What does it take to become a successful entrepreneur?

In Season 3, we interviewed Jeff Kaplan, the Director of Venture Asheville. One of the major themes of this episode was entrepreneurship, specifically what it takes to succeed as a business founder. Every year, Kaplan leads a handful of start-up founders through Venture Asheville’s mentorship and fundraising programs.  He’s observed dozens of entrepreneurs go through this program and has seen first-hand what it takes to succeed.

During the episode, we were curious to know if there were any trends he noticed in successful founders that have gone through the Venture Asheville Program. Turns out it’s not all luck! Kaplan says that while there are many facets of good entrepreneurs, he feels that there are really four main entrepreneurial competencies of successful founders.

The Four Competencies of Successful Entrepreneurs

Opportunity Recognition

Kaplan says this has less to do with the actual widget or product you’re making and more to do with seeing the opportunity to fill a need in the market. Successful business owners are able to quickly identify those opportunities and understand how their business fits in.


Grit. Persistency. “You gotta have thick skin,” says Kaplan. For him, entrepreneurs have to have a whole lot of grit and “be prepared to hear ‘no’ a lot.”

Ability to Inspire

Can you convey a compelling message and inspire others? Can you convince someone to quit their corporate job to come work for you for maybe no or less money? Jeff says he thinks Dan Radin, founder of the Asheville-based AuxBus (an easy to use podcasting tool)  is the perfect example of an entrepreneur that’s able to convey a compelling vision. “He built such an incredible team… because he knew how to inspire people to podcast through this incredible software.”

Creative Problem-Solving

As a founder, you’re going to have to learn to do things and ask questions that you never thought you needed to know or ask,” says Kaplans. He says there are a lot of “unknown unknowns” out there that you have to be able to figure out in order to run a business. “You’re always going to be resource-strapped, low on cash, and low on time,” says Kaplan. “If you can’t solve problems creatively, I don’t think you’ll make it as a founder.”

Can you learn to be a successful entrepreneur?

That was our second question during our interview with Kaplan. We wanted to know whether or not someone can learn these entrepreneurial competencies or if they’re just born with them. It’s the classic nature vs. nurture dilemma, but Kaplan tends to think that we can indeed learn how to be a good entrepreneur.

He shared with us a story from his graduate research program. Kaplan studied entrepreneurship at the University of Florida. His thesis was all about developing entrepreneurial competencies in undergrad students.

In order to test how students develop these competencies, he ran a study where half the students participated in a lecture-only learning style, while the other half attended lectures and went through real-world entrepreneurial experiences. At the end of the study, he surveyed both groups on their fit for entrepreneurship. Those that had gone through the lecture-only learning scored far lower on their entrepreneurial skills than those who had both the lectures and hands-on practice.

As a result, Kaplan and his team concluded that entrepreneurship is indeed a learnable skill, but it’s the way that we learn it that matters.

We took this to mean that if you’re an entrepreneur, reading books, taking courses, and getting a mentor can all be helpful things. But ultimately, if you don’t put them into practice, you won’t ever hone your entrepreneur superpowers. It’s the combination of learning and doing that’s the secret sauce.

Want to learn more about these entrepreneurial competencies? Check out our podcast interview with Jeff Kaplan.