June 17, 2024

How do you picture an entrepreneur? In a recent survey by Cox Business, small business owners listed their top three entrepreneurial idols as Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin and Walt Disney DIS . But another part of that survey may be more revealing.
Roughly two-thirds of the respondents said the desire to be their own boss motivated their entrepreneurial pursuits. This sense of autonomy has come to embody the rugged individualist persona often associated with the entrepreneurial spirit.
“Following a process that does not make sense to me has a strong tendency to undermine my motivation,” says Thibaud Clement, CEO and Co-founder of Loomly in Los Angeles. “Autonomy offers the best of both worlds: I can establish rules and workflows that seem appropriate to the tasks at hand—and stick to them.”
This drive for autonomy represents a key trait of successful entrepreneurs.
The lure of self-determination pervades the entrepreneurial mindset. It’s a critical need, especially in the start-up phase.
“It’s important to be able to work alone because you can’t rely on others to motivate you,” says Drew Parker, Founder of The Complete Retirement Planner in Seattle. “No one cares about your business more than you do, and there will be times when you need to make decisions about how to move forward that no one else can help with.”
It’s not that entrepreneurs always work alone. In fact, with success comes the need to bring others into the fold.
“I don’t work alone,” says Neal Taparia, Founder of Solitaired in New York City. “I try to work with as many smart people as I can. My business partner has skillsets I don’t have. My Dad always emphasized Nike’s phrase of ‘Just do it,’ which has always been a North Star for me in entrepreneurship. Sometimes you just have to do it and go after ideas.”
Just because you work with others doesn’t mean you give up on autonomy. Recent research bears this out when it concludes, “Autonomy-motivated entrepreneurs must often make an effort to achieve and maintain autonomy… A distinct feature of entrepreneurial autonomy, overlooked by previous studies, is that not only is decisional freedom subjectively relevant, but endorsement is as well. Entrepreneurs have the autonomy to decide to forego autonomy.”1
How to measure this orientation towards autonomy presents a challenge. Psychologists have tried to gauge it, but such attempts have come up short.
A paper published by a team led by Marko Grünhagen concluded, “Autonomy is an important component of an entrepreneurial orientation (EO), but most studies that assess the EO construct do not include autonomy measures… it is potentially problematic for researchers to prescribe specific interventions to achieve organizational or venture success based on a unidimensional conceptualization of EO. A singular conceptualization could not distinguish between the effects of, for instance, autonomy and innovativeness. If new venture failure is caused by a lack of autonomy of firm members, it is implausible to believe that it could be rectified by an increased level of innovativeness. In contrast, a conceptualization of EO with clearly defined subdimensions offers the possibility of prescribing more finely tuned sets of activities to deliver specific new venture success outcomes. Because one of the primary goals of measurement is precision of prediction, a focus on an accurate understanding of the various dimensions of EO can lead to clear, meaningful, and useful prescriptions for entrepreneurs.”2
It’s not unusual to see this entrepreneurial trait pass down from one generation to the next.
Leila Belmahi, CEO of Mariner’s Bow in Miami, Florida, says, “Autonomy was a guiding force in propelling me to take the leap to start my business. I come from a long line of entrepreneurs. I saw the flexibility my family’s businesses allowed in their lives. They could make every birthday party, they didn’t need to ask someone if they wanted to travel for a prolonged period of time, and they could prioritize what was most important to them. There is so much richness in life to experience that makes my work even better. To me, the ability to have full independence means the ability to live my life to the fullest and experience everything life has to offer.”
Does the need for autonomy lead one to become an entrepreneur, or does becoming an entrepreneur create a sense of autonomy?
Research shows autonomy tends to lead to entrepreneurism.
Psychologist Edward L. Deci points out, “This need for autonomy is associated with one’s intrinsic motivation… One is said to be intrinsically motivated to perform an activity when he receives no apparent rewards except the activity itself.”3
More recent studies suggest it’s possible to train people to embrace autonomy. In a paper that looked at the role of government policies encouragement of entrepreneurial activities, researchers concluded, “To crowd in [as opposed to ‘crowd out’] the need for autonomy, governments might design education policy to shape normative beliefs of younger generations, with earlier exposure to entrepreneurial concepts and successes and inclusion of entrepreneurship in elementary through post-secondary curricula.”4
Indeed, you can find many examples of people who have found their inner entrepreneurs at a very young age.
“Being a rebel as a kid is definitely where this autonomy came from,” says Brian Robben, CEO of Robben Media in Cincinnati. “When I was bored in school, I’d think, ‘How can I make this more interesting?’ Then I’d do the most I could without getting kicked out and figure out how to also enjoy the detention. Those times in trouble help you think for yourself.”
Now a teenager, Carter “Critt” Waugh was only eight years old when he founded his shoe company Critts in Napa, California. When he was ten, he recalled, “It is good to be able to work alone so I can prove to myself that I can accomplish something. It makes me feel good about myself. If I need help, I am not scared to ask. I still have a math tutor each week, but I know soon, I will no longer need my math tutor. I am not sure where this drive came from; it is just the way I am.”
Of course, you don’t need to have entrepreneurial parents to have a need for autonomy. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite that sets you on this road to self-determination.
“My drive for autonomy came from seeing my hard-working parents work long days and nights to make their bosses rich,” says Camille Hugh, CEO of In Stitches Games in New York City. “They would come home exhausted and looked forward to their retirement as a marker for when their real life could begin. I did not want to repeat that pattern and am blessed for the advancements in technology that have afforded me the opportunity to make a choice that was not easily available to my parents. Additionally, I have always had a little problem with authority and like to live and play by my own rules.”
In his 2012 paper, Thomas Lange, a leading authority in organizational behavior and leadership, stated, “autonomy and independence are the mechanisms by which self-employment leads to higher levels of job satisfaction.”5
When you speak with actual entrepreneurs, they tend to emphasize how their quest has produced much enjoyment in their lives.
“If you’re truly passionate about what you’re doing, being motivated to work is easy because you actually enjoy the process,” says Calloway Cook, President of Illuminate Labs in Northampton, Massachusetts. “I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to be productive working on your own project than on someone else’s. My drive for autonomy comes from my drive to succeed.”
Autonomy may drive your early entrepreneurial efforts, but it also propels you beyond your business into a broader world of personal fulfillment.
“Entrepreneurship can actually be quite lonely at times,” says Paul Polizzotto, Founder & CEO of Givewith in Manhattan Beach, California. “But it’s incredibly rewarding when you’ve translated your idea into a solution that excites and motivates others to join your mission. The beauty of business is when your teammates bring their skills and passion to the table and join in the collective effort, which later becomes a living, thriving business.”
The character of the entrepreneur has taken on mythic proportions. Geldren says, “[In] the example of Sarah, the protagonist in The E-Myth (Gerber, 1995), Gerber’s solution is for her to start a franchise operation in order to optimize her autonomy (and finances).”6
In an example right out of Gerber, Margo Benge, Owner of Miracles as well as North Node Publishing in Houston, says, “I was frustrated in many work environments—illogical business approaches, imbalanced workloads among employees, ridiculous rules or expectations. It is easier for me to be the one in charge, with uncertain income, than at the mercy of the whims of others.”
Similarly, Greg Chambers, Owner of Chambers Pivot Industries in Omaha, says, “If you’re lucky enough to be inside an organization where you agree on their vision and strategy for getting there, great. If you aren’t and you have a strong vision of where the world is going and how to provide value when it gets there, you have to go it alone.”
By itself, a personal commitment to starting your own business isn’t enough. You need to be mentally prepared for all that is about to happen to you. Feeling you control your own destiny – having an internal locus of control – by itself won’t push you to succeed. You need the other half of that rugged individualism equation. You need a strong sense of autonomy. You need to be able to make decisions confidently on your own.
“Relying on yourself is important, especially if you want tasks completed the way you want and on time,” says Hannah Fisher, Founder of HVAC Supreme in Chicago. “It’s always good to have the help of others, but when you rely on yourself, the results are yours too. My autonomy has come from years of practice. Don’t ask questions at the first sign of trouble; wait it out and analyze your problem from all angles. You’ll soon see that you can get the answer without asking. I was taught this by my mentors early on. You can’t always use this technique, but it works a lot of the time.”
If calculated risk-taking represents how you avoid rogue waves, and the tendency towards creativity represents the ability to navigate normal turbulence, and locus of control gives you the determination to sail into those inevitable waves, then autonomy gives you the confidence that you can make the decisions you need to make on your journey.
But what is it that compels you to embark on that journey in the first place? And why does it hold the key to success? You’ll discover the answer in the fifth and final installment of this series.
1 Gelderen, Marco v. “Entrepreneurial Autonomy and its Dynamics.” Applied Psychology, vol. 65, no. 3, 2016, pp. 541-567.)
2 Grünhagen, Marko, et al. The Moderating Influence of HR Operational Autonomy on the Entrepreneurial orientation–performance Link in Franchise Systems. International Entrepreneurship and Management Journal, vol. 10, no. 4, 2014, pp. 827-844
3 Deci, E.L., 1971, ‘Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation,’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 18(1), 105–115.
4 Reddy, C.D., Hamann, R. & Urban, B., 2015, ‘Country-level entrepreneurship: Crowding out the population’s need for autonomy,’ Acta Commercii 15(1), Art. #292, 8 pages. http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/ac.v15i1.292
5 Lange, Thomas, “Job satisfaction and self-employment: autonomy or personality?” Small Business Economics, 02/2012, Volume 38, Issue 2, 165-177
6 Geldren, 564


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