The Odds of Successful Entrepreneurship: How to Overcome the Holy Grail Syndrome


By Tijs Besieux

In this article, Tijs Besieux discusses the four steps to overcoming the Holy Grail Syndrome, which could hinder an entrepreneur’s road to success. Because what makes entrepreneurs successful is their ability to combine several talents and passions into one unique and valuable vision.


I want you to think about your favourite entrepreneur. What makes him or her so successful?

At my university I coach students. “Matthew” is one of them. As the end of his work toward his master’s degree approaches, Matthew starts to actively think about the future. He participates in a highly competitive academic program. Matthew is a top percentile student at a top university. As you might imagine, the pressure is on, and he struggles when it comes to choosing a future career. Why?

One of the things I have observed that can limit people is what I call the “Holy Grail Syndrome”. Matthew is relentlessly on the lookout for the one thing that will provide him with success and eternal happiness, the one talent that sets him apart from the rest and will assure a fruitful career. Matthew wants to be an entrepreneur. Whether in an existing firm (intrapreneurship), or by launching his own startup.

During our third coaching session, Matthew and I suddenly reached a breakthrough. Two insights kindled our discovery.

First, there is the author Malcolm Gladwell. I adore Mr. Gladwell, because he combines genius with the talent of storytelling. He taught us a valuable lesson about consumer goods; I gladly refer you to Mr. Gladwell’s TED talk on spaghetti sauce in case you have not seen it. The key takeaway of his story is that the sum of consumers does not look for “the one spaghetti sauce”. Rather, individual preferences can largely differ. Some like a lot of meat, others crave big chunks of vegetables. And thus, the entire spaghetti sauce industry transformed from “the one spaghetti sauce for all consumers” towards “spaghetti sauces for consumer clusters”.

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Second, we need to consider statistics in the equation. What are the odds that your native language is Spanish and the last digit of your phone number is 8? About 6/1000. How come? The probability that an event might occur depends on the multiplication of its separate odds. In this case, 6% of the world population has Spanish as its native language. Or, 6/100. And, 8 as last phone number digit has a likelihood of 1/10. Thus, the odds of (a) Spanish as native language and (b) 8 as last phone number digit equals 6/100 x 1/10 = 6/1000.

So, let us return to Matthew’s third coaching session. Until then, he could not take his eyes off the Holy Grail. We had so far discussed his academic performance and what he values in a future career. However, his stern focus blocked Matthew’s capability to embrace a broader perspective. With one question, we unlocked the conundrum. “What are the things you are passionate about?” I asked him. Not the one thing, but the multiple things. He immediately pointed out his love for Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A) – the domain of bringing separate companies together to form larger ones – from a legal standpoint. Matthew’s Holy Grail Syndrome.

The shift from one talent to multiple talents can take off pressure. You are no longer obsessed with the Holy Grail that might grant you eternal success. Rather, you have opportunities for value creation.

After a long reflective pause, he opened up his scope of competencies. “Well, I’m good at presenting to audiences. Further I’m passionate about new technologies. Also, because of my upbringing I speak three languages fluently. And, last, I highly value two colleague-students at the university who want to make a difference as well”, Matthew shared. We continued our coaching sessions, taking into account Matthew’s unique set of talents.

Last week, Matthew presented his plan to me. He and his two colleagues will start a consultancy firm to provide legal M&A advice to tech-startups in Europe. Matthew looked thrilled. I was thrilled too.

What can you learn from Matthew’s story?


Stop Searching for the Holy Grail

As Mr. Gladwell has taught us, we should not look for “the one thing.” Rather, there can be different products or services that relate to different groups of clients. This matters to us. Whether you are at the start of your career like Matthew or a seasoned entrepreneur, take a step back and map the things you’re good at. The things that make you happy and energised. What I’ve learned is that the shift from one talent to multiple talents can take off pressure. You are no longer obsessed with the Holy Grail that might grant you eternal success. Rather, you have opportunities for value creation. In our globalised and vastly developing world, there is plenty of space for singular business ventures.


It’s all About the Odds

The odds of setting yourself apart. The odds of shaping a particular business in which only you can excel. There are many tech-savvy people. There are also many minimalist designers. There is a handful of visionary businessmen. However, there is only one Steve Jobs.

Create a market in which you are unique, a market where your combined talents provide oxygen for growth. Matthew found competitive advantage by combining interests and talents.





Sure, many people have an academic background in M&A from a legal perspective. A lot of people are really good at presenting, and even more know about technology. Some people speak different languages fluently, others have a network of likeminded entrepreneurial friends. However, the likelihood of a person multiplying all these talents is relatively small. The odds are now in Matthew’s favour. He crafted a special service for a specific audience.

So can you.


Four Steps Towards Successful Entrepreneurship

The story of Matthew provides a blueprint for acting on entrepreneurial ideas. Whether you work inside an existing company, or you are on the lookout to start your own business. Below are four steps to enable you to craft your competencies into a unique and valuable business venture.

Step 1. Identify the things that you’re good at or passionate about. Do not limit yourself to competencies that you might associate only with the professional environment. Write the words randomly on a single piece of paper. Matthew’s love for technology and his multilingual background at first might not seem to be related. Mr. Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi founder of the Grameen Bank and Nobel Peace laureate, also combined odds – his deep care for the poverty-stricken people of Bangladesh with his PhD in economics. These links laid the foundation for a breakthrough innovation known as microcredit and microfinance.

Step 2. Check with your peers, friends, and family on whether they agree about your talent list. Who knows, they might add more. Often we have blind spots, because we no longer actively reflect upon things we perceive as obvious. Matthew’s awareness of his presentation know-how came to him only when we broadened the competence scope. Because presenting was something he was used to doing, he almost forgot to mention this particular skill. In order to facilitate step 2, simply ask the people around you: “What do you think I’m good at?”




Step 3. Conduct a brainstorming session. What might be entrepreneurial ideas that combine some of your talents and passions? At this stage, we are envisioning a unique niche in which only you can excel. Never curb your enthusiasm during a brainstorming session. The more ideas, the better. Evaluation is irrelevant at this point. Are you good at surfing and do you have a passion for cameras? Who knows, a quirky idea is bound to emerge. Actually it did. It’s called GoPro. Draw lines on your piece of paper, connecting talents and passions. At first Matthew’s ideas were too general and unexciting. He realised his entrepreneurial potential only when he connected several of his talents and passions.

Step 4. Evaluate, test, and implement your ideas. You may consult trusted peers and friends to discuss your ideas. Remember that if no one agrees with your idea, you either came up with something very dumb or you are about to change our future. Once you have crafted and tested your idea, the time has come for the big leap. You might pitch the business plan at the firm you work for. Or, you could set your own course with a new business venture.

What makes entrepreneurs successful is their ability to combine several talents and passions into one unique and valuable vision.

In conclusion, a few examples: Ms. Anita Roddick combined her love for cosmetics, business, and activism. She instigated the ethical consumerism movement by founding The Body Shop. Mr. Jack Ma merged his understanding of Chinese culture, his business acumen, and his historical ties with Yahoo’s co-founder Jerry Yang to build an e-commerce behemoth known as Alibaba. In 2015, Alibaba raked in $14 billion. On a single day. And, Ms. Melinda Gates combined her business understanding, exceptional network, and care for humanity to redefine philanthropy through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. What makes entrepreneurs successful is their ability to combine several talents and passions into one unique and valuable vision.

Will your name be next on the list? To find out, follow the four steps and overcome the Holy Grail Syndrome. May this be the start of a remarkable adventure. I know one thing for sure, Matthew’s journey has started. And I support him all the way.

About the Author

besiuex-webTijs Besieux, PhD, is research fellow at Leuven University and Antwerp Management School (Belgium). Tijs is visiting professor of leadership and negotiation at IÉSEG School of Management (Paris, France). His research has been recognized by the Kellogg School of Management Scholarship and the BNP Paribas Fortis Innovation Award. Tijs is managing director at the Leuven Center for Collaborative Management (Leuven University) where he is program director for a cross-faculty elective track on negotiation.





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