Not having a straight and perfect career path doesn’t mean you by default don't have what it takes to build the next big thing. In fact, the key to success might not solely lie in your academic record or years of experience, but in characteristics that anyone can possess. Attacking a problem you’re passionate about and solving it to your vision, without giving up, has been evidenced multiple times to be a common recipe for success.
A passion for the problem
Arcade games such as Pong, Pac-man and Space Invaders will forever hold a place in history as legendary games, despite being played on one, static screen. There was never a sense of broad movement until the game Defender, released in 1980, and the phenomenon of “scrolling” beyond the scope of the screen came to life. In 1990 we still hadn’t figured out how to scroll games for the PC. The reason, in part, was the PCs slow speed compared to arcade machines.
In September 1990, an unknown game developer was pulling an all-nighter, determined to solve the problem. Drawing out the graphics smoothly across the screen or trying to optimize the computer’s memory to draw the images quicker didn’t work, he found. It simply took too much time and power for the computer to redraw the entire screen for every slight move, making everything clunky and choppy. For a character that was running under a blue sky with a white cloud passing by, the computer would redraw every blue little pixel on the entire screen starting at the top left corner and making its way over and down one pixel at a time - even though the only thing changing on the screen was the white cloud. That’s when the leap came. He wrote some code that tricked the computer from thinking that the first tile (a group of pixels) was in fact, for example, the seventh tile and therefore started to draw the cloud itself instead of all blue sky pixels before it. He also added code to instruct the computer to draw an extra strip of blue tile, outside the right edge of the screen, and store it in its memory for when the player moved in that direction. Because the tiles were in memory, they could be quickly shown on the screen without having to be redrawn. The problem was solved and for the first time, a standard PC could support smooth scrolling in games, creating a completely new experience.
The game developer that night was, now legendary, John Carmack and his dedication to solve this particular problem subsequently led to the birth of “id Tech 1”, the engine for the revolutionary PC game Doom that would set a new standard for the PC gaming experience globally.
A clarity of vision
In the early 2000’s an engineer by training, who had grown up in a family of musicians, was on a hiatus from work and on the road touring as a guitarist with other artists and bands. He used this time for soul-searching and found clarity that his two passions in life were music and technology. The engineer/artist in question was Daniel Ek, who in a few years would revolutionize the music industry.
At the time, piracy and illegal music downloads were rampant and after Napster’s fall in 2001 other file-sharing players emerged to take its place, including Kazoo, Limewire and Pirate Bay. However, the music industry was in uproar and many artists were on the war-path to shut them down. To build a sustainable solution that would satisfy both artists and their audience, Daniel knew he had to build something so compelling that it was better than free. The solution lied in speed. Illegal downloads were free, but often slow. Daniel had to offer something faster than piracy, a song that could be played at the click of a button. He wasn’t satisfied with just being fast, he knew that music lovers could be won or lost in the first few seconds of trying his product, in the first milliseconds to be exact. “I read in this book that the human brain takes about 200 milliseconds to perceive anything at all so I said to the engineering team; we have got to get this down to 200 milliseconds.” he shared. What sounded crazy to others at the time in 2006 was very clear to Daniel: it needed to feel like you had all the world’s music on your hard drive.
Daniel succeeded in giving his users that feeling and within less than a year of Spotify’s launch, Mark Zuckerberg famously updated his status to: “Spotify is so good”. The rest of the world agreed. Spotify recorded $1bn in profit in its third year and Daniel’s clarity of vision propelled him into stardom.
“Meeting entrepreneurs today I would say it's very rare that I hear someone who can articulate what the end-status of that product that they're trying to build will be, and realize, if you do solve it, it's going to be a huge thing.” - Daniel Ek, Founder & CEO of Spotify.
A gritty perseverance
In her mid-20’s, Sarah had failed the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) twice and didn’t get into law school. She tried doing stand-up comedy for a while but couldn’t catch a break and found herself selling fax machines door-to-door for a living. At 26, after a long day of cold-calling, being escorted out of buildings and having business cards ripped up in her face, she pulled her car off to the side of a road and had a breakdown. This was not how her life was going to turn out, things were not supposed to go this way, she thought. She went home that night and wrote in her journal: I want to invent a product that I can sell to millions of people and that would make them feel good about themselves.
Sarah’s big idea came to her as she was getting ready for a party and found herself aggravated by her wardrobe options. “I wanted to wear my cream pants to a party and was frustrated that I had no undergarments to wear under them that wouldn't show, so I cut the feet out of my pantyhose so I could throw them on under my pants. It worked beautifully except for that they rolled up my leg all night at the party. I came home that night and was like ‘this should exist for women’”, she shared. How many other women had mutilated their pantyhose in the exact same way? Plenty, it turned out.
The difference between Sarah and all those women was grit and perseverance. All the other women who had the same problem simply went to their party and back to work the next morning, leaving the notion of “this should exist” behind them. What differentiates successful entrepreneurs from everyone else with a good idea? They pursue it. Sarah did so and founded Spanx, a brand of body-slimming women's undergarments. In 2012 Sarah Blakely became the world's youngest female self-made billionaire and was named in Time magazine's "Time 100" annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Having a perfect LinkedIn profile with no side-steps or mistakes is far from being the strongest indicator of your potential success as an entrepreneur. John, Daniel and Sarah were all going through periods in their lives in which they were experimenting, soul-searching or even close to giving up. Yet, they all found success eventually and, maybe, inevitably. Even though there were many differences to their stories I believe each of them share common denominators, and will be the same for other successful entrepreneurs, namely: passion about a specific problem, a clear vision of how it can be solved and the raw grit and perseverance to see it through.
For those thinking about starting a business, I advise you to dig deep and really understand what you are passionate about. Don’t jump into entrepreneurship because you’ve watched the Silicon Valley sitcom and think it sounds cool, but do so when you have a burning desire to solve a specific problem, close a gap in the market or maybe even create a new market for a product or service. When you do, your attitude and character will likely be of greater importance than what your record of achievements have been up until that point.