Survival Guide: Perspectives from the field

Robert Fuller, director of entrepreneurial programs

Robert Fuller

Beyster Institute

In this annual small-business issue, Washington Technology talked with many people who founded their own companies and made their own fortunes. Interestingly enough, the Beyster Institute has devoted itself to advancing entrepreneurship and employee ownership to build stronger and better-performing enterprises. One leading the charge is Robert Fuller, who has more than 17 years of experience developing entrepreneurial curricula. Among his many accomplishments, Fuller helped implement the Minority Small Business and Capital Ownership Development program for Science Applications International Corp. He recently spoke with Managing Editor Evamarie Socha about entrepreneurship.

WT: What makes an entrepreneur?

Fuller: A lot of work was done to identify behaviors or traits of entrepreneurs that might be different than nonentrepreneurs. The characteristics that show up in successful entrepreneurs are no different that those that show up in the general population, except that some are more developed than others.

Successful entrepreneurs tend to be high energy. They show initiative. Sometimes this is called desire or even aggressiveness. They tend to have low support needs. The most common definition of this is they're self-starters. They thrive on ambiguity. They exhibit perseverance. They're persuasive, they have highly developed senses of problem solving, and they show an acute sense of market awareness.

WT: Can you teach someone to be an entrepreneur?

Fuller: We're not making entrepreneurs, we're helping people who want to be entrepreneurs improve those skills and get the knowledge that will help them be successful. ... All of us have these traits to some degree or another. Just because I don't thrive on ambiguity doesn't mean I won't be a successful entrepreneur. It just means that I need to come up with strategies to deal with that issue. ... We can't make someone a high-energy person, but we can identify the need for people to exhibit that energy or desire.

WT: What are common mistakes of entrepreneurs?

Fuller: Some of the most common mistakes tend to be driven by their nature. Entrepreneurs, in general, tend to be very positive. Sometimes that causes them to make poor judgments. They view everything from a best-case scenario rather than from a most-realistic scenario. Another mistake is losing focus ... If you don't understand who your customers are, you don't know what benefit you provide them, you tend to do things that aren't best for your business.

WT: You hear about entrepreneurs who say they maxed out their credit cards to get their businesses going. How many people do that, and is it a good idea?

Fuller: (laughs) I guess that depends on how tolerant you are for risk. It is an option, especially in a startup. We hear a lot of cases of entrepreneurs that were able to start their businesses this way.

Obviously, like any use of debt, that money has to be repaid in a timely manner. One of the issues with using your credit cards this way is cash flow. You've got regular payments that you've committed to make. It's not common, but it is a viable tool for entrepreneurs who are highly motivated and looking for a short-term approach to financing, usually for something specific.

WT: Should an entrepreneurs find a mentor?

Fuller: If an entrepreneur can find a mentor, I think they have an extremely valuable asset. You want to find someone who is successful, that you trust and that you really feel comfortable with. For a mentorship to be valuable, the entrepreneur must be willing to bare their soul to be able to get real, valuable guidance. So there is a high level of trust there. And it works both ways; for the mentor to give their secret of success or the value of their wisdom, they have to trust that the [protégé] will treat it with confidentiality.

WT: What, if anything, is different for entrepreneurs in the government market?

Fuller: Probably the biggest factor in that market is to understand who your customers are. Depending on the kind of product or service you're selling, those customers may be quite different. If you are selling on the GSA schedule, the people going to that are looking for a different product or service than, let's say, a government agency that issues a request for proposal. You need to understand who the customer is in that case, and that the customer may be different than the user. While not necessarily different than being as supplier to a large corporation, the rules are very strict.

The good news is there are number of sources of information for entrepreneurs who want to do business with the government. There are programs run through several government agencies that teach courses in doing business with the federal government.

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