What Makes An Entrepreneur Successful? (Answer: Self-Interest)

Dan Sullivan
5 min readOct 7, 2021

Most entrepreneurs get the entrepreneurial bug very early, sometime around or before age ten. They want something and get the complete cycle in their mind for how to get it — buy something to stock up, get customers, and provide a product along with a service. But not all entrepreneurs end up being successful.

What makes an entrepreneur successful?

When I think of what makes an entrepreneur successful, I reflect on my father’s journey as an entrepreneur. Initially, he was a farmer, and the farm failed. Then, at age 50, he retrained himself as a landscaper and had a very successful career. I learned a lot by watching him and witnessing his reinvention. Landscaping fit with his Unique Ability, wasn’t commoditized, and allowed him to be more personal and involved with his clients, which he enjoyed. What made him successful was that he was doing something that fulfilled his self-interest while providing something of value to others.

I also reflect on my own journey. Before I started coaching 47 years ago, I knew that I could help people envision their future by asking them the right questions. Even my mother said that I enjoyed asking questions of the adults in the neighborhood as a child. So, to indulge my self-interest, I began coaching to do more of what I loved.

The role of self-interest.

I believe that self-interest is at the heart of what makes an entrepreneur successful. Yet, so often, people will deny self-interest as a motivating factor. Still, I think it’s important to understand that it’s this interest to have control, do what you want, and make money doing it that will drive your success and help you engage with others in a way that benefits both you and your clients.

As an entrepreneur, you create what you want.

In my book Wanting What You Want, I talk about how, when people want something, they tell themselves that they’re not doing it for themselves but for others.

But there’s nothing the matter with saying you’re doing something because you want to and find it fun and fulfilling. What makes a successful entrepreneur is the ability to see your business as something built out of your self-interest that serves the interests of others too, because it can (and should) be both!

The paragraphs that open The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith state that it is not out of kindness that the butcher or the baker provides the product and service, but for their self-interest. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he writes that, although all human beings are self-interested, we can imaginatively put ourselves in another person’s shoes to understand what they want and need. This is what makes us better salespeople and negotiators. You’re not going to make a sale unless you have keen insight into what another person wants and would pay for.

Your own self-interest and your understanding of another person’s self-interest are what make you a successful entrepreneur.

True entrepreneurs can ignore what other people think about their self-interest, understanding that, for the business to be successful, it must inherently serve and be of value to others too.

Entrepreneurs getting what they want.

I’ve observed that successful entrepreneurs are closer to professional performers, like actors, entertainers, or professional athletes, because they have a different time system than the regular world. They don’t go by workweeks or work hours, but rather by performance. That performance must be 100% focused and 100% energized. If done right, that focused work can equal the income of people who work full-time for a month, day in and day out, because they’re not paid by time but by results.

That difference in the time system makes your whole world different.

In The Strategic Coach Program, we have three types of days: Focus Days, Buffer Days, and Free Days. Focus Days are performance days, Buffer Days are rehearsal or preparation days, and Free Days are for rest and rejuvenation. Actors and athletes operate by this type of time system because they would be worn out or get injured if they played or performed every day of the year.

Now, with COVID, many successful entrepreneurs have changed their days around because they can work remotely with virtual teams and leverage Zoom so they don’t have to travel or commute. These are positive changes because they have allowed entrepreneurs to do more of what they want by being efficient with their time and finding the right people to do the things they used to do.

When I lead successful entrepreneurs through a reflection exercise about this, I anchor everything in their self-interest first. What do they want? What would they enjoy? Starting with this is what makes an entrepreneur successful because they’re fueled and motivated by self-interest.

My self-interest: a book a quarter.

I produce a small book every quarter, and I’ve got a whole team that helps make it happen. We’ve created a video on how we put it together in 35 hours of my time, from start to finish. Over the past five or six years, I’ve gotten back four or five hours of my time with each book because I’ve created shortcuts using technology and teamwork.

What makes a successful entrepreneur is clarity around what you want so you can create freely, bring your ideas to life, and serve others while serving yourself. I enjoy collaborating to make my books, and, in turn, entrepreneurs benefit from the content I provide because it helps them pursue their self-interests too. Win-win!

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I hope this article triggered some new ideas, projects, initiatives, and thinking for you and your business.


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Dan Sullivan

World’s foremost expert on entrepreneurship in action. Co-founder and President of The Strategic Coach Inc. Find out more: https://www.strategiccoach.com