By Neil King
Business sometimes appears to be dominated by extrovert go-getters. But is there a place for introvert entrepreneurs?
The entrepreneurs we all know and – sometimes – love all seem to have one thing in common. They are out there. They are visible. They are the stars of the show, and they know it. And what’s more, they want you to know it.
Bold businessmen such as Larry Ellison and Donald Trump have the ability to stand up in front of people, be the face of their brand, give an inspirational talk and thrive as a public personality.
Character traits such as sociability, self-confidence and the ability to motivate are all important and beneficial – especially when starting a business from scratch. But does entrepreneurship and the culture of start-ups limit its participants to one personality type? There’s evident to support both sides of the argument.
Take a look at any number of articles online, containing comments by industry experts or papers by prominent university professors, and you’ll find them telling you that confidence, an outgoing nature, and the ability to market yourself are must-have traits if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur.
In 1997, Tom Byers and Heleen Kist of Stanford University, along with Robert Sutton of the University of California, Berkeley, penned a key chapter for a book called The Handbook of Technology Management.
Entitled ‘Characteristics of the Entrepreneur: Social Creatures, Not Solo Heroes’, their chapter investigated traditional views on the characteristics of entrepreneurs and the notion that entrepreneurship was a social activity, and the key characteristics of entrepreneurs as social creatures. They concluded that successful entrepreneurs needed to be able to build strong relationships with a variety of people inside and outside the firm, suggesting that a high level of sociability, and therefore extroversion was necessary.
During the following 16 years, this conclusion as to the importance of an outgoing nature has been reasserted time and again, placing relationships, leadership, social energy, risk taking, self promotion and marketing high up on countless entrepreneur character profile lists.
In his article ‘25 Common Characteristics of Successful Entrepreneurs’, James Stephenson writes that an entrepreneur’s skills set “will be for naught if you do not actively ask people to buy what you are selling”, adding that you need to become a shameless self-promoter and that you need to get to know your customers.
In the whitepaper ‘12 Essential Characteristics of an Entrepreneur’ by business coaching company, ActionCOACH, the authors highlight the need to be gregarious, stating that “because business is all about people, entrepreneurs tend to be socially outgoing,” and that they “get excited about sharing ideas, products and services, and that excitement is contagious to their employees, clients, friends and other contacts.”
It’s hard to argue against the notion that being an extrovert can boost your chances in the world of start-ups. The proof is there everywhere you go.
But there is a growing movement which not only asserts that being an introvert should not be a barrier to success, but claims that it can actually bring benefits to your business and your entrepreneurial aspirations.
Dictionary definitions of the noun ‘introvert’ are all too often limited and misleading, ranging from ‘a person characterised by concerns primarily with his or her own thoughts and feelings’, to the overly simplistic ‘a shy person’.
Website startout.org attempts to paint a deeper picture of what makes up an introvert, listing traits including: Deep thinkers; listen more; think before speaking or acting; get more energy from downtime; more inclined to make deep conversation; reflective and appear calmer.
These attributes stand quite against the fact that introversion came close to being labelled by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder as a contributing factor in diagnosing certain personality disorders in the USA. A fact which highlights the negative connotations the word ‘introvert’ can bring with it.
These negative connotations can spill over into the business world, but risk masking the benefits introverts can bring.
Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet, says that “introverts have a preference for a quiet, more minimally stimulating environment,” and adds that while business culture normally favours those who speak loud and act fast, the power of introverts can be undervalued. The ability to think through problems and consider decisions more carefully than extroverts is one example.
The strengths of introverts are many, and can be directly linked to start-up companies. Leadership expert Lisa Petrilli emphasised these attributes in an interview with Josh Zywien of Open View Labs, but added the idea that to become a great entrepreneur, introverts have to do things that don’t come natural to them.
“I think introverts excel at creating and setting a vision for their company or product,” she said. “Many people assume that the majority of CEOs – because they are the figureheads of their companies – are extroverts. In my experience, that has not been the case.
“Introverts – like a lot of entrepreneurs – tend to be creatively minded people who work well in innovative environments that allow them to dream up fantastic products and features. Early on, those people are great leaders because they’re comfortable communicating that vision to their small teams.
“Ultimately, leaders at companies of all sizes need to spend time every day getting out of their comfort zone if they want to be successful. I’m not suggesting that introverts have to become extroverts, but it’s important to get out of your office, motivate your team, and talk to the world about your company.”
However, being an introvert, and knowing how to use the character traits that brings do not always go hand in hand. Being an introvert doesn’t make you naturally disposed to starting a business, and even if you have the desire and drive to found one, you still might not know how to turn your natural attributes to your advantage.
Writing for entrepreneur.com, Logan Kugler listed four ways introverts can succeed in a typically extrovert environment. His first point was to have faith, quoting entrepreneur Trevor Shaw as saying “confidence in yourself and your company can be your most powerful asset.”
The second suggestion is to use the buddy system, claiming that networking with a ‘wingman’ can both boost your confidence in social situations, as well as giving people you meet a choice of personalities to talk with.
Third on the list is ‘level the playing field’, by which he gives the example of meeting people at networking events and asking contacts for a follow-up chat in a one-on-one setting, and finally he suggests treating your introversion as an asset. By this he extols the introvert trait of relying on yourself – gaining strength from your own abilities than other people’s contribution.
In an interview with Meredith Fineman on the Harvard Business Review website, Cain reiterates the benefits that teaming up with an extrovert, saying it offers a yin and yang effect, and adds that the quality of contacts introverts can cultivate rather than the size of the contacts book that extroverts tend to possess can work in their favour.
While entrepreneurship and start-up communities might be dominated by extroverts, there are some stand-out success stories which fly the flag for introverts.
Mark Zuckerberg may have adorned magazine covers across the globe, and become a familiar figure in the entrepreneurial community, but he is also a famous introvert. A blog on vault.com suggested that his quieter, more thoughtful personality has “attracted proactive, confident workers” and that this has been a contributing factor to Facebook’s success.
Some of the world’s richest people have built their empires on the back of their introversion, including the hugely wealthy Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Working in different spheres, the skills they have had to use may not have always been the same, but both have been praised for their focus, depth of research, cautious approaches, and leadership by example.
Another introvert, Google CEO Larry Page, lets his company take centre stage while he quietly dreams up ways of moving it forward. It has proved the perfect set-up for this massively successful brand and its leader.
Their approaches may not be the same, but the characters and personalities of these four men have allowed them to not only succeed but flourish. They are prime examples of how introverts can make a mark on the business world.
Perhaps the most important thing all of them did was believed in themselves. They weren’t overawed by bigger, bolder personalities, or sidelined by others who were better in the spotlight. And therein is one of the most telling and positive parts of being an introvert: Quiet confidence.
Business is a vast ocean and can accommodate a great many different types of people. It will often require you to do things you’re not used to, or perhaps even scared of, whether you are outgoing, solitary, or somewhere in between.
What’s important is that you don’t shy away from yourself – that you embrace your personality and your characteristics.
If you play to your strengths, then you can do great things. And if you feel like you’re missing an important facet, well, there are probably plenty of people willing to work with you.
Introverts have been proven to have an important place in business, and they will continue – quietly, confidently, and with great focus – to do so.
First of all, thank you. This is one of the most helpful articles I've read on career building.
Like you said at the start of this article, most people believe you need to be an extrovert to be successful. Every blog I've read before coming here basically told me that I need to be a completely different person to get anywhere with my career. I was beginning to lose hope, and fear that I would need to always be outside my comfort zone.
I like the idea of finding a wingman to take care of the social side of things. Allowing me more time to focus on what I love, and giving me a chance to unwind after the times that I need to leave my comfort zone.