Is success due to birth or breeding?

A brain for business is often thought of as something you are either born with or not. But entrepreneurial personalities differ greatly - and the necessary skills can be learnt
Click to follow

On the face of it, Veejay Lingiah looks born to be an entrepreneur. Born in London but with three great grandparents from China, the founder of Artlounge, which sells paintings and other art forms as if they were home furnishings rather than out of galleries, grew up surrounded by business. His mother's family had fishing businesses, while on his father's side the field was jewellery. At school, he ran a business with his sister, who has also gone on to establish her own business.

Also at school, he took the familiar would-be entrepreneur's route of selling goods (obtained in his case from wholesalers to whom he gained access through his parents) to his fellow pupils. While still a teenager, he made and sold sandwiches for local shops and - perhaps a sign of things to come - sold art by art students at car-boot sales.

Coming from an entrepreneurial family, 32-year-old Lingiah says he developed the view that it would be "almost riskier" for him to put his future in the hands of an employer rather than do his own thing, particularly when - as now - traditional employment is not secure. "There are a lot of opportunities now," he says.

Nick James, on the other hand, had none of these advantages. His parents - quantity surveyor father and school teacher mother - encouraged him to be creative and ambitious but could offer little practical assistance for going into business. Having decided to become a furniture designer and maker, setting up his own business became likely, but he was totally unprepared for what happened next. His search for appropriate premises for the business James Design led him to take on a disused warehouse. What started as a studio for himself and another for a friend grew into a business providing sites for a range of other creative people. Mushroom Works has - true to its name - grown rapidly and all of a sudden James has found himself running two successful businesses.

Despite these differences, both men have recently appeared in a list of leading entrepreneurs published by Arena men's magazine. Lingiah was named Entrepreneur of the Year in the Arena O2 X Awards. But the presence of James on the list suggests that - contrary to popular belief - it is possible to grow into being an entrepreneur rather than simply be born to the role.

"It is not what I set out to do," he says, adding that his experience has really been a case of taking the opportunity and developing it with the support of his parents and others. Indeed, he believes much of his success has been down to opportunism. Pointing out that grants and other initiatives are often not available for long, he adds: "It's about keeping your ear to the ground and finding out what's going on and using that to your advantage."

Another example is Steve Bainbridge, who, despite having nobody in his family who had been in business, has gone on to run, a business supplying free online music.

A study published in late 2004 by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business points out that entrepreneurs are commonly believed to have special traits that make them successful. For instance, entrepreneurs are commonly seen as being especially skilled at spotting new business opportunities, or they are regarded as brash or aggressive and ready to take greater risks than their peers. However, the study adds, despite a lot of academic study "no one has been able to identify a truly unique set of entrepreneurial personalities."

A similar view is proposed by the Centre for Bioscience, part of the Higher Education Academy at Leeds University. "Increasingly, it is recognised that at least some (and probably the majority) of the skills associated with entrepreneurship, and how to apply them successfully, can be learnt," it says.

Dr Pauric McGowan, Director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Entrepreneurship, believes that entrepreneurs are both born and made with some people born with entrepreneurial traits and behaviours. Success depends on developing these traits but also learning skills, such as management skills. He also believes that everyone has the potential to become an entrepreneur and that entrepreneurial traits and skills are useful in well-established businesses, where they can be used to improve, for example, the running of the business.

This is also a large part of the point of Enterprise Insight, the Government-backed not-for-profit group that runs the Make Your Mark campaign, aimed at encouraging an enterprise culture in the UK. Kevin Steele, chief executive of the Make Your Mark campaign, says: "The underlying rationale is the notion that all entrepreneurs have to be a particular sort of person - a sort of buccaneering risk-taker. But studies show you want "a good mixture of qualities." Moreover, such qualities are extremely unlikely to all be present in one person. It is more likely in a mixture of people. This is why investors in start-ups increasingly look for management teams that bring together the skills needed for success.

Certainly, Lingiah is somewhat bemused by the distinction. After all, if you have been born into a family of entrepreneurs and subsequently experience the hard work and enterprise required, which is having the greater effect - birth or breeding?

'It enabled me to understand how business works'

Recently named Entrepreneur of the Year in the Arena O2x Awards, Veejay Lingiah founded Artlounge in 2001 with the aim of making buying and selling art more accessible to ordinary people. His premises in Birmingham and Manchester are deliberately designed to look like a cross between a gallery and a home furnishings store and he sells pieces that range in price from as little as £50 to £20,000.

Lingiah followed his degree in business at Nottingham Trent University with a spell at Boots, where he says he learned a lot that was of use when he started his own business. "It enabled me to look at the market and understand some of the mechanics of how business works," he says.

'The rise of the business has been unbelievable'

Furniture designer Nick James is what might be termed an accidental entrepreneur. He ended up running a warehouse containing studios for artists and other creative people like himself because he could not find a building in Newcastle where he could establish his furniture business. "My tools were ready to go, but I had nowhere to lay them down," James says.

In what he calls "a leap of faith," 27-year-old James bought a disused warehouse with the idea of converting it into a space for himself. But he found that there was so much demand for this sort of space that he turned the rest of it into another 12 studios that he rents out to other artists. With one or two inquiries a week for the Mushroom Works, he has a waiting list and is contemplating acquiring another property.

James confesses that the rise of the business has been "unbelievable". Moreover, not only is the Mushroom Works going really well, the furniture business - James Design - is also taking off. "I've got about eight months' work on the books at the minute," says James.