How to be a successful entrepreneur?

Remco Witberg with Dewi Kanters

Are entrepreneurs able to create their own opportunities and prevent risks that could be detrimental to their business? According to PhD candidate Dewi Kanters of Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences the answer is yes. In her research Emerging Resilience, Engagement, Well-being, and (Business) Performance Among Entrepreneurs and Their Spouses, psychologist Kanters examines to what extent entrepreneurs are able to influence their enterprise into flourishing. In addition, she wants to know: what is the role of intimate relationships regarding business successes and failures?

Kanters conducts her research in collaboration with Prof. Dr Arnold Bakker, Prof. Dr Daantje Derks and Dr Marjan Gorgievski. Her research is part of the Erasmus Initiative ‘Vital Cities and Citizens’, which aims to have a strong impact on society. Knowledge gained during the initiative should flow back directly to those involved. As Kanters’ research findings might contain valuable insights for entrepreneurs, she envisions creating a toolkit for self-employed workers which would include tips and tricks on how to improve business performance. 

What kind of entrepreneurs are part of your research?

Kanters: ‘I conduct my research among three hundred entrepreneurs in the Netherlands who are located in various cities, including Rotterdam and Amsterdam. They work in all kinds of fields; restaurants and cafés, communication, business, or medical care. They have to invest a minimum of 32 to 40 hours per week in their enterprise. Their behaviour, achievements, and losses are examined over a longer period of time. I have kicked off my research with approximately ten in-depth interviews with entrepreneurs. Recently I have distributed a questionnaire among the entire research population.’

It must be challenging to draw conclusions from such a heterogeneous group. Moreover, the notion of success - for example - is subjective. How do you measure successes and failures and is it possible to compare your findings among such a varied group of people?

‘It is true that all the entrepreneurs in my study are very different and consequently, their individual behaviour varies greatly. However, I have observed that entrepreneurs do seem to have things in common regarding their personalities. Many entrepreneurs are willing to take risks and explore possibilities to innovate. Moreover, they are not inclined to perceive something as a threat.

The subjective nature of concepts such as success or failure is not an impediment to comparison or valid research outcomes. The personal perception of what an individual entrepreneur regards as an accomplishment or a misstep is measured in my research. Obvious achievements such as high profit or societal appreciation of somebody’s endeavours are included in the analysis as objective parameters. However, they do not necessarily need to be perceived as successes by an individual entrepreneur. Personal perception is truly an important parameter in this analysis.’

Kanters’ approach to the research field of entrepreneurship is unique. Similar research in this field is often based on theories from either economics or management. In contrast, Kanters’ study is multidisciplinary: she uses theories from various fields, including positive psychology. In this discipline the subject of entrepreneurship is studied on the assumption that it is possible for entrepreneurs to create their own opportunities. This notion contradicts theories from some other disciplines that are based on the premise that opportunities are ‘objective’ phenomena which arise and should be identified as chances by the entrepreneur.

Subsequently, the entrepreneur can choose to either seize the opportunity or not. On the contrary, Kanters believes that entrepreneurs are capable of proactive behaviour, either enhancing opportunities or reducing possible threats through active involvement. Furthermore she has found that conceptualisations in the research field of entrepreneurship are limited: they are either too specific or too broad or do not apply to certain research populations such as entrepreneurs. An overarching and clear scientific concept of behaviour connected to entrepreneurship is absent. In her research Kanters tries to fill this gap.

Michel Uiterwijk

Two entrepreneurs who participate in Kanters’ research are Remco Witberg of the restaurant Vicini in Rotterdam Kralingen and Michel Uiterwijk, a creative entrepreneur at Miesman design. Uiterwijk’s studio is located under the Hofbogen in Rotterdam Noord. Do they consider themselves to be so-called ‘successful’ entrepreneurs who have been able to craft opportunities and ward off threats?

Witberg: ‘I am an entrepreneur through and through. I do believe that an entrepreneur is able to create his or her own opportunities. In order to do so, it is important to have a vision and to be determined. In my field, staying two steps ahead of the competition is important. This means I must perpetually find the right balance between safeguarding the elements in my enterprise which work well, whilst transforming and adding things in order to attract new visitors, or satisfy those who prefer change.

As an entrepreneur, I am constantly vigilant as there are always threats to my business. I try to limit these by keeping the scale of my business to a degree which I find well manageable. It is a conscious decision not to grow exponentially, but to maintain what I have currently established. I do not necessarily perceive myself as a “successful” entrepreneur, as there is always room for improvement. However, I realise that I might be considered as “successful” by others, given that my business flourishes.’

Uiterwijk: ‘I am the complete opposite. I don’t have a natural entrepreneurial spirit. Sales and profit have never been my priority. In the past I’ve sometimes had difficulties warding off threats. Over the years my entrepreneurial skills have improved enormously and so I’ve managed to better protect myself. As a creative designer of websites, graphic design and film, I have always pursued creative challenges.

I prefer to work on a variety of tasks, which appear to be less beneficial from a business perspective. In addition to my work as a designer I also make animations. As a backup plan I have a Bed & Breakfast, run mainly by my wife. Despite the fact that my work is relatively dispersed, I have been able to set up an enterprise with which I am able to sustain myself and my family. From an economical point of view, my business could perhaps perform better. However, because I reach my goals, I experience it as successful.’

You are both experienced entrepreneurs. Do you believe that you can learn something from the toolkit Kanters will create?

Witberg: ‘Definitely. As an entrepreneur, I always keep track of the performances of my colleagues in this field. In addition, I try to exchange experiences and knowledge with entrepreneurs who are my friends. I can learn a lot from my network and I expect to gain useful insights from the toolkit as well.’

Uiterwijk: ‘Learning as an entrepreneur is an ongoing process. I am positive that the toolkit will be valuable. In my day-to-day work it is hard to find the time to reflect on efficiency, for instance, or invest in researching possibilities with which I could improve my skills as a businessman. This toolkit will stimulate me to explore new ways that could be useful for my enterprise. Therefore, I am looking forward to the outcome of the research of Dewi Kanters!’

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