They’re skills you won’t learn about from a book, Google search, or ChatGPT.
I was hosting a panel of startup founders at an entrepreneurship conference, and we’d reached the Q&A section. A woman in the audience stood up and asked the four panelists the following question:
What was the most unexpectedly valuable skill that helped you succeed as entrepreneurs?
The answers from the panelists were mostly what you’d expect. One person focused on learning to manage people. Another discussed sales. The third panelist talked about fundraising. And the fourth panelist reiterated the advice from the first panelist about the importance of managing/hiring people.
While I didn’t disagree with the importance of any of the skills mentioned, I felt like the answers didn’t understand the purpose of the question. The woman from the audience who asked them about their most unexpectedly valuable skill wasn’t looking for a generic list she could have gotten from ChatGPT. She wanted the kinds of unique insights someone can only gain through experience.
As the panelists spoke, I started thinking about some of the unexpectedly valuable skills I’d share if someone wanted my opinion. Unfortunately, as the host of the panel rather than a participant, nobody asked for my opinion. However, I liked my answers better than the answers the panelists gave, so I figured I’d share my favorites with all of you.
Here are the three most unexpectedly valuable skills I discovered I needed in order to succeed as an entrepreneur…
Skill #1: Listening
At its core, entrepreneurship is about people. You build a startup in order to help people, and building startups requires working with people. In other words, without people, startups are worthless, which means entrepreneurs have to learn how to clearly and effectively communicate with others. But communication isn’t just about telling people what to do. It’s also about listening to what they need and want.
I didn’t understand this nearly as well as I wish I had when I was first started as an entrepreneur. Instead, I was in love with the myth of the hero-prenuer. I idolized people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg — entrepreneurs who (allegedly) approached building companies like divine-right monarchs. According to the mythology surrounding them, they were instilled with some sort of divine force that allowed them to know exactly what the world needed — even if the world, itself, didn’t know — and they forced their visions onto people in whatever ways they believed were best.
Because of this misconception, I wasn’t great at listening to other people, and, as a result, I made lots of naive mistakes that mostly involved doing what I wanted instead of what other people were telling me.
As I got older and more experienced, I learned the value of carefully listening to the numerous stakeholders involved in whatever I was working on. That ability to listen helped me develop products people actually wanted and successful companies to go with them.
Skill #2: Time Management
If you ask the average entrepreneur to name the most valuable asset in startups (and the business world, more broadly) most of them will tell you it’s money. On its surface, this seems like a reasonable answer since startups are usually judged by how much funding they’ve raised and their valuations. But money isn’t a startup’s most valuable asset. A startup’s most valuable asset is time.
Time is the one resource even the best startup founders can never get more of. As a result, the best startup founders don’t optimize for money. They optimize for time.
The habit of optimizing for time needs to start much earlier than most entrepreneurs think; however, because young entrepreneurs rarely start with much capital, money is the thing they focus on. Don’t make this mistake . Decisions that cost time are the most important decisions an entrepreneur can make.
In a practical sense, this advice most directly translates into avoiding things that might seem productive but are actually inefficient time wasters. For example, meeting with potential customers who are unlikely to buy or pitching potential investors who aren’t likely to invest. Simply put, if a conversation or activity doesn’t have a reasonable chance of delivering real value, find something with a higher likelihood of providing a good return on your time investment.
Skill #3: Self Education
No entrepreneurs in history have ever begun their startup journeys with all the skills they needed in order to succeed. Instead, the best entrepreneurs understand that startups are dynamic environments with constantly changing requirements, and startup success is a byproduct of learning new skills on the fly rather than the result of knowing everything at the beginning. Because of this, successful entrepreneurs are constantly teaching themselves what they need to know.
You need to learn how to do the same thing.
Practice teaching yourself new skills. The skills themselves don’t matter. What matters is the practice.
For example, watch a bunch of YouTube videos about juggling until you’re good enough to join a circus. Get an app that teaches you piano and get yourself to a point where you can sit down at a random lobby piano and impress your friends. In other words, do whatever you can to cultivate your ability to quickly and efficiently learn new skills.
The better you are at teaching yourself new skills, the more prepared you’ll be to figure out solutions to whatever problems you encounter as you’re building your startup.
I’ve shared three of the unexpectedly valuable skills I’d recommend. What would you tell someone who asked you to name the most unexpectedly valuable skills that helped you succeed as an entrepreneur?