Your biggest barrier to starting a business

Last month I gave a speech at the Natural Products Expo in California, and I took my son with me. Everyone’s an entrepreneur in my family, and my son’s first thought was that this would be a good way to expand his egg business. He knows the eggs he gets from our chicken coop garner a high price from natural food types.

“This isn’t where you sell regular food,” I tell him. “This is more like a convention for processed natural food. People can charge more money for processing eggs than selling just the eggs.”

“Maybe someone can process my eggs,” he suggested.

So I encouraged him to look around for someone to partner with who could process his eggs.

Mostly, though, he just found a lot of free samples.

But it was great practice for him. Because the biggest barrier to having your own company is finding a great partner. This is true for my son, and it’s true for you. Really. You probably think getting your business off the ground is more complicated, but it’s not.

Let’s say you don’t have an idea. You just need to find an idea person. (Look for an ENTP.) Let’s say you have a million ideas, but you never act on any of them. Partner with someone who is phenomenal at getting things done, day in and day out. (Find an INTJ) Maybe you already wrote the code, but you can’t figure out how to market the software. You need someone who understands what people want and how to sell it to them. (Look for an ENFJ.)

See how it works?

That said, I am not a big fan of the idea that everyone should run their own business. It’s simply not true. Running your own business is very risky and makes each day full of disorder and uncertainty. Also, running your own business usually puts your family on the line.

That said, the majority of people say they want to start their own businesses. What they think they want is to work for themselves. The benefits, of course, are clear. You don’t get fired, you work whatever hours you want and starting your own business is the only path to becoming a gazillionaire.

So here’s a plan for overcoming the biggest hurdle to being an entrepreneur.

1. Know your shortcomings.
An extremely wide range of personality types are able to be successful entrepreneurs. Research from Saras Sarasvathy at Darden School of Business found that the single, common thread among successful entrepreneurs is their ability to compensate for their weaknesses by finding the right people to fill in the gaps.

So, you need to really know yourself. It’s the only way to understand your gaps. The process of knowing yourself is difficult. Take the Myers Briggs. You’ll probably be disappointed  but the good news is that there is no weakness that cannot be overcome with a good partner.

2. Grow your network.
I shouldn’t even need to tell you this, but people hate networking, so I have to say this. You should know, by the way, that introverts hate networking for sure, but everyone hates networking too.

Look, imagine you are the hot ex-cheerleader with an Ivy League degree and a six-figure salary. You still have to meet new people, right? And it sucks because all the men hit on you, so all the women hate you, and it’s difficult to find someone who could actually help you because you are performing at a level that’s much higher than most people.

See? Even the person who you’d think would adore networking actually thinks it’s a pain.

But you have to do it in order to have a roster of people to call on to help you fill in for your weaknesses. The key people in your network, according to the LinkedIn strategy department (which is from ancient times, when people looked at LinkedIn and asked what the purpose of the site was) you need 30 people who significantly different than you are—as in, not in your close circle, not in your industry, not your Myers Briggs type.

Finding those people is hard work, which is why entrepreneurs spend a lot of time networking. There are lists of startups  that help founders find co-founders for their startups, but you still have to network. There’s no way around that.

3. Typecast yourself.
It’s not enough to know the person who can be a great partner for you. You have to be able to attract that person. Of course, you should go after a superstar, or something who is rising to that position. And the best way to attract these people is to differentiate yourself. You want to attract someone who has a special quality that you need, so you have to show the special quality you bring.

It’s harder than you think. You have to typecast yourself.

Ten years ago business schools started publishing research that the same rules of Hollywood apply to the workplace, and you will be more successful in work if you tell people what you do not do. You cannot be a star performer at everything, so if you don’t specialize then you can’t be a star performer at anything. You have to specialize to be a star at work.

Here’s a great example of Scarlett Johansson doing just that. TMZ reports that a sex shop near the US-Mexican border used her image on their business card without her permission.

You might expect a response from an A-Lister to someone stealing their image is to have no comment. Because it happens all the time and who cares?

But watch what Johansson does: “I actually have not played that many sexy characters!  . . .the characters I play aren’t really traditionally sexy, I don’t think. I think it’s probably a reaction to the fact that I’m curvy and confident about it, maybe.” She can’t be a “sexy vixen” because it’s a cliché and also because she will be unemployable as she ages. But non-traditionally sexy, that’s a good one. That gives her some leeway. And “curvy and confident” makes her almost sound like a plus-sized model rather than a gorgeous Hollywood icon.

You need to be like that too, of course. Every time someone asks you “What do you do?” you need to reinforce your genre and your differentiator.

If you take these three steps, and take them seriously, you’ll be well on your way to having your own business. But during this process you are likely to discover that you don’t really want to run your own business. Are you an ISTJ? You could start a business. Anyone can start a business. But it’s likely that you’ll be happier being at an office that has a system and has rules and pays you to keep things in order.

The good news is that these three steps make everyone’s worklife better. Because if you don’t want to run your own business, you still need to stay employable. In fact, you need more than ever to stay employable if you don’t want to make your own company. And the best way to stay employable is very similar to the best way to be an entrepreneur. So there’s no getting around the work of doing these three things: know yourself, know other people, and define who you are so other people understand your value.


45 replies
  1. karelys
    karelys says:

    How do you go about finding out your weaknesses when it comes to career/professional life when you are 24?

    I am good at finding my weaknesses in marriage because it’s a thing that I come across everyday. But I have to watch hard when it comes to professional life.

    And I haven’t had really interesting work in a long time so it’s hard for me to know if I am just a mess with zero skills or I just haven’t had a chance to mess with things that make me excited and productive.

    Well, it’s a lie. I love it when I get to present and pitch new clients. It’s exciting. But I can’t tell if it’s because I am nervous or what.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Karelys, did you take the Myers Briggs test? Here’s a good way to go about reading it. The test results will start by telling you what you’re good at. And generally we know what we like and what we’re good at. So if that part feels right to you then it’s very likely that the weaknesses part of the results are right, too. It’s much harder for us to see our own weaknesses. A personality test is a good way to start to see ourselves how other people see us.

      Here’s a link to a fast, free version online:


      • Lee Bauman
        Lee Bauman says:

        Hi Penelope – The test provided me with links describing my personality type, but I can’t find the results that focus on describing weaknesses. Both links seem to only indicate characteristics of the personality type and what kinds of things those people do. Am I looking in the wrong place? Thanks.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        Yes I took it! INFJ.

        And the list of weaknesses are very true to myself but I am glad that being unaware is something I’m growing through because I already knew “hey! those are a big problem for me!”

        It’s hard for me to be extra nice when I just don’t feel like it. I just go straight to the point and it tends to startle people. So I probably need someone that is super diplomatic to help me out in a business venture!

        And OH MY GOSH! I can’t unwind! sometimes I think i’ll be an alcoholic because only after like 3 big glasses of wine can I relax!

  2. Maria Killam
    Maria Killam says:

    You know you are simply a brilliant woman. The piece about networking because you need to find people that you can call on to fill in your weaknesses–that I need to get better at!!
    Great post, as usual!

  3. Nova
    Nova says:

    How do you get such natural beautiful pictures of your kids? My pictures from my son are never this beautiful and natural! I’m sure this takes a lot of experience and work.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thank you for noticing. I take about 15 for each one I use, and Melissa edits them. She is trying to teach me to take better pictures. She emails back to me why the rejects are rejects so I learn.

      I thought it would be such a big pain to have photos on my blog, but I like that it’s forcing me to see things differently so I take better pictures.


  4. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    Any thoughts on an INFP running their own business?

    Also, the suggested careers in the Myers-Briggs test for INFP are often things like counseling, teaching, and social work. I have no interest in those. Is it possible that this test shows what you could potentially be good at, but not what you would particularly enjoy?

    • Tommi
      Tommi says:

      INFP:s tend to be good at what they really care about (their values), the understanding of those will change during the years.

      In my own experience INFP:s need _one_ good partner for support with whom they then can work “it” out. Crucial choice of one if I’m right.

      I know 3-4 INFP consultants running their ow business.

      • Felicia
        Felicia says:

        That is a very helpful response, thank you. A new way of looking at working on our own as an INFP, and yes have the *right* partner would make all the difference it would seem. And couldn’t it even be helpful to have an ENFP partner if you’re more on the introverted spectrum? Thoughts to ponder.

    • Daniel Baskin
      Daniel Baskin says:

      The type descriptions definitely only refer to potential likes. Our psychological type is like the skeleton of our personality. It doesn’t tell us whether we have black hair or purple eyes; it just gives us a framework for which we can hang our life experiences and natural interests. As an INTP, I don’t care about computer programming, even if my brain is wired to be good at it. Unfortunately, I care about a lot of things (like teaching) that don’t fit my type well at all.

    • Lisa
      Lisa says:

      The story about your son wanting to learn about ways to further his business but getting distracted by free samples reminds me of my ENTP fiance. He has lots of ideas for business endeavors but the shininess wears off after a few days then he’s on to the next thing. It kind of drives me crazy (I’m an INTJ). I have had business ideas too, but I have a need to focus on one thing at a time. I might give up on something too, but I will wait until I have done enough research or thinking to figure out it won’t work.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        INTJs should be excellent networkers because they connect with people about ideas and they know how to get a lot done, so they can talk about that with other people.

        Introversion doesn’t mean bad with people. Introversion means you need a break after you are with people. It is tiring to you and you need alone time to unwind.

        Offline networking should be fine with you as long as it’s one on one. It’s letting yourself off the hook too easily to just declare you’re bad at networking!


  5. Aubrey Watt
    Aubrey Watt says:

    I absolutely love reading the posts you make about entrepreneurs. I never thought I could start my own business, but just a few months ago I began self-publishing erotica alongside my day job and I’ve been using a LOT of tips that I’ve picked up from reading your blog.

    Now that business is picking up, I’m thinking about hiring someone to do some of the tedious work I don’t care for… and of course you post about exactly that! Thanks for reading my mind ;)

    • Bhushan
      Bhushan says:

      Hi Aubrey,

      I could not have built my business without outsourcing marketplaces such as elance. Definitely look at it if you haven’t already- it’s crazy simple to find specific, verified, talent.

  6. Jennie
    Jennie says:

    You know what’s interesting – everytime I’m thinking in the back of my brain how I want to start my own business – I just so happen to read your blog on the day where you post articles on it. It’s always perfect timing to the perfect material.
    I love what you write and the advice you give – I can honestly say, more often than not – it gives that extra push I need as I’m sure others need as well.
    AND, can we talk about how cute and sweet your son is?! Great photo….

  7. Isabelle
    Isabelle says:

    I find this post to ring so, so true. Finding a partner wasn’t the barrier to starting a business for me, but I think it is the barrier to my continued interest and ambition to make it grow. I started my own catering company 3 years ago, when I was 24 and had just quit my first “real” post-college job (and was, by many measurements, a very “good” job.) I’ve realized that the big piece that has been missing for me in running my business has been working in a team with other people, in having a partner or partners who have an equal stake in the outcome. I get fabulous energy from working with hired help on large events, but also do lots of smaller events completely by myself, and handle every one of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the business myself.

    I have not had wild financial success, but with a capital investment of zero and no help (besides my husband’s graduate school stipend, which has mostly supported us) I’ve had real, tangible growth that I’m proud of, and developed a local reputation for extremely high quality. (Without going to culinary school, mind you- I studied Theater Directing.) I’ve learned more than I ever imagined. I’m sure I’ve learned at least as much as I did in college, and it hasn’t cost nearly as much.

    I’m about to embark on having my first baby this year, and backing off on the business to do just Personal Chef work (which is much more compatible with having a baby), but when I’m ready to start another business (which I will absolutely do- I cannot fathom working for anyone else, ever again), it will absolutely, positively be with a partner- or several partners. The energy and creativity and drive it takes to run a business cannot be sustained alone long-term, in my experience.

    Before starting my business, I seriously thought of going to culinary school and/or business school. WOW- am I glad I rejected both those ideas. My plan was that I would give myself a culinary education and a business education, and go easy on myself if that meant I didn’t make much money the first few years. What a better investment in myself that turned out to be than going to (more) school would have been.

  8. Heroine Worshiper
    Heroine Worshiper says:

    The biggest barrier is getting enough capitol that the investment produces more than bonds.

  9. Cassie Boorn
    Cassie Boorn says:

    I love the idea of teaching kids to run a business. When I was 16 I sold Avon and ended up making it to President club. I was the youngest member in our district and had to run the account under my mothers name. I learned SO MUCH about what I do well and what I will never do well.

  10. Rebekah
    Rebekah says:

    People who help you fill in for your weaknesses. That is such a great definition of why to network. Speaking of which, I’m moving to Austin in two weeks. How can I get in touch with Melissa? I think we could be friends.

  11. LC Coleman | Colored Girl Confidential
    LC Coleman | Colored Girl Confidential says:

    This is a particularly insightful post. Now if it could just marry it’s brethren from earlier this week, lots of fools would go home with some rock solid advice.

    Since you’ve already made the point that your spouse will be the most important partner you will ever have (and this is especially true if you’re trying to operate a start-up), it’s worth pointing out that all of the above – knowing your shortcomings, networking outside of your inner circle, and typecasting yourself – work just as well (and are just as important) when scoping out a potential mate.

    If you are able to figure out what type of partner you need to be successful in running your life (i.e. a significant other), then it becomes easier to figure out what type of business partner you need and vice versa.

    Of course, the argument for getting super specific about what you need in a spouse is a hard pill to swallow for a lot of black women in particular (especially those with any type of entrepreneurial dreams), since most of us are trained from an early age to believe that there is a scarcity of “good black men” and therefore are more likely to settle for “good enough.”

    Thankfully though, my experience has been that black women hold white men to a higher standard and since that is who we will likely be encountering once we enter the world of start-ups, there is some hope that this strategy of being choosy will be easier to implement in the boardroom than in the bedroom.

  12. MaureenSharib
    MaureenSharib says:

    If you had to say, what % of the population is suited to:

    Own their own business?
    Start their own business?
    Run their own business?

    AND does it differ country to country??

    AND can entrepreneurship be taught or is it bred in the bone?

  13. Barchbo
    Barchbo says:

    This post is a great reminder why I always asked people I was dating, friends with, or working with to take the MBTI. If they aren’t interested, we probably won’t be that compatible relationally but most people are self-obsessed enough to want to know more about themselves.

    I’m an ENFP and have had two businesses. I always transition out when I get bored with the details and there is nothing left to build out. Thank heavens I have my ESFJ husband to focus on life details.

  14. John - Touch Screen Displays
    John - Touch Screen Displays says:

    Finding a partner may be easier than you think. I am one of those that don’t mix work with friends, based on experience, but do what you want. A partner is meant to make up for your short-comings, absolutely. Fill the gap that makes the company a whole. When the strategy, the product, the finance and the outlook are in place, ACT!!! Don’t sit on a great idea and don’t stop once you make it. You can be Google or you can be AOL.

  15. Anna
    Anna says:

    Good post – overall, it sounds like good & relevant advice.

    As for ‘grow your network’: in which ways?

    Networking offline works well for extravert personality types, but probably not for many introvert personality types. Some people are like a fish out of the water in social situations, such as so called business networking events. Personally I dread small talk and struggle with the hurley-burley of background noise and mingling at networking events, meeting people face to face (especially groups) rarely works for me and every time I fail at it, I brand myself as a ‘looser’ in the eyes of some people (or whatever assumptions people apply when they don’t understand why someone struggles). So it doesn’t work. I try to compensate with online networking, although I acknowledge that it is probably not nearly as effective.

    My MB personality type is INTJ.

  16. Dave
    Dave says:

    I’m an INFJ. One of the best descriptions I’ve read of introverts said, “…hell is people at breakfast…”. We can be friendly charming mysteries. And crazily perceptive

  17. Cathie
    Cathie says:

    Great post! The introversion part especially rings true to me and the epiphany of being an introvert doesn’t necessarily make you bad at networking, as much as it just means that a break is usually needed from the bustle of meeting new people and spreading business.

  18. Tzipporah
    Tzipporah says:

    OK, the big problem is that as an INTJ getting stuff done all the time, I need an ENFJ to help market them – but I’m an INTJ. I don’t know how to reach out and get partners, how to network, how to ask for help. So it sounds like you have to be an extrovert to succeed, which is asinine.

  19. Pam Hollister
    Pam Hollister says:

    Understanding my own personality type has been a tremendous strength for me in being able to start and manage my own business. I learned that even though I’m an Introvert, I’m very drawn to be able to make a difference in people’s lives by teaching them about their personality type. That allowed me to walk through my fear of conducting type trainings.

  20. Cindy Coughlin
    Cindy Coughlin says:

    Is just being in WI a barrier? I am an ipad developer, helloalbums, and I feel like I am on Mars most of the time and since I didn’t go to Stanford.. I am them most unconnected person I know. I can’t network there is no one to network with. But I cam going to Chicago for Techweek..

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You can do all your networking online. Or at least most of it. There are tons of opportunities for you in Chicago – you don’t need to be in Silicon Valley. And if you are a developer without an idea there are sites that are matching systems for people with ideas and developers who want ideas.

      It doesn’t matter where you are located if you’re good at writing code.


  21. An Even Bigger Barrier To Starting You Own Business
    An Even Bigger Barrier To Starting You Own Business says:

    “Because the biggest barrier to having your own company is finding a great partner.”

    Actually I think you might have missed a bigger barrier, Penelope. How could your son sell eggs in a public place without FDA approval??

    Government regulation is the biggest barrier to starting a business. Regulators can be a total kill joy. With this rule here and that rule there they can put you out of business before the ink dries on your business plan.

    My suggestion? Don’t cross paths with the LUZR temperament. Avoid bureaucrats.

  22. Catherine Adamson
    Catherine Adamson says:

    Hi – I loved this blog and it inspired my latest blog, where I expanded on the three points – adding get training, network online and learn to communicate your message effectively.
    I couldn’t agree more about the benefits of networking online. It’s way better for introverts, more efficient and takes you to a wider audience. It’s not all about canapés and face-to-face time.

  23. Bhushan - ideafueltools
    Bhushan - ideafueltools says:

    Great post. I am a creative entrepreneur, and didn’t have much success until I understood my style and that of others, so I can definitely relate to this.

    For those of you who love self-development and innovation, I want to highly recommend an innovation framework that really brought clarity to my thoughts. I ran into it about 6 months back, and it turns out that it is co-authored by one of my professors at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business :) There are only 4 ways that a person can create, and like most things, we have our favorites. The following is just a raw gist, see the link for an explanation by the author. Some people create through systems (Ray Kroc, who grew McDonalds), some create through people (Mother Teresa), some create through blue sky thinking (Steve Jobs, Walt Disney), and lastly, some create through competition (Thomas Edison, Bill Gates).

    Besides helping me building my team, having this understanding also helped me to go after the right type of opportunities that were in line with my creation style. You can read more about this here

  24. Sell a business online
    Sell a business online says:

    Finding a partner is not difficult. Finding a partner that you can trust to do business with is the difficult part. This is a great plan you wrote here, it certainly can – should serve as a checklist for entrepreneurs.

    By the by, great family you have there! And your son is adorable.

  25. Daffi Will
    Daffi Will says:

    Good site! I guess whether it is friendly to my eyes it really is. | I was wondering how to be notified when a new post is made. | I can do the trick you are subscribed to your feeds? ! Have a great day

    Dirk Kettlewell

  26. Heroine Sy
    Heroine Sy says:

    It is my great pleasure to visit your website and to enjoy your great post here. I like it very much. I know that you put much attention for these articles, as all of them make sense and are very useful.

    Dirk Kettlewell

  27. Gracemukasa
    Gracemukasa says:

    It’s very informative and it will help many others, we are also dealing in same field hence found this informative to add in our process also.

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