I’ve been an entrepreneur for nearly twelve years. When I was last employed, I worked at Shopify profiling dozens of entrepreneurs in our magazine and podcast.
After so much time spent practicing and studying the discipline of entrepreneurship, you end up noticing some patterns—especially around the habits of successful entrepreneurs and what they seem to do that other people don’t.
The truth is that what I saw was way different than what most lists try to prescribe as advice. I just read a list of supposed entrepreneurial habits that said listening to uplifting music was something all entrepreneurs had in common. It’s a mess out there!
Entrepreneurship is, by its very nature, inclusive. Many different types of people can make it as entrepreneurs, so their personal preferences (e.g., whether they’re a morning person or not) rarely play a role in their success. What ends up mattering is the way they approach their work and problem-solving.
Here are the habits I’ve observed in entrepreneurs that do the distance.
The 7 most common habits of successful entrepreneurs
1. They focus on their signature strengths
A signature strength is a skill or talent that is a key reason why you’re impactful in a given context. It’s what you bring to the table, in a sense.
Entrepreneurs may flirt with the I-must-do-everything mentality at first (covered more in #6), but they quickly become consumed with leaning into their signature strength. They develop the habit of asking, “What can I do that no one else can do? Where am I most valuable to the business right now? In which areas do I get the most fulfillment?” The answers are far from self-serving: by knowing where they’re strong and where they’re weak (or unfulfilled), a founder gains clarity on where they may need to hire or outsource, or who they could give more opportunity and responsibility.
On this point, one interesting group of entrepreneurs I’ve spoken to are creator-entrepreneurs—the YouTube and TikTok sensations that turn the attention they receive into real businesses. They often struggle with this question more than anyone else, as they feel like they’re living dual lives; that of a behind-the-scenes business owner and that of a public-facing creator. Many find that they want to lean into one or the other, and surprises abound.
And all entrepreneurs eventually learn that there are a ton of talented people in the world, and one of the best leverage points they have for their business is to put the right talent in the right place. Once they ask that question of themselves, where and how to apply their signature strength becomes more obvious.
2. They care about time to impact
The most successful entrepreneurs I’ve met are impatient in action and patient with results. There’s this trope that the busiest founders and executives often respond to email the fastest, and I think their “secret” is that they simply don’t wait a long time to do small tasks, but know how to steadily chip away at long-term projects.
And in that sense, the best entrepreneurs are extremely impatient. The reason is that they know there is no substitute for something living in the world and getting feedback; feedback is oxygen for ideas, and no idea for your business is ever truly validated until customers start swiping their credit cards. These entrepreneurs are always pushing to get things into a place where they can get this feedback, but without compromising their reputation for quality.
Unknowingly, I think a lot of entrepreneurs agree with Brandon Schauer’s cupcake principle. That is, sometimes the best thing you can ship (or introduce to the market) is the cupcake version of the thing you ultimately want to build. Why a cupcake? Because it uses the same frosting and cake mix as the bigger cake but it takes less time to produce—while still being good tasting. And now that your cupcake is out in the world, you can get real feedback from customers on how it tastes before investing in something bigger.
Speed is king for small businesses, and it’s often the one decisive advantage you have over large incumbent corporations: while they’re debating minutiae in meetings full of people, you can ship fast, learn quickly, and adjust as you go.
3. They’re driven by goals
Not all entrepreneurs are great planners, but every successful entrepreneur I know has a lifelong habit of setting goals—whether they’re detailed and meticulous or informal scribble on an abandoned whiteboard.
What this habit really reveals is one of the most common motivators for entrepreneurs: personal growth. One founder of a highly-successful consumer brand told me that they always thought about this theoretical scenario that was shared on social media: What if, at the end of your life, the person you meet is the person you could have become? For many entrepreneurs, closing that gap is one of their life’s greatest motivations, and they use their business as a vehicle to achieve that end.
Of course, you’ll see this habit appear in more practical situations, too. I found it extremely common to hear entrepreneurs talk about their rolling sets of goals for the business. Weekly goals for themself laddered up to quarterly goals for their team which laddered up into annual goals for the business. It may have taken them some time, but successful entrepreneurs always develop a clear sense of where they want to go—and they use goals to communicate that in great detail.
In my own experience, I find the process of setting goals more important than the goals themselves. Setting a goal paints a clear picture of what needs to happen, and it drives up my excitement of imagining what could be once we arrive. If you set stretch goals that feel ambitious but possible, you’ll usually end up with more clarity around what needs to be done; something that’s far more important than hitting an arbitrary number that you yourself set.
In one of our podcast episodes, a founder told me this about the audacious goal she had set herself:
“I set my sights so high not because I wouldn’t be happy if our business never reached those heights, but because I knew such massive goals would change me for the better. The type of person I’d have to become to even hope of meeting those goals was exciting to me—the goal was a vehicle and a reason to continue to radically invest in my personal growth.”
4. They’re customer-obsessed
Don’t get me wrong here: entrepreneurs’ relationships with their customers are not always rosy. If you know, you know—we’ve all had long days where the support inbox is just overflowing and customers are getting on our last nerve. It’s a business relationship and not a friendship, after all.
But, every successful entrepreneur I know does deeply care about how customers experience their product and brand. And the best ones know the customers are the real boss. That actually ends up being a pretty fitting metaphor for the relationship: you’re not friends with your boss, they have an outsized impact on your growth, and you can ultimately come to like a good boss—even if there’s some tension from time to time.
Businesses do not exist without customers, so great entrepreneurs habitually act like the customer is there at the table when they’re making a decision. They can even obsess over customers so much that friction can build with employees, who the founder may come to expect too much from (especially since employees don’t share the same potential upside).
But more often than not, the relationship stays healthy and this habit becomes the backbone of why their company is successful where others have failed. This habit often shows up with the founder always viewing product or pricing changes through the lens of the customer, advocating for the customer (even when their team disagrees!), and grounding their company’s mission and culture around delivering value to customers.
5. They’re persistent
In my opinion, the single habit that increases the chances of success as an entrepreneur the most is persistence. Or, as investor Paul Graham would call it, being “relentlessly resourceful.”
If a good business model or product idea is a seed placed in good soil, conviction is the water—it’s what makes an idea grow, in the end. And more than that straight line scenario, it’s also the habit that drives you to plant another seed should the first one fail to flourish.
I can count on one hand the number of entrepreneurs we’ve spoken to at Shopify that would say starting their business was easy. And of that select group, what came easy was really a stroke of luck at the beginning that helped them get immediate traction—all of them later had an experience of feeling stressed and overwhelmed with the growth they experienced, or some other hurdle that cropped up. Luck may have given them their start, but persistence made them successful.
Then there’s the 99% of entrepreneurs who never get such a lucky break; the ones who have to grind for every single inch of progress their business makes and who may have to someday watch their progress get torched by a random unlucky break or macro trend that didn’t go in their favor.
This willingness to chip away at a goal day after day, without evidence it’s working, without support (let alone praise and attention), and sometimes, without confidence in yourself is one of the most defining habits of entrepreneurs. When others would stop, they just kept going.
6. They know polish is a strategic choice
The personality trait most associated with entrepreneurs that felt the most mixed in my experience was “perfectionism.” It’s really all over the place.
I know some entrepreneurs who are scrappy opportunists and absolutely not perfectionists, and I’ve known founders who can only be described as obsessive—the kind of people who believe that quality is fractal and who, in their heart of hearts, want to paint the back of the fence every time, even if no one will ever see it.
But the habit that all great entrepreneurs eventually pick up is a much healthier view on polish, or getting the details exactly right. And that’s that polish is a strategic choice you make based on something’s importance. As much as perfectionists want to believe otherwise, not every task is worth doing at an A+ level if it takes your time and attention away from more important to-do’s. In entrepreneurship, this is often described as things being on fire and the need to choose which fire to tend to.
Your time is in too short a supply to obsess over the “undifferentiated heavy lifting,” or the work that zaps up time but doesn’t have a direct line impact—this is especially true once you start firing yourself from roles and start hiring other people. You hired them, now let them do the job! The important exception to this rule, however, is of course when things matter. Two common cases here are (1) a function or system that’s critical to your business, or (2) a Tier 1 project that could determine the business’s future.
I’ve worked with CEOs of major companies who, despite all the things rolling up to them, went through periods where they were so focused on the company’s biggest problem that that’s all they would talk to you about. As the founder, you’ll begin to learn when something truly matters for the health of your business, and that’s exactly when you shouldn’t hesitate to obsess.
7. They harness their stress
The only type of “entrepreneur” that’s living stress-free is the fake kind selling courses on YouTube. Real entrepreneurs are often stressed about their business and frequently anxious they’re not doing enough.
When I used to work with Harley Finkelstein, Shopify’s President, he told me that he views his anxiety as something to harness rather than something to dread—it doesn’t need to take over your life and you’re not weird for feeling anxious as an entrepreneur. And, there’s no shame in getting help if you need it.
If you’ve ever run your own business, you know how true this is. Managing your own psychology is often the hardest part of being an entrepreneur, even harder than the objective or technical things that you need to do. When it’s all falling apart, or at least feels like it is, you can feel alone and isolated. There’s no one to deflect blame to and nowhere to run. It’s stressful, and channeling this stress is essential to having a healthy relationship with it.