions of building a business - marketing, sales, product, engineering or finance. The expertise can be based on qualifications but also needs to be combined with proven experience. This demonstrates that they have the intellectual capacity to reach a high level in a specific subject but it also that this area is likely to be a strength that the business can be built around.
You can't spend all your time fishing
Your own skills can only get you so far. An entrepreneur needs to be great with people - to manage, support, empathize and inspire. There are many pieces to this but i think it needs to include building strong and honest relationships, empowerment and communicating a compelling vision for the future and the part that each person will play in it. This is how you get everyone focused and motivated towards the same goal. It's also how you get everyone to individually and collectively achieve more than they ever thought was possible.
The fire inside
When I look into an entrepreneurs eyes I want to see what I call the 'fire burning.' To me that indicates an absolute belief in what they are doing and a granite-like determination to be successful. You get the strong sense that they will not stop until their vision has been realized and their company's name is up in lights. In my experience this fire usually comes from a chip on your shoulder that fuels a very strong desire to prove people wrong. This isn't just manifested in hard work but also in a kind of persistence and fearlessness.
Conviction v coachable
This is something I heard Reid Hoffman talk about a few years ago and it really resonated with me. You need to have real conviction about what it is you are trying to do and why it’s going to be successful. When you are trying to do something new and groundbreaking people will cast doubt on it because they are uncomfortable with change and naturally risk averse. You have to be able to stand up to that and keep the essence of your vision intact. At the same time you don't want to have the kind of ego and stubbornness to believe that you have nothing to learn and your business will not require some 'iterations' along the way. In my experience getting this balance right is an important characteristic in any successful entrepreneur. You want to stay true to your vision and trust your instincts. But the feedback you receive along the way should either be discarded or acted on and there needs to be a degree of flexibility here. There is no such thing as a perfect plan once you put it into practice.
The best is yet to come
You hear about all the wealth and the glory but, for the most part, being an entrepreneur is very very hard. You are trying to build something from scratch and it is high risk with the very real chance of being left with nothing. There are constant doubters and setbacks. Ultimately, you are responsible and there is no-one else to turn to. To be able to deal with this and bounce back you need to have a very optimistic view of the world and an unshakable belief that the best years are ahead of you. Without this I believe you'll carry too much doubt and negativity to successful.
An entrepreneur will almost always have a rebellious, subversive side that drives them to challenge the status quo. They are not afraid to break from the crowd and do things their own way. Conventional or conservative people will rarely come up with truly original ideas. To come up with an original idea, and have the desire to put that idea into practice, you need to see the world differently and that will usually put you outside of the mainstream.
These are what I believe to be some of the most common and important characteristics of a successful entrepreneur. I'm not saying that they will embody all of these things but I think they will have most of them.
Thanks to all the entrepreneurs out there who have the courage to jump into the unknown and not accept the world as it is; who want to do things differently and make their 'dent in the universe.'