Guest post: How to think like an entrepreneur, wherever you are

This is a guest post by Amy Hoy (@amyhoy), the designer & co-founder behind Freckle Time Tracking, a former interaction design consultant to Fortune 100 companies, and a passionate crusader for creating no-nonsense products. In 2008, Amy moved from her home state of Maryland to Vienna, Austria. This article is a result of her entrepreneurial culture shock.

The mindset of the entrepreneur doesn’t come with a genetic code or a zip code, it comes with deliberate practice. You don’t have to come from an entrepreneurial family, or even come from an entrepeneurial culture.

You can cultivate your entrepreneurial mindset from anywhere… and you don’t have to do it alone.

Think like a Chess Grand Master

Did you know that there’s a measurable cognitive difference between Chess Grand Masters and novice players? Surprisingly, the difference isn’t in processing power, it’s in memory. Show a Grand Master a board in play, and she can memorize every piece in a couple seconds. Try the same trick with a novice, and you’ll be lucky if he manages a third.

Show a jumbled board — with no logic behind it — and suddenly the Grand Master and novice are equals.

Welcome to the chunking theory. A “chunk” is the cognitive science term for elements that can be bunched and remembered as a single piece of information. A Grand Chess Master can’t memorize any more random bits than a normal person, but she can reduce non-random chess piece positions to understandable moves (or chunks) — and memorize just as many chunks as a normal person can remember random pieces.

Then, working from there, the Grand Master is better able to decide what to do next. All because she spent hours and hours pouring over old chess games in her youth, one chunk at a time. Her fast memory and pattern-matching abilities work together.

She’s not stuck playing old patterns. A Grand Master uses her immense library of patterns to invent new strategies.

This is a recipe for startup success. Not sure what to do next? Need advice on pivoting to a different use case, for reaching your audience on a shoestring, for soothing ruffled cofounder feathers?

Well, if you just read and digest a thick stack of case studies, & biographies, you can put chunking and pattern-matching to work for you.

How to Create Your Own Chess Master’s Brain

Read. A lot. Don’t cherrypick things that seem to apply to you — read it all.

Read startup stories; read B2B stories; read books on strategic marketing, read books about pricing for the enterprise. Read productivity books for entrepreneurs and creativity books for artists.

Take notes. Draw comparisons from story to story, and to what you’ve personally experienced. What would you have done? How could you apply that to your business?

Learn from others’ experience, see the patterns, draw conclusions, chunk, chunk, chunk.

Then reap the rewards.

Your Contagion Network

But, you’re thinking, even if I train my brain — I can’t do everything alone. If only I lived in Silicon Valley or London, I’d have an instant network.

I won’t lie: who you know is important. But not the way you think.

What you should really worry about now is social contagion.

You’re Infected with Your Friends & Family

Did you know that, statistically speaking, your smoking, investing, eating, and exercise habits — even your overall happiness! — can be accurately predicted by looking at the habits of the people close to you?

Sure, it could be peer pressure — it could be a selection effect. It could also be simply that we tend to subconsciously look, think, and act like those we care about.  Normal, in other words.

What to do, then, if entrepreneurship is abnormal where you are? If you live outside a tech hub, were born to a risk-averse family (or society)? If you’re surrounded by normal people enjoying normal jobs?

You can override this negative social contagion by reversing it: Surround yourself with people you aspire to be like, virtually and physically. Create on purpose what you lacked by accident.

Expose Yourself to the Good Germs Long Distance

No need to pick up and move. Get intense from afar, with role models you might not ever meet in person:

  • read their books, blogs, tweets
  • analyze what they do (not just what they say)
  • hang up inspiring quotes or lists
  • hang up a photo of a particular role model you admire. What Would Seth Godin Do? What Would Jason Cohen Do?
  • take a few moments every day to think about their traits you admire

Cheesy? Hell yes. But who cares, so long as it works? And it definitely works. Research shows that simply writing a short essay about a friend’s act of self-control can increase your own self-control.

That’s cheese you can take to the bank.

Create Your Own Mastermind

Man cannot survive on netstalking alone. Once you’ve got a strong vision of what you aspire to, plant your feet on the ground by creating your very own mastermind.

A mastermind is a tight-knit group of people who get you, who’ve got your back… and who’ll kick your backside if you let yourself down. In other words, exactly the type of thing you need to keep going in a tough entrepreneurial climate.

First, aim for a local mastermind. You only need three people to start. Try all the usual suspects — HN, Reddit, Craigslist, tech meetups and hangouts, even small business associations. Your ideal members may be keeping a low profile.

If you can’t find find three locals, no worries. That’s what the internet is for.

This will be your group — it’s okay (even essential) to be choosy. Are you aiming for a juicy acquisition target? A paying SaaS? iPhone or mobile? Get specific.

Then it’s up to you to set the agendas, the regular meeting times, and the culture of productive prodding. That’s what makes a mastermind so incredibly powerful.

The Bottom Line: Be Proud

Being an entrepreneur is all about being different — even if you were born in a Silicon Valley garage. Being yourself in a risk-averse family, city, or country just makes you slightly more different than most.

To succeed, work hard — and embrace being different.

You didn’t choose to be an entrepreneur because it was the easy route.