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The entrepreneur and the enabler: Identifying entrepreneurs and the people who help them

by Corinne Colbert

October 2005

Every day, an incubator manager asks the same question: How can I help these companies succeed?

Part of the answer lies not in the idea or the business plan, but in the individual. Two British researchers say they can help you identify which individuals have the greatest potential to succeed – and even tell you if you’re the right person to help.

John Thompson is the Roger M. Bale Professor of Entrepreneurship at the United Kingdom’s University of Huddersfield and director of its Enterprise Network, a research and outreach center devoted to entrepreneurship (which includes a business incubator). Since 1998, Thompson has been studying the entrepreneur phenomenon with entrepreneurship consultant Bill Bolton, founding director of St. John’s Innovation Centre, a business incubator at the University of Cambridge. Together, they’ve published two books on the subject: Entrepreneurs: Talent, Temperament, and Technique and The Entrepreneur in Focus. Through their research, they developed the Bolton-Thompson Entrepreneur Indicator, a test to measure entrepreneurial potential based on the six character traits they say are the essence of the entrepreneur: Focus, Advantage, Creativity, Ego, Team and Social (or FACETS).

The indicator can be a valuable tool for incubator managers. Users answer a series of questions about their work habits and beliefs as quickly as possible, relying on gut reaction rather than introspection. The answers yield scores in each of the entrepreneur FACETS. Because its scores are broken down by trait (see “Taking the Bolton-Thompson Indicator”), the indicator can show where a particular client may need particular assistance.

“If you know the rough profile of the people you’ve got, you can get some insight into what help they need,” Thompson says.

The results also provide a score in another trait, Enabler – the ability to help entrepreneurs reach their full potential. In this regard, the test could help incubator managers hire and evaluate staff and assess possible service providers. And the indicator can be a personal reality check, a way to make sure you are playing to your own strengths by staffing your incubator with people who have complementary skills.

Assessing entrepreneurial potential

As Thompson and Bolton define them, entrepreneurs are people who habitually create and innovate to build something of recognized value around perceived opportunities. They distinguish entrepreneurs from enterprising people – someone who starts a small business that supports a family or a few employees. True entrepreneurs, the researchers claim, create or take new ideas to forge a high-growth venture.

According to Thompson and Bolton, the six FACETS of an entrepreneur are:

  • Focus: the ability to home in on a project or idea and not be distracted
  • Advantage: the ability to see and act on the right opportunities
  • Creativity: the ability to come up with new ideas
  • Ego: drive, ambition, courage; the ability to carry responsibility
  • Team: the ability to pick good people and bring them together
  • Social: belief in a cause and the ability to deliver on it

The first four characteristics are essential to the entrepreneur. An individual may be relatively stronger in one area than another, but without Focus, Advantage, Creativity and Ego, there is no entrepreneur. The Ego portion is divided into Inner Ego – personal ambition and drive – and Outer Ego, or responsibility, accountability and courage.

The last two traits, Team and Social, are secondary. A person can be an entrepreneur without being a good team builder, but his enterprises won’t go as far. And while a high Social score isn’t necessary to entrepreneurial success, the absolute lack of morals combined with strength in other characteristics can yield a criminal mastermind.

Al Capone was an entrepreneur,” Thompson says.

On the other end of the scale are true Social entrepreneurs – those who operate businesses or organizations devoted to doing good. In between are people like The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, who built an enormously successful personal-care business based on environmental conservation and fair-trade economics.

Some aspects of the entrepreneur are inborn talents. Creativity and Advantage, especially, rely on natural ability, Thompson says. “You can put people through creativity workshops, but it won’t necessarily create a person who gets a buzz on for a new idea,” Thompson says. “And Advantage is really difficult to work on. A person either does or doesn’t see the opportunities around him.” Likewise, Inner Ego is a matter of personality that can be difficult to change. “If you don’t start off really wanting to be good at something or to do something, it’s difficult to change that,” Thompson says.

On the other hand, “Outer Ego can definitely be improved for most people,” Thompson says. “Responsibility, accountability, how you deal with setbacks all can be dealt with effectively.”

An individual’s indicator score may change over time as his or her goals evolve, Thompson notes. Someone with a proven entrepreneurial track record may actually score lower in some areas of the indicator now than in their younger days. Having created a successful venture, the older entrepreneur may be more interested in applying his or her drive to charity or family as well as work.

The entrepreneur enabler

Shoring up an entrepreneur’s weak areas is a primary job of the enabler. Enablers display many of the same FACETS as entrepreneurs, but often lack one key trait, such as the ability to see business opportunities. What many enablers have in spades is a knack for recognizing talent.

“The enabler has the ability to pick and help winners,” says Thompson. “It’s the ability to spot potential in others.”

If an entrepreneur is a FACET-ed gemstone, then the enabler is the jeweler who makes that stone shine. “Entrepreneurs follow their dreams; enablers help others to achieve their dreams,” Thompson says. “Even the most talented people can benefit from the right sort of coach.”

Enablers do three things: spot and develop entrepreneurial talent; help entrepreneurs manage their temperament, or the things that drive them; and enhance their skills so the entrepreneur’s business goes farther. The way you prefer to deliver assistance defines the type of enabler you are. According to Thompson, enablers fall into one of three categories: trainers, mentors and coaches.

The trainer likes to give general advice and is better at imparting broad principles than at explaining their specific applications. “When you take the next step down the line to actually teach the principles of it one-to-one, they’re less effective because they’re not always good with the detailed questions they get asked,” Thompson says.

The mentor prefers to work one-on-one, standing by to offer guidance and support as needed. “The mentor likes to help people find what they need,” Thompson says. “They’re not necessarily giving advice, but helping people find it.”

The enabler who holds the entrepreneur’s hand is a coach. And just as a good athletics coach can sometimes be brutally honest, so is the enabler coach, who not only helps the entrepreneur set goals, but also helps her see the professional and personal implications of those goals.

Recognizing your own enabling style is important because if you’re a natural trainer and your client needs a coach, you need the ability to recognize that need and find someone to fill that role. You can be an effective incubator manager without being an enabler, but the incubator itself cannot succeed if there is no enabler present, Thompson adds. “If someone isn’t making this contribution,” he says, “a key element is missing.” At Enterprise Network, for example, the incubator manager is in charge of marketing and day-to-day operations; two other full-time employees with enabling skills work directly with clients.

Understanding the needs of your clients – whether through your own entrepreneurial experiences or strong enabling skills – is the key, Thompson says. In fact, empathy is part of an equation Thompson has for sizing up a successful enabler: C = ME2. To have Credibility as an enabler, you must be Motivated and have Expertise and Empathy.

Despite the acronyms and equations, though, Thompson says the heart of entrepreneurship and enabling isn’t so difficult. It’s just a matter of knowing yourself and understanding when you need help.

“It’s not rocket science,” he says. “It’s really simple common sense – doing the right things well.”

Portions of this story were derived from Thompson’s presentations at NBIA’s 17th International Conference on Business Incubation in 2003 and the 18th International Conference in 2004. The Entrepreneur in Focus is available from the NBIA Bookstore.

Taking the Bolton-Thompson Indicator

Anyone can take the Bolton-Thompson Entrepreneur Indicator test at First, you must request a user name and password via e-mail (a link is provided on the Web site’s home page under the login boxes). Those identifiers are linked to your score; once you have taken the test, you cannot retake it – and possibly alter your score – without requesting a new user name and password. As a result, your score is a snapshot of your entrepreneurial potential at a particular point in your life.

Your results are compiled into a FACETS Indicator Report, which scores responses on a scale of 1 to 10 in each of the six FACETS, as well as Enabler. A score of 6 or higher is considered Entrepreneurial. Each score is explained briefly with tips on how to maximize your strengths and compensate for weaknesses.

The test can be revealing for nonentrepreneurs, too. My results confirmed some things I already knew about myself – for example, my Creativity score of 3.2 says I’m better at improving on an idea than coming up with one myself. As a freelance writer for 10 years, I was definitely more comfortable expanding on assignments from clients, rather than pitching stories to them. The results also warned that I might overestimate my abilities. That tells me that rather than resenting a strong editor (as I did in my younger days, but less so as I grow older), I should appreciate how that editor improves my work.—CC

Keywords: selection/admissions, entrance policy, research -- entrepreneurship

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