Six traits of successful innovators and how you know if you have them

During our Virgin Disruptors debate in Silicon Valley, Leila Janah explained how she believed we were all programmed to innovate. But what are the qualities which enable us to do so and is it really true that we all possess them?

There are successful entrepreneurs, and there are influential innovators; business folk who don’t just come up with great ideas, they rock the foundations of industry convention with them. 

"Innovation is humanity’s highest calling, everyone is programmed to do it. Challenge yourself to focus on a real problem... don't just focus on the 1%." 

What are the qualities and traits that set true innovators apart? If you are a rule breaking, resilient, flexible, fearless, tenacious and visionary entrepreneur, chances are you’re also a successful innovator.

1. Resilience. Nobody enters the start-up scene because they think it's easy; they do it for the challenge. Adversity is the lifeblood of an entrepreneur, and resilience is all part of pushing for the dream, not reaching and then giving up half way. Failure does happen, even to the most successful entrepreneurs, but true innovators can always come back from it. Resilience to failure means understanding that it isn’t personal.

“Richard Branson is a good example of this and he is known for his successes, but he has also had experienced failures,” says Erin Walls, of tech start up advisor Ward Williams Creative. “Being an entrepreneur generally means you will have lots of business ideas, so if you keep trying them out, at some point you will get it right.” 

2. Rule breaking. "Life is short; break the rules,” is one of Richard Branson’s favourite quotes, not his own, but one of Mark Twain’s and it encapsulates perfectly the way that he has approached all of his own disruptive business ventures.

So. . . break the rules when you have a better idea, or if something has gone wrong; but not just because you think you should. Disruptive rule breaking needs a clear purpose, or it can delay and distort real, positive change and industry evolution, says entrepreneur Paul Campbell, founder of Amazing Media Group. 

“Take the music industry for example,” he says. “Everyone knows things have gone terribly wrong with it, and that those who create the music see too little benefit from their talent. So we decided to reinvent the rules and challenge the way ‘it’s always been done’. Breaking rules for the right reasons and with integrity - because you truly believe the alternative is better – is what works.”

Sometimes it's not about breaking rules, it's just that interpreting them differently to the status quo. Others might try and tell you are breaking too many rules or even try and stop it all together. All this says is that they are scared of your idea, so just keep trying harder, says Jonathan Kettle, who broke plenty of rules founding taxi-booking app Taxicode.

3. Flexibility. The capacity to bend but never break is a vital skill that underpins real innovation. All too often entrepreneurs become so fixated on one idea, seeing it as game changing and revolutionary, they become rigid.

Ideas are important, but certainly not the most important thing, says Cameron Chell, CEO and co-founder of Business Instincts Group, which works with entrepreneurial companies. “Build a good team around you and they can pivot and roll with the punches better than any idea ever can,” he says. 

4. Managing fear. Fear is an ever-present part of entrepreneurial life, for some it is the driving force of running a start-up, but those nerve-jangling thoughts are there, seemingly every waking minute; ‘What if this doesn’t work?’ ‘What will I do if I fail?’ ‘Am I taking too big a risk?’ Everyone in business has them; it’s how they manage their fears and disguise them from the watching world that really counts. 

5. Vision. An innovator who is prepared to pursue their dream against high odds is someone with a very strong unshakeable vision, like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook who famously turned down Yahoo’s offer of £1 billion to buy the company.

New technology is often automatically classed as high-risk investment prospect because there are so many unknowns. And being dubbed high risk, regardless of what the offering is, can stop many investors looking any further, thereby restricting the amount of available business funding. 

The key is being able to communicate that vision clearly to the people whose buy-in you are seeking, potential investors and internal stakeholders, says Tom Higgins, CEO of trading systems integrator Gold-i: “People have failed in business with great innovations because they haven’t communicated their vision to all involved in the organisation to ensure that everyone is working towards the same goal.”

6. Tenacity. "Starting up in business is a roller coaster ride of trials and tribulations, and a test of an entrepreneur's ability to keep plans on track when outside challenges threaten to wrestle it from their grip. Being inspired by others who have made it, was always my vision, maintaining that vision through times of adversity have allowed me to succeed."

"Setting up your own company, taking that leap of faith is one of the most difficult decisions to make, and setting your mind to a positive, ‘can do’ attitude is essential,” says Tony Moss, founder of healthcare recruiter, Your World Healthcare, which he started alone nine years ago and turned into a multi million pound global business. 


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