Dialing up insight professionals’ entrepreneurial streak

MRII and our educational partner University of Georgia are dedicated to helping you achieve market research success by enabling you to master the fundamentals so you can better realize the full potential and value of market research and drive innovation within it. In this post, David VL Smith, Founder and Director of DVL Smith Ltd., shares seven fundamental traits shared by entrepreneurs and market researchers. 

By David VL Smith, DVL Smith Ltd

After founding and building up an insight agency I decided to share my entrepreneurial experiences by writing a book: The Entrepreneur Mindset: The art of making ideas happen.

The book is primarily aimed at individuals who are considering embarking on the entrepreneurial way of life. It sets out the key dimensions of the mindset required to navigate the highs and lows of the entrepreneurial journey.

Having published the book, I started to reflect on the traits that are common to successful entrepreneurs and leading insight professionals. It seems that successful insight professionals have an entrepreneurial streak within their DNA.

So in this article I have identified seven fundamental traits—characteristics—shared by successful entrepreneurs and insight professionals.

1. They enjoy (and are good at) thinking

As a first sight you might think that the stereotypical entrepreneur is a kind of ‘just do it now’ action man, and that they would see ‘thinking’ as being for wimps—a back room academic activity. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Studies of successful entrepreneurs show that they pride themselves on their clarity of thinking. They allocate quality time and space each day for thinking.

And they are often avid readers—seeking out books with ideas that will help them sharpen the precision, accuracy and clarity of their thinking.

Importantly they enjoy quality thinking time: in fact one entrepreneur listed one of her hobbies as ‘thinking’—they don’t see it as a chore.

Entrepreneurs realise that it’s extremely difficult to tactically retrieve a flawed strategic position—they know it is worth putting in the thinking time at the outset to get the strategy right.

They are prepared to put in the hard yards of what Steve Jobs referred to as ‘clean thinking’ and also recognise the value of keeping things simple.

Jobs said, ‘Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple, but it’s worth it in the end, because once you get there, you can move mountains.’

So relating this to the world of insight the message is clear—don’t let the crazy makers pressure you into hasty ill thought through action.

When the pressure is on to get a project on the road make sure you call a strategic time out to reflect and think before rushing headlong into action that may end up being counterproductive.

One concrete tip is to adopt the ‘begin with the end in mind’ principle. Visualise the upcoming project—mentally walk through all the stages—and anticipate all the possible opportunities for flaws and ‘errors’ that could creep into the process. Be ready to navigate what might stand in the way of you delivering the an outstanding end outcome.

2.  They focus on what matters most

Interestingly when independently asked, what was the key to their entrepreneurial success, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett each replied in the same way.

The gist of this was ‘focusing on what matters most and then acting with purpose and intentionality to achieve these prioritised goals and desired outcomes.’

Entrepreneurs know to prioritise the game changing ‘big rocks’ that will make a massive difference ahead of the ‘medium rocks’ that will add some value—but can wait—and never get deflected into starting their day with the ‘little rocks’ (low priority activities.)

Apparently, Ingvar Kamprad the founder of IKEA used to ask himself every 10 minutes a question along the lines of ‘is what I going to do next going to help me build the IKEA empire?’ This is a little bit obsessive, but you get the idea!

So as an insight professional start each day by focusing on the big-ticket issues. Do not start your day by opening your inbox and letting the first little rock that pops up drive your agenda for the day. This is common sense but not always common practice.

3. They are committed to excellence in everything they do

The leading entrepreneurs and the top insight professionals both know that a genuine commitment to excellence is the bedrock of their success.

They recognise that this is a source of intrinsic motivation: you need to not only deliver to your customers’ expectations but also meet your own personal high standards.

Being good at what you do—striving for excellence—will help shape the sense of who you are and help frame your identity.

I like the quote from Vince Lombardi, ‘The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavour.’

And Jessica Guidobono summed up this commitment to excellence perfectly, ‘every job is a portrait of the person who did it. Autograph your work with excellence.’

This is why successful entrepreneurs obsess about mastering their craft—constantly improving and trying to be better.

What this means as an insight professional is when people and events are getting a bit demanding and you are low on energy, don’t take your foot off the excellence pedal.

You need to be able to kickstart yourself back into offering clients and stakeholders your high energy best—excellence. Doing everything to your own personal high standards, whilst demonstrating authenticity and integrity is good for your mental health. And it’s good for business. Everyone wins.

4. They take personal responsibility for figuring things out and taking action

The business gurus tell us that the path to success is to take a massive, determined action. Pablo Picasso said ‘Action is the foundational key to all success’.

So entrepreneurs do not sleepwalk through the day—they know that it is down to them to act and drive the agenda—they know that it is ‘always their fault ‘.

They don’t assume that someone else will fix things. They learn to be what Seth Godin refers to as a linchpin, ‘someone who can walk into chaos and create order, someone who can invent, connect, create and make thing happen’.

But the important point here is that entrepreneurs do not see themselves as naturally confident superhero’s with all the skills and knowledge in their toolbag to perfectly handle every situation.

When a challenge arrives—although they may not be able to fix it immediately—they do have the confidence to know that, with time, they will be able to ‘figure it out’. This is their super power.

So, if you are an insight professional, what this means is making sure your first reflex – your default setting—is take that first step into action. If something about a project does not look or feel right then take action, don’t let it drift and assume it will magically resolve itself.

One little tip here is to apply the ‘where there’s a Way there’s a Will’ principle. This is about making a start, getting underway and, because you will then start seeing results, you will acquire the motivation—the Will—to continue.

Many people wait for the motivation before they act but this is the wrong way of thinking about it.

If you take action, this will trigger the will to continue, so it’s about taking personal responsibility for action, which leads to motivation—not the other way around.

5. They are resilient and tenacious

Entrepreneurs knows that rarely do things go totally to plan right first time out of the box. So they factor into their game cultivating the resilience needed to cope with adversity. They develop techniques so that can deal with the highs and lows of the entrepreneurial journey.

Critical to this is accepting that ‘failure’ comes with the entrepreneurial territory. They make the conscious decision not to beat themselves up about so called failure—instead they see this as a learning opportunity.

Edison, father of the lightbulb, famously said ‘I’ve not failed 10,000 times, I’ve just successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work’.  

From the standpoint of the insight professional the good news is that as a breed we seem to have masses of natural tenacity. But there is no room for complacency: insight professionals need to work at building their resilience to cope with the relentless pace of change in our industry.  

Coping with adversity is a big topic but a couple of tips from the book may help. The fundamental start point is to cultivate what Carol Dweck refers to as the ‘growth mindset’ —this is one that embraces change and has a desire to continually learn and to persist in the face of setbacks.

In contrast a ‘fixed mindset’ believes that we are victims of our past and that this drives our fate. It sees what happened in the past as determining the future.

And building on this notion of acquiring the growth mindset is the idea of being mentally prepared for any handling any setbacks down the road.

It all starts by getting control over your thoughts—feeling confident you will react appropriately in the moment to adverse events and challenges that get thrown up in our time-urgent often highly pressurised research world. If your first reaction to a setback is an emotional over-reaction, then things can quickly go downhill.

Remember that each of us always has a space—a choice moment—between a particular stimulus that may be tempting us to make an overly emotional or ill-considered response and your reaction to this stimulus.

So cultivate your ability to seize this space/choice moment and use it wisely to make the right response from the range of options racing through your mind. This confidence in your level of personal control will give you the inner mental strength to handle any adversity coming your way.

6. They apply informed intuition 

Another stereotypical view of the entrepreneur is that they make decisions based on some magical gut feel intuition they possess.

And indeed intuition—what Richard Branson refers to as ‘an inner tingle’ that guides him to a decision—is something entrepreneurs all recognise as a big part of their playbook.

But intuition comes with a health warning: it can just simply be plain wrong. It can fall foul of all sorts of biases, influences and noise that lead us off course.

Thus the addiction to (solely) going with our GUT when making decisions is no more than saying we have ‘Given Up Thinking!’

So the savvy entrepreneur, when making a decision, combines their flair and intuition with the evidence. It is just that they often don’t own up to factoring the hard data into their decision equation. The story of their entrepreneurial journey often sounds more sexy if they miss out the ‘I studied the facts’ bit!

So for example, Richard Branson didn’t just magically say ‘let this be the location from my first Virgin Media store’ based on his ‘tingle ‘about what would work. He backed this up with counts on footfall: how many people were going past this site, compared to others he was considering. Yes, he did some market research!

So as insight professional this is good news. We’ve always known that good decision-making is a blend of intuition and the evidence. It’s a powerful combo of System 1 (intuitive) and System 2 (more rational) thinking—applying ‘informed intuition’.

Here the takeout for insight professionals is to continue to defend the faith of staying evidence based, but to dial up our intuition. These days it is important to acknowledge that our experience as researchers is ‘Admissible Evidence’.

We have seen the shapes and patterns elsewhere. So, be confident in expressing your Point of View. Bring the evidence and your flair to the party—use your ‘informed intuition’.

7.  They know they need to be creative

Successful entrepreneurs have always recognised the importance of being distinctive—they know they must differentiate their offer from others. Coco Chanel said, ‘in order to be irreplaceable one must always be different’.

So, creativity is a key ingredient of the entrepreneurial mindset. Entrepreneurs are renegade thinkers—they like to challenge received wisdom and the status quo.  

Branson gets this. I love his current UK Virgin Atlantic TV ad because it showcases the point about seeing the world differently. Virgin is always looking for unexpected ways to delight. They believe that thoughtful little touches add up to a big difference. 

And the good news is that insight professionals are no slouches when it comes to being creative. The rub though is that with the arrival of generative AI higher levels of creativity will increasingly be demanded of us. As Nick Law said, ‘If you want to create value be audacious because average is now going to come for free’.

So casting forward insight professionals will need to dial-up their creativity to make sure they are offering something that AI algorithms can’t provide. Here, the source of this creativity is our unique human understanding—our ability to empathise and our sense of compassion. We—unlike AI—know what it is like to be human, alive in today’s complex often conflicted world, and have a sense of what we humans want going forward. 

Our vision and our depth of understanding of the human condition will lie at the heart of how we unearth the creative insights that will be demanded by our clients.


So to conclude, insight professionals are in a good place when it comes to being entrepreneurial. But we are going to have to up our entrepreneurial game and be (even more) creative and proactive in turning ideas into action.

If you like to learn more about how to add that extra entrepreneurial dimension to your insight game, you might like to check out The Entrepreneur Mindset: The art of making ideas happen by DVL Smith (2023) Available on Amazon.

I hope you found this article helpful: every success on your own entrepreneurial and insight journey.

David Smith is the Founder and Director of DVL Smith Ltd ,and a Professor at the University of Hertfordshire Business School. He is a former ESOMAR Vice President and a past Chair of the UK Market Research Society. His PhD is in Organisational Psychology. He provides a range of high performance skills development programmes. You can contact David at david.smith@dvlsmith.com. To get a copy of his book, you can go here: https://a.co/d/0rTVOHl.

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