As a mentor and advisor to entrepreneurs, I find it’s easy to recognize “street smarts” when I see them, but it’s hard to explain the specifics to someone on the other end of the spectrum, even if they are willing to learn. Some people argue that street smarts are only a natural born skill, but I disagree. I believe they are disciplines that can be taught and learned.
In the urban world, being street smart means instinctively knowing how to keep yourself safe from scams and bad guys. It means you know your way around, how to handle yourself in tough situations, and how to “read” people’s intent. In reality, the startup world contains those same very risky streets, but in the business context.
Thus I was happy to see some help in a classic book by John A. Kuhn and Mark K. Mullins, “Street Smart Disciplines of Successful People” that put some meat on the bones of what it means to be street smart in business. I like their outline of seven key disciplines, all of which can be learned and practiced, that may actually be required for business success:
Work smart. This means using discipline to get smart before you start working. Find out everything you can about the business domain you are targeting. In addition, maintain a change-oriented and future-focused mentality, with an actionable execution plan. When someone tells you they are working hard, it’s usually an excuse for not working smart.
Skip the chatter. If you are trying to gain commitment or persuade someone, practice the discipline of thinking beyond conversational chatter. The four steps of a successful presentation always include preparation, practice, delivery, and asking for the order. Make these part of every interaction with partners, customers, and team members.
Deal with people. People do business with your people, not your startup. Finely tuned people skills make you more likeable, warm, friendly, open, and effective. Put yourself in their heads to see things from their perspective. Have patience, and listen actively before speaking. Street smart entrepreneurs practice this discipline until it is not work.
Watch your money. It’s not unusual for creative entrepreneurs to find finances difficult to understand, intimidating, or just a numbing bore. If you feel that way, find a partner who loves that critical side of the business. In reality, the discipline to manage cash does not require a financial genius. It just requires a discipline of relentless focus.
Get more business. This discipline is the art of making a constant of new business opportunities, new customers, and new revenue flowing into your startup. Develop an aggressive prospecting mentality, stay close to current and past customers, get referrals, and optimize Internet marketing. If you startup isn’t evolving and growing, you are failing
Manage yourself. Entrepreneurs will always be wearing many hats in their business and personal life. Even the more important activities can sometimes be excuses to avoid the underlying challenge of working toward your life-changing goals. Learn and practice time management disciplines. Banish procrastination. Be decisive. Have fun.
Everybody sells. It may not be in their job descriptions, but everyone in a startup should be selling. The very first moment that you have contact with an investor, or a customer has contact with your team, an impression and a perception is created. That perception is your reality, and you only get one chance to make it a good one.
Overall, street smarts also requires that you can put all these things together for problem solving, and to dodge and weave effectively through the risky business streets. It means balancing your idealistic vision of how things could be, against the realities of the business world. Confidence and a positive attitude are also required to be a street smart and successful entrepreneur.
But attitude and problem solving are not sufficient, without the basic disciplines outlined above. No one is born with all these disciplines. These represent the knowledge and experience of many successful business people. Study them carefully and practice them religiously. The alternative is a long and painful learning curve, which neither you nor your investors can afford.