Are you predisposed to startups? The Myers-Briggs traits of entrepreneurs

In a recent coffee with Steve Blank, the topic of entrepreneurial personality traits came up. We talked about the Myers-Briggs scale, which classifies our preferences and tendencies on a spectrum of four traits:

Extroversion (E) vs. Introversion (I): Where do you put your social attention and get your energy? Extroverts get it from socializing, introverts from being alone or in small groups. Introverts are not necessarily shy; they just enjoy solitude more. 

Intuition (N) vs. Sensation (S): Where do you put your mental attention and how do you process information? Intuits favor patterns, theory, and focusing on the future. Sensates favor details, sensations, and focusing on the past and present.

Thinking (T) vs. Feeling (F): How do you make decisions? Thinkers favor facts and principles, feelers favor personal concerns and harmony. 

Probing (P) vs. Judging (J): How do you organize your life? Probers are more spontaneous and flexible, judgers are more deliberate and structured.

Myers-Briggs doesn’t say people are all one side of the spectrum or the other. It posits we have natural set points for each trait, and while we can exert effort to temporarily be more one way or the other, at rest we tend to resort to our set point.  

Controversially, it does say people should strengthen these tendencies and find the best environmental fits rather than try moving to the center on all traits and being all things. For example, introverts shouldn’t try to gain energy from socializing, but strengthen their ability to reflect and enjoy solitude.

What set of traits do you think most favors entrepreneurialism? While any combination can succeed, I think there’s a clear combination most predisposed to startups: ENTPs. These folks are only ~3% of the population and classified as Inventors: 

“Inventors are keenly pragmatic, and often become expert at devising the most effective means to accomplish their ends. They are the most reluctant of all the types to do things in a particular manner just because that’s the way they have been done. As a result, they often bring fresh, new approaches to their work and play.

They are intensely curious and continuously probe for possibilities, especially when trying to solve complex problems. Inventors are filled with ideas, but value ideas only when they make possible actions and objects. Thus they see product design not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end, as a way of devising the prototype that works and that can be brought to market.

Inventors are confident in their pragmatism, counting on their ability to find effective ways and means when they need them, rather than making a detailed blueprint in advance. A rough idea is all they need to feel ready to proceed into action.”

Steve and I discussed the importance of both intuition and sensation for his concept of customer development. Steve says entrepreneurs should start with a vision (intuition), then collect data to validate their hypothesis and revamp the vision (sensation). Entrepreneurs without intuition will get lost in data and miss valuable patterns; entrepreneurs without sensation will chase ideas without supporting data and produce unwanted products. It’s a tough balance.

As a dyed-in-the-wool ENTP, I have felt the temptation to brainstorm in a dark room without customer data. I am good at seeing patterns of behavior and needs people may have, but I need to focus more on confirming these ideas by getting outside my head and the building, as Steve would say. 

It’s worth noting Myers-Briggs is itself the product of intuition. It is based on Carl Jung’s theories, which relied primarily on anecdote instead of controlled studies. Another prominent personality tool used to diagnose mental illness, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, is entirely empirical with no initial theory. The creators just posed a list of 600+ questions to people and observed what answers correlated to diagnosed mental illnesses. It is a sensate method.

Of course, any psychological theory is a simplification compared to the complexity of actual people. Yet, my (intuitive) observations are that ENTPs have an inherent advantage in entrepreneurship, and are at the very least, a lot of fun to be around. 🙂

P.S. I’m mainly focusing on the traits of founders. Early employees in other roles are probably optimized by other combinations, like architects (INTPs) and salespeople (ESTPs).

5 thoughts on “Are you predisposed to startups? The Myers-Briggs traits of entrepreneurs

  1. Jeffrey July 31, 2009 / 4:04 pm

    Myers-Briggs is not valid psychology. It’s not even scientific. That’s because its assertions are not reproducible — the result of a Myers-Briggs test comes out differently for the same person more than half the time. It was created by person without medical or psychological training — and, as the article you linked to notes, “Jung seems to have realized the limitations of his work and may not have approved of the MBTI had he lived to see it developed in his name.”

    I think that talking and thinking about this stuff is worthwhile but it’s also very dangerous to assume that people can be neatly placed in one of sixteen different categories. If you’re an entrepreneur, it’s also very important that you keep this stuff out of the workplace (Wal-Mart was famously sued for trying to force some of its employees to take Myers-Briggs tests).

  2. Jason August 4, 2009 / 12:39 pm

    Jeffrey, you’re right that the MBTI tends to get a bad rap in the scientific community and the psychological literature. But I just came across some empirical data that shows that dimensions of the MBTI do correlate with the Big-5 personality index, and these are long established predictors of job performance. It’s changed my perception of the MBTI. Here’s a link to the article:

  3. shel August 6, 2011 / 9:26 am

    I’m just wondering if you think that ENTP’s are simply pre-disposed to being Entrepreneurs or if they are in fact better at entrepreneurial ventures.

    I’m an ENTP. I quit my Finance job to pursue Medicine. Went back to school, took Med pre-reqs and I’m at the application stage now, but started some other small businesses on the side. I really enjoy my entrepreneurial ventures and went to a top undergrad business program (Wharton). I feel like I should go to Med School, but not sure if I really want to go. As an ENTP, is it simply that I’m more prone to starting my own company and being entrepreneurial… or, am I in fact better at that. Is it worth a go or better to be safe and go to Med School?

  4. shel August 6, 2011 / 9:27 am

    * “not sure if I really want to go [to Med School] anymore.” I still want to go, just not as much as I’d rather pursue my entrepreneurial start-ups.

  5. Mark Goldenson August 6, 2011 / 12:01 pm

    Hey Shel, my experience is that ENTP are actually better at startups given their personality tendencies – social, analytical, creative, adaptable. Of course other personality types can succeed in startups but anecdotally, I think ENTPs have a leg up.

    I can’t speak to what the best career choice is for you since it depends on so many variables, but simply, I would go with whatever you are most passionate about. Good luck with whatever you choose!

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