Skip to main content

Innovators and entrepreneurs: What’s the difference?

Steve Blank, lecturer, Haas School of Business | April 3, 2018

I just received a thank you note from a student who attended a fireside chat I held at the ranch. Something I said seemed to inspire her:

“I always thought you needed to be innovative, original to be an entrepreneur. Now I have a different perception. Entrepreneurs are the ones that make things happen. (That) takes focus, diligence, discipline, flexibility and perseverance. They can take an innovative idea and make it impactful. … successful entrepreneurs are also ones who take challenges in stride, adapt and adjust plans to accommodate whatever problems do come up.”


Over the last decade I’ve watched hundreds of my engineering students as well as  around 1,500 of the country’s best scientists in the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps cycle through the latest trends in startups: social media, new materials, big data, medical devices, diagnostics, digital health, therapeutics, drones, robotics, bitcoin, machine learning, etc.  Some of these world-class innovators get recruited by large companies like professional athletes, with paychecks to match. Others join startups to strike out on their own. But what I’ve noticed is that it’s rare that the smartest technical innovator is the most successful entrepreneur.

Being a domain expert in a technology field rarely makes you competent in commerce. Building a company takes very different skills than building a neural net in Python or decentralized blockchain apps in Ethereum.

Nothing makes me happier than to see my students getting great grades (and as they can tell you, I make them very work hard for them). But I remind them that customers don’t ask for your transcript. Until we start giving grades for resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition, tenacity and having a passion for products and customers, great grades and successful entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation (and anecdotal evidence suggests that the correlation may actually be negative.)

Most great technology startups – Oracle, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Tesla – were built by a team led by an entrepreneur.

It doesn’t mean that if you have technical skills you can’t build a successful company. It does mean that success in building a company that scales depends on finding product/market fit, enough customers, enough financing, enough great employees, distribution channels, etc. These are entrepreneurial skills you need to rapidly acquire or find a co-founder who already has them.

Lessons learned

  • Entrepreneurship is a calling, not a job.
  • A calling is something you feel you need to follow, it gives you direction and purpose but no guarantee of a paycheck.
  • It’s what allows you to create a missionary zeal to recruit others, get customers to buy into a vision and gets VC’s to finance a set of slides.
  • It’s what makes you get up and do it again when customers say no, when investors laugh at your idea or when your rocket fails to make it to space.

Read more Steve Blank posts at www.steveblank.com.

Comment to “Innovators and entrepreneurs: What’s the difference?

  1. Wow… this is a bit of a romanticized notion of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs as passionate innovators?
    Tell this to the hairdresser who is running her business on a strip mall. Or the restaurant owner who is working her butt off to make ends meet. As for that Uber driver (our reconstituted taxi driver who is now an independent contractor – an entrepreneur from the point of view of both the IRS and Uber).. I imagine that he is not feeling either the “calling” or the “passion.”

    Not all entrepreneurs are innovators. And it goes without saying that not all entrepreneurs are running high tech companies in Silicon Valley.

    There is no empirical evidence that entrepreneurs are more passionate, more creative, or more dedicated than the general population. You want to know what distinguishes entrepreneurs from anyone else? Social demographic characteristics! They are more likely to be male, they are more likely to be white, and they are more likely to be middle aged (https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300113310/illusions-entrepreneurship)

    As for SV entrepreneurs… they are also far more likely to come from wealthy families (https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/209881).

    If I had to pick ONE thing that predicts successful entrepreneurship it would be this: CHOOSE YOUR FAMILY WELL.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *