This month we celebrate Thanksgiving across America, a time to focus on the gratitude we feel for the innumerable blessings we enjoy as citizens of this great nation and for those early settlers whose entrepreneurial spirit laid the groundwork for its creation.
As we all learned in school, the first Thanksgiving was held in October 1621, less than a year after the 102 Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth on the Mayflower. About half were religious dissenters with the other half considered entrepreneurs willing to start fresh in the New World. While I might be playing loosely with the definition of “entrepreneur,” I’d consider them all entrepreneurs in some form, as each one took considerable initiative and risk in their voyage to America.
While nearly half died during the first harsh winter, the survivors built a self-sufficient economy within a few years. This took some definite entrepreneurial behavior. Let’s look at this behavior and see how we, as modern-day entrepreneurs, can benefit today:
Take risks: The Pilgrims took a huge risk: they left their homes, got on a ship with few belongings and set sail for the New World with little idea as to what would happen to them when they got there — if they got there at all. While we might never take a chance as big as that one, every new business comes with significant risk.
Did you quit a full-time job? That's a risk. Bootstrap your business with credit cards maxed to the limit? Risk. Hire family members to cut costs? Huge risk. Bet the bank on a previous successful entrepreneur with potential in hopes of leveraging his/her expertise, no matter the costs? More risk. But for your business to succeed, you’ve got to take some risk.
Sacrifice: As I wrote in another column in June, “starting a business requires sacrifice.” Sacrifice is a key characteristic of successful entrepreneurs. It was also a key characteristic of the early Pilgrims. They sacrificed their homes, relationships with extended family members, money they would have earned in their jobs back home, or in worst cases, their own lives or those of their children. They believed in what they were doing and prayed that they’d be successful.
Starting any new venture requires sacrifice. At the beginning, we sacrifice full-time wages, time with our families and very often a good night’s sleep. But as William Bradford, the second governor of Plymouth Colony, once said: “All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”
Set goals: No matter their reason for traveling to the New World, someone had to make plans and set goals for success. Writing down the goals — and referring to them often — is critical to reaching them. The same goes for starting any business.
Be flexible: As the Pilgrims quickly learned, though, they had to be flexible. Their intended destination was near Virginia’s Hudson River. As we all know, rough seas and storms moved them far off course near the shores of Cape Cod. Your company might face some storms of its own, but if you’re steadfast in your goals (yet flexible in how you reach them), you can overcome most any challenge.
Be persistent: Those that made it through the first winter were diligent. They were strong. They didn’t give up. They were persistent. They couldn’t be any other way if they wanted to survive and thrive. You might feel like your struggling business can’t survive another day, but unless there’s really no hope, come back tomorrow and try again.
Work hard: Surviving in a new land took hard work. Unfortunately, after the leaders organized a collective farm, without free enterprise, many of the men were unmotivated to work. The crops suffered, as did the Pilgrims. Fortunately, the leaders decided that the land could be divided and each family grow its own corn. The ambitious would eat while the lazy would go hungry because they wouldn’t work for it. The hard workers prospered, as did corn production. Within two years they had a surplus and began trading it with Native Americans and other small settlements for furs to export to England in exchange for supplies. Corn became currency as entire families worked on their own patch of soil. Now those were entrepreneurs!
Form partnerships: The Pilgrims learned to partner with each other and with the Native Americans to survive. They couldn’t do it alone. If you’re struggling with a certain aspect of your business, partner up with an expert.
Be teachable: If the Pilgrims hadn’t been willing and humble enough to accept help from the natives, they would never have learned to live off the new land. As entrepreneurs, we need to be willing to ask for help and be teachable enough to learn and apply the new direction. As educated as we might feel, there’s always something we don’t know.
Be thankful: After arriving at Plymouth Rock, Governor Bradford wrote in his journal, “Being thus arrived at a good harbor, and brought safely to land, they fell on their knees and blessed the God of heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof.”
Whether or not you are religious, expressing gratitude (even to your employees, partners, customers, etc.) will give you the humility needed to continue on.
So, as you pause to give thanks during this holiday season, remember these characteristics that helped the Pilgrims lay the foundation for the country we love — one that allows the right to own property, to engage in free enterprise and to live in a society governed by justice and the rule of law. The lessons we can take away from their experiences can be invaluable.
What other characteristics do you see in the Pilgrims? Send your notes to @AskAlanEHall or you can find me at www.AlanEHall.com.
This column originally appeared in Hall’s weekly Forbes column.
Alan E. Hall is a co-founding managing director of Mercato Partners, a regionally focused growth capital investment firm. He founded Grow Utah Ventures, is the founder of MarketStar Corp. and is chairman of the Utah Technology Council.