A Business Campaign sponsored by EY.

Do you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur?

New Zealand is a country of small businesses - more than 586,000 of them, according to the latest Statistics NZ figures. So our spirit of entrepreneurship is strong.

But not everyone is cut out to be his or her own boss. And there are those who believe entrepreneurs are born and not made - that there is an "entrepre-neurial gene" that gives some the ability to create something from nothing, and the resilience to start again if everything comes crashing down around them.


In this camp is Diane Foreman, EY's Entrepreneur Of The Year in 2009 and twice a judge of EY's World Entrepreneur Of The Year awards in Monaco.

In her book In the Arena, Foreman says entrepreneurship "is in my DNA".

"Being an entrepreneur is what I am; it's not just what I do," she says. "It's in my bones. For me, it's never about a single product or service. It's about having a mindset, a passion and a vision to see an idea with potential; put together a deal; find, motivate and lead the best people, always exceed my customers' expectations."

Others think entrepreneurship and its disciplines can be taught. Or that entrepreneurship may be a combination of inherited characteristics and learned behaviour.

Even among themselves, some of our top entrepreneurs can't agree on this.

This year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of EY's Entrepreneur Of The Year programme in New Zealand. During the past two decades we have had the opportunity to meet hundreds of remarkable entrepreneurs from all over New Zealand, across all areas of business.

They typically share a desire to do something better, and while many of the challenges they face are similar, each has a unique story.

We asked a group of Entrepreneur Of The Year winners and judges about the three key traits they believe are needed to be a successful entrepreneur.

We asked about the existence of an entrepreneurial gene and what triggered their decision to start their own businesses. We asked about the greatest challenge they had faced, and the best piece of advice they'd ever received.

Here are their stories.

David Johnson

Founder and owner, Trends Media Group. EOY winner in 1998

Key traits of an entrepreneur
Can see their way through problems and obstacles -- and do this naturally.

Can see into the future with great confidence. They're always working at least two years ahead of everyone else.

Self-belief. Entrepreneurs have not only the concept and the dream, but also the ability to execute and engage others to make the dream happen.

An entrepreneurial gene?

Often you don't realise you're an entrepreneur until you've actually become one. I don't think entrepreneurship can be learned, but particular circumstances can be needed to bring it out.

For me, the realisation didn't come until I won Entrepreneur of the Year in 1998. But I had been an entrepreneur since the day I was born. It was a natural instinct and a talent that I had.

Entrepreneurial trigger?

Being born! It evolved from there.

One of my earliest memories was when I was about 10 and my mother needed a new washing machine. My father needed someone to reconfigure the inside of his store. I said, "Give me three weeks and I'll do it for you". He was sceptical but I succeeded and was paid $140 -- enough to buy the new washing machine. That was a hell of a lot of money in those days.

Greatest difficulty

The degree to which some people "work fulltime" to destroy your vision and your ideas. As an entrepreneur you can make a lot of people uncomfortable. Most entrepreneurs don't take this sort of behaviour personally but they need to overcome it as it can be very destructive.

Best advice

Read everything at least four times. If you jump in without reading something properly, it's the little things that will come back to bite you. Be disciplined. Close the door, take some quiet time and absorb the details.

Dan Radcliffe

Founder and executive director, International Volunteer HQ. EOY winner 2014.

Key traits of entrepreneurs:
Confidence and the ability to take on risk. You need to back yourself and be willing to take a chance.

Outside-the-box thinking. You need ideas and to see things a bit differently to others.

Resilience. There will be tough times. Businesses can fail at the start or take a long time to get off the ground, so you must be able to pick yourself up and stick in there.

An entrepreneurial gene?

I think entrepreneurship is a combination of inherited and learned behaviour. You need entrepreneurial flair, but you must also be able to learn as you go -- to be willing to take on board new ideas.

Some people find that quite uncomfortable; not everybody is cut out to be an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurial trigger

I saw an industry -- volunteer travel -- ripe for disruption or, at least, improvement. I had an experience that was substandard and no other better options out there, so I did it myself.

Greatest difficulty

Starting a business at the age of 22. Initially it was all about trying to get respect from our foreign partners and the channels we were advertising through. Even getting people in New Zealand to take you seriously as an employer and to believe in what you were doing was hard at the beginning. But starting young was the best thing I ever did.

Best advice

Don't be afraid to have a go.

When I was thinking about starting my company, I was holidaying in Egypt. I pitched the idea to a guy who claimed to be a founder of Lonely Planet and asked if he thought I should do it.

He said, "Why wouldn't you? You're 22 and if the business doesn't work out, you'll be 24 with maybe $40k in debt and that's pretty easy to overcome. By the time you're 30 you won't have any debt and you'll be away again." So that helped me put things into perspective. A couple of years down the track I'd still be a young guy and there wasn't really a lot to lose. And it's much easier at that point than when you've got a wife and kids.

Rod Drury

Xero CEO Rod Drury at his Auckland office in Parnell. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Xero CEO Rod Drury at his Auckland office in Parnell. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Founder and CEO of Xero. EOY winner 2013

Key traits of an entrepreneur
A thick skin. Needed if you're doing things that are edgy, especially in New Zealand.

A story-teller. Being able to paint a vision and take people along the road with you.

An active networker. You need to continuously build relationships and provide value to the people you've met. When I meet people, I'm always thinking how I can help them. You'll always get it back, times 10.

Serial entrepreneurship. I like the idea of seeing entrepreneurship as a series of steps -- a repeatable process.

An entrepreneurial gene?

I definitely think entrepreneurship is a learned behaviour. It starts off with a bit of passion, then if you get good, positive feedback cycles, you just move faster.

Entrepreneurial trigger

It was my desire to work with a particular piece of technology. I started my career at EY and enjoyed my time there, but to build the type of business I wanted, I had to start my own company. I'd read all the Silicon Valley books and that's where I wanted to go.

Greatest difficulty

My stutter. In my 20s I found it very difficult to speak in public and while I did courses, they didn't really work for me. So I just built up my experience and comfort levels, and I no longer have the anxiety I had when I was younger.

I do so much public speaking now and have kept working on it but still think I'm a stutterer. It never really leaves you.

Best advice

That when you're driving a train, you often have to go back and reconnect the carriages. So you must always ensure the team understand where you're headed and sometimes you have to slow down to make sure everybody understands the vision and the mission. We've now got 1800 people inside Xero and I spend a lot of time going back and restating why we're doing what we're doing.

Tim Alpe

Tim Alpe, chief executive of the Jucy group of tourism companies. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Tim Alpe, chief executive of the Jucy group of tourism companies. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Founder of JUCY. EOY winner 2010

Key traits of an entrepreneur
Passion. This word gets thrown around a lot, but it's non-negotiable for entrepreneurs. You have to love what you do and be willing to make sacrifices to be successful. Passion and drive often make the difference in the end.

Resilience. The ability to take the bad with the good and not to become despondent when things go against you. The ability to get back on the horse, especially in the early days of your business, is critical for any entrepreneur.

Persuasion. Entrepreneurs need the ability to encourage and persuade their team to follow them into battle to achieve the sometimes unachievable. The ability to get a team 100 per cent behind your vision for the business is critical. Great entrepreneurs know they can't do it alone and need "rock stars" around them in order to succeed.

An entrepreneurial gene?

I am asked a lot and am still not sure of the correct answer. I believe you are a product of your environment -- and that was very much the case for me, growing up. I was fortunate to be born into a family where my father and grandfather were successful entrepreneurs. This environment meant I saw first hand what it took to be an entrepreneur and I believe it is why I was determined at an early age to start JUCY.

Entrepreneurial trigger

I think I always wanted to be an entrepreneur and never felt comfortable working for someone else.

I was always thinking about different business ideas and found the red tape associated with working for a big corporate frustrating. I can remember in my early 20s, when I was working for another company and having to write massive businesses cases to do something rather simple, I thought "this is ridiculous".

I needed to be able to move quickly to capitalise on opportunities. I needed to control my own destiny and do something that ultimately succeeded or failed on the back of my and my team's efforts. I also thought I might be unemployable and didn't have an option but to be an entrepreneur.

Greatest difficulty

Probably the feeling of guilt that I am missing out on some things, especially family time, to successfully grow JUCY. While I never want to regret anything, it is often tough to be away for long periods and feel like you are missing out. And it can be quite lonely. An understanding family is critical to any entrepreneur.

Best advice

My father always told us to "employ our weaknesses" - something we have always done at JUCY. If I look at our payroll today, it is clear that I have a lot of weaknesses!

Anne Norman

Co-funder and director, James Pascoe Group

Key traits of an entrepreneur
Creativity. Having ideas, and creating and fulfilling a need for something. So it's about creating and developing a market.

Proactivity. Looking for different opportunities. Some people wait for things to come to them; an entrepreneur looks for things to develop.

An appetite for risk.

An entrepreneurial gene?

It's not something that can be learned. I don't think you can create an entrepreneur, nor do I think you can choose to become one. You don't wake up one day and think, "I'm going to be an entrepreneur". For me, it's all about the ability to see different opportunities and to make things happen.

Greatest difficulty

The people you work with! They can be your greatest asset but others can create barriers to try to block your entrepreneurial ideas.

Having said that, we've been very fortunate with the people we've gathered around us, and the advice we've been given and the ideas we've shared.

Best advice
Be persistent. Don't stop if one person says no. There'll likely be someone else out there who will buy your idea and get behind it.

Be resilient. There are always challenges. You need a positive "can do" attitude. You have to believe you can do it.

Keep it simple. Don't complicate things. In our particular business, one of the best pieces of advice we got was to avoid a public listing. Understand your business and its place in the market, and don't try to be something you are not. If you own a discount store, don't try to turn it into Harrods.

Employ the right people.

Don't deviate from your standards and maintain your integrity.

Entrepreneurial trigger

My husband David and I didn't decide to be entrepreneurs -- we simply saw an opportunity and seized it. We started building townhouses in places like New Lynn in the 1970s when homeowners could still capitalise the family benefit. We chose a market where there was a need and finance was available. David built the houses, and I painted and decorated them.

Darren White is an EY partner and director of the Entrepreneur Of The Year awards in New Zealand