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10 Traits That Will Help You Succeed in Small Business (And Maybe Life)

Jan 25, 2016 · 4 min read

By Malachy Walsh

What does it take to succeed in business? Skill, sure. Some charisma, yes. Innovative ideas, without doubt. An MBA from Stanford? It can’t hurt.

But those are the easy answers — as we found out in September during Dreamforce — when we were lucky enough to sit down with leaders from small, but growing companies to ask this very question. Coming from all walks of life (one had been a pro-football player, another had been fighter jet pilot), they brought unique perspectives to the question that shared some come themes and that we think are worth sharing with you.

Over the next year, we will feature videos of these small business leaders discussing hot topics around success. But for now, here is quick summation of what these men and women are looking for, beyond the resume — and we think these insights can help you succeed in small business (and maybe even life).


A basic ingredient of success in life in a larger sense, when applied to business, curiosity was the number one trait people agreed you needed to succeed. Some were even more specific: “Curiosity that doesn’t care where the right answer comes from,” said one business founder. “You need to be willing to let go of preconceptions, ideas, whatever, when the truth comes calling. And curiosity is the only thing that’s helped that.”

Gigantic appetite for any work. And all work.

This could easily be filed in the “wear a lot of hats” category, so we pressed a little. Under staffed and under resourced teams mean that CEO’s are as likely to be evangelizing vision as they are to be found writing marketing emails — right alongside an intern. Nights and weekends aren’t always yours, but you’re in there, sleeves rolled up, making a difference.


Nobody in the group of business people we spoke to said you had to love everything you do, but showing excitement and passion about the work you’re doing, want to do, and the people you work with motivates everyone. And they looked for it in every employee. “Passion gets you through those moments at one in the morning when you’re banging your head against the white board,” said one CEO. “You need a big reserve because when you’re overwhelmed, it fuels your determination.”

Team player

Having an instinct that tells you when to lead, when to guide, and when to do it yourself was a common theme. But more than one of my interviewees went on to explain that trusting people with responsibility could open up potential like nobody’s business.

Execution-oriented with prejudice for excellence

goes nicely with an appetite for work everyone talked about. But it was clear from this group of type A folks, that people who DO THINGS and GET THINGS MOVING were critical in companies short on resources. And while not everything can be perfect, inaction was considered deadly.


A lot goes in unexpectedly sideways in the life of a small company. This group emphasized the importance of taking it all in stride without getting immediately overwrought about fixing it. Being able to improvise a solution when called for was must.


“What can I do to help?” It’s the first question that several of our business leaders insisted should be on everyone’s mind in any room. At anytime. That didn’t mean saying yes to everything, but they pointed out that it did indicate a clear understanding that you’re there for others, not yourself. Which was particularly useful to those in sales and dealing with customers.

Credit givers

Time and again the business owners we sat down with gave credit to others in their company for success. It clearly went hand-in-hand with being a team player.

Accountability and risk-taking

Owning assignments and being responsible for the results was considered pretty normal. But the men and women we spoke to said they were also looking for people who were confident enough to take risks on new ideas, propose “unasked for solutions” and take responsibility for the results of those new efforts, good or bad, followed closely by an understanding of what to do next (fix it, try again, keep going). Seems natural, of course, coming from a collection of people who are braving it with their own companies.


Some said this outright. But others carried it with them into the room. It gave them all a charisma that went beyond charming. It made them attractive. It made them leaders. You just wanted to be around it. And it’s one of the things we deeply love about small business. It’s the secret fuel behind every success at any step.

Hear directly from our Growth Experts .

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