From attitude to action: six steps to success for the introvert entrepreneur
While much media attention understandably focusses on extroverted entrepreneurs, creative introverts also have their own natural gifts that can be harnessed for entrepreneurial ventures.
Frameworks and steps to tackle such issues are explained by Beth Buelow in The Introvert Entrepreneur: Amplify Your Strengths and Create Success on Your Own Terms.
Introverts are gifted with curiosity, independence, a love of research, desire to go deep, ability to focus, active listening, calmness under pressure, and self-awareness. But they also face challenges such as an aversion to networking and self-promotion.
Developing a growth mindset and strengths-based approach is key to overcoming such issues, according to Beth. This helps with marketing, leadership skills, and community-building. Many great introvert entrepreneurs such as Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Tony Hsieh have applied their introvert strengths for business success.
Beth Buelow is a certified coach and corporate trainer, and founded ‘The Introvert Entrepreneur’ for personal and professional development services. The nine chapters in her book are spread across 260 pages, packed with references, interviews, checklists. and personal anecdotes.
Here are my six takeaways from this book, summarised in the sections below. See also my reviews of the related books, Quirky, InGenius, People with Purpose, Entrepreneurial Strengths Finder, and Seeing What Others Don’t.
1. Foundations and frameworks
Entrepreneurship generally calls for regular interaction with diverse people, responsiveness, extensive networking, self-promotion, and a sales-driven approach for growth, Beth begins.
But introverts tend to prefer ample ‘alone time’ without interruption, she explains. They find networking to be insincere and full of small talk; they don’t want to come across as bragging; they regard hiring as a lot of work; they find business development to be a drain on energy.
Introverts prefer to think carefully before speaking, and prefer writing to talking. They have a few deep and close friendships, and have different private and public personas, Beth explains.
An effective approach is to frame these attitudes as strengths: capacity to listen, understand, create, and imagine. Introverts are curious, independent, calm, and authentic. “We can be motivated and excited, but fail to execute on our passion,” Beth cautions; she regards herself as an introvert as well.
‘Fake it till you make it’ and pep talk doesn’t work as an approach for introvert entrepreneurs. They need to master how they gain or drain energy, process information, and relate to the world, Beth emphasises. They find themselves overloaded after some time in noisy or chatty environments, and so need time alone to recharge their batteries.
In contrast, extroverts gain energy from people interactions and group discussions, and think by speaking. They may change their mind quickly, while introverts wait until they have a fully-formed idea before speaking. Many ‘ambivert’ people actually have a combination of introvert-extrovert personalities and phases; some introvert traits may also increase with age and maturity.
Beth sums up the four key introvert traits or superpowers: self-reliant, self-reflective, self-effacing, and self-possessed. Introverts watch and wait, and act when the time feels right.
2. From attitude to action
To be successful entrepreneurs, Beth advises introverts to understand that some amount of networking, collaboration and self-promotion is necessary. This calls for energy management, role management, and activity planning.
“Having natural talent is great, but when you pair it with lots of practice and continuous skill improvement, you’re unstoppable,” Beth enthuses.
Laurie Helgoe, author of Introvert Power, explains that introverts are good at being “passionate observers”. Calm, serene, and tranquil states are as important as high-energy states; some of these are valued more in collective cultures, as seen in Asia.
While being fearless may be highly touted in entrepreneurial journeys, introverts need to acknowledge their vulnerabilities, uncertainties, and doubts. Such issues are also addressed by Susan Jeffers, author of Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway.
Beth explains that fear is a form of protection, but a greater love and sense of purpose can propel forward the introvert entrepreneur. This can help overcome a sense of rejection during sales calls, a feeling of being a failure, and a lack of momentum in some phases.
“Talking through the fears can highlight that the line between fear and excitement is very thin,” Beth explains. She advises making a FUD list (fear, uncertainty, doubt), questioning assumptions, having faith in action, and moving forward in the journey. Having a safety circle of “kindred spirits” also helps – they can be regarded as cheerleaders, reality checkers, and sounding boards.
“It’s bigger than you. Once we fully realised that the business we were creating was bigger than us, the fear dissipated,” recalls Betsy Talbot, founder and author of Married with Luggage.
Becoming an entrepreneur is an act of initiative, and a form of vulnerability. The introvert founder has to take on the attitude that what they have to offer is worth paying for. Risking what one is attached to opens up new opportunities, Beth affirms.
In the entrepreneurial journey, risk is a close cousin of failure. “It may be beneficial to reframe risk as research,” Beth explains. It is a form of information gathering and experimentation. “If we don’t take risks, we’ll stagnate,” she cautions.
“The essential point for introvert entrepreneurs is that making mistakes and being willing to step into the unknown is not only OK, but it’s also essential,” she urges. A certain level of discomfort will arise in early stages, but overcoming it is liberating.
An outstanding chapter provides networking tips for entrepreneurs, which will be useful for introverts as well as extroverts. Some networking events are unstructured, full of strangers, and may be full of small talk – but it is important to show up, widen one’s circle of business contacts, and test ideas.
Introverts can network effectively by planning in advance what to say and how, and preparing for different scenarios in a conversation. Demonstrating curiosity, active listening, and observation are important.
The focus should be on quality not the quantity of discussions and connects, and on strategic events rather than generic ones. Beth advises setting aside some time for relaxation before, during and after the event, in order to recharge. This especially applies to high-profile events like conferences; it is OK to skip some sessions and activities in order to retain one’s energy levels.
Developing a sense of objectivity and industry perspective helps introverts step outside themselves and assert the value of their offerings, Beth advises. She cites management guru Tom Peters in this regard: “Be distinct, or be extinct”.
Introvert entrepreneurs should frame sales as business development, and not a sleazy or unnecessarily pushy activity. They should practice patience and not rush the sales pitch – and then understand why it is that some prospects may say ‘no’. They should have faith in the activity and sustain the momentum – this will reveal new lessons and excitement about themselves.
Failures may create confusion, cautions Julie Fleming, author of The Reluctant Rainmaker. It should not lead to a crisis of confidence, but a refinement of the product or pitch.
Beth explains the four phases in the funnel of customer engagement: casual, connected, committed, and convinced. Transaction levels and depth of relationships increase along the journey.
Dan Pink, author of Drive, explains that motivation comes from autonomy, mastery and purpose, and not necessarily reward-and-punishment. Beth defines success in terms of freedoms (freedom from worry and boredom, and freedom to create and receive).
Unless introvert entrepreneurs take the plunge into sales, their initiative may become just a hobby and not a business, Beth cautions. “That’s the great benefit of entrepreneurship. You get paid to do what you love to do,” she emphasises.
Getting money from customers is a way of acknowledging their gratitude for your work, as explained by introvert entrepreneur Tshombe Brown. It is a mutual exchange of value.
Introverts can improve their sales performance by listening well and coming up with insights that really deliver value to the customer. Being able to connect the dots in a way that no others can certainly helps, according to John Doerr, author of Insight Selling.
5. Communities: social media and public speaking
Technology can be used as an accelerator of momentum, according to Jim Collins, author of Good to Great. Social media enable entrepreneurs to be viewed as influencers and experts. “The rise of social media dictates that we be consistent, transparent, and available,” Beth explains.
However, social media should be leveraged carefully, otherwise, it can become a drain on precious resources and a distraction from the real goals. It should not remove the opportunities for in-person contact either.
“You have to decide how much of yourself to share as part of your social media strategy,” Beth advises. Some introverts may become more expressive online, as bloggers for example. Expression is about voice, and not just words, and principles of consistency, conversation, and storytelling should be followed.
Introverts can actually be good public speakers as well, through preparation and effective reading of the audience. It is a real-time affirmation of their passion. Signing up with coaches and Toastmaster events for stretching one’s performance helps, according to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
Improv events can also help in this context, given the fact that it builds momentum with the ‘Yes and’ principle and is less judgmental. Beth points out that Dave Letterman, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, and Johnny Carson were all extemporaneous introverts.
6. Collaboration and growth
Introvert entrepreneurs will need to collaborate when it is time to go to new markets, tap new skillsets, or expand the business. Coaches, consultants, advisors, and partners will need to be roped in.
Collaboration will be successful if it builds on complementary skills and energy, and a foundation of trust. Assumptions, roles, expectations, and definitions of success should be clearly spelt out in advance. It is important to be willing to talk about tough issues and even conflicts, Beth advises.
A termination strategy should be defined in case things may not turn out well. Starting small helps in the long journey ahead. Open, frequent communication between partners is important. After all, partners are not mind-readers, according to Mary Anne Radmacher, author of Courage Doesn’t Always Roar.
As the business continues to grow, the journey should be seen as toward something newer and bigger and not away from something else, Beth advises. Introverts’ leadership characteristics include thoughtfulness, calming energy, and subtle charisma.
As the entrepreneurial organisation grows, it is important for the introvert founder to articulate the vision and values. These can include gratitude, contribution, curiosity, and truth. They should be manifested in the products, processes, and people.
People hired should be compatible (not identical) to the founder, in terms of personality and energy. Descriptions of future states should be co-created; it should not be assumed that they will eventually be figured out somehow.
Through the ebbs and flows of the journey, the focus should continue to be on the why of the business, and not just what and how. This is important during times of course correction, Beth emphasises; it is important to be like a sponge rather than a cinder block.
In sum, the author urges introvert entrepreneurs to expand their comfort zone, not just step out of it. “Make friends with the unknown,” she urges. If they sustain their energy, time and health, they will succeed in the long run.
(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)