Why optimism and entrepreneurship go hand in hand (and why it’s crucial to a growing business)

The founder and owner of Bathu, Theo Baloyi,at his sneaker warehouse in Midrand, north of Johannesburg. File picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/Independent Media

The founder and owner of Bathu, Theo Baloyi,at his sneaker warehouse in Midrand, north of Johannesburg. File picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/Independent Media

Published Jun 6, 2024


“Blind optimists.” That’s what entrepreneurs have been referred to throughout history – and for good reason. Entrepreneurs have the ability to envision a future that doesn’t exist and take steps to make the vision a reality, even though they may be unsure whether the steps are being taken in the right direction.

“Just start” is the one piece of advice many of those notoriously optimistic entrepreneurs share with people who ask them how they’ve managed to achieve what they have. To follow that advice and “just start” – to begin creating something you believe will be the next big thing – you have to be optimistic. Otherwise, why start? What would all the time, money and effort be worth in the end?

Arguably, every entrepreneur is an optimist, in one sense or another. It takes a relentlessly positive mindset and dogged determination to see the opportunities that exist at the heart of the greatest challenges. Knowing one in nine start-up businesses across the world fail within the first five years, some might argue that many entrepreneurs are naive or short-sighted.

But optimism is an essential ingredient for entrepreneurship, especially because of the real possibility that failure could be the outcome, rather than despite it. It might be that optimism that allows certain individuals to “fail forwards”, and perhaps even fall serendipitously into the next best solution.

Of course, optimism alone is not going to cut it in the big wide world of business, but it certainly goes hand in hand with entrepreneurship. Three reasons why:

The feel-good factor in times of failure

Ask any South African entrepreneur what you need to succeed and they’ll probably say resilience. The personal and professional journeys of aspiring businesspeople are rarely linear. Most times, entrepreneurs face many extreme highs and lows before they reach a plateau or achieve anything close to what they envisioned. The difference between entrepreneurs that succeed in the long-term as opposed to those who give up when faced with adversity, is the ability to turn setbacks into stepping-stones.

To do that, business owners need mental fortitude and an attitude that says the goal lies just beyond the next obstacle. It’s not surprising, therefore, that some of the world’s greatest names in business are people whose lives have been fraught with difficulties.

Arianna Huffington, the co-founder of world-famous The Huffington Post, wrote a book that was rejected by 36 publishers.

The 2023 Business Partners Ltd Entrepreneur of the Year® and founder of Bathu, Theo Baloyi, sold perfumes door-to-door in Alexandra township to make ends meet while studying for his accounting degree. Today, he employs more than 300 people. In these and other examples, the power of optimism shines through.

A catalyst for action

Entrepreneurs are vastly different – they have different backgrounds, different pathways to success, different mindsets and belief systems and different motivators. However, one thing that they do share, regardless of their differences, is the ability to put their vision into action.

As many renowned entrepreneurs have attested, the will and drive to act is one of the most important factors that determine whether a business transitions from being an idea to being a commercially viable enterprise. It is, after all, why the advice to “just start” has become a mantra of the global business community.

Optimism is a powerful motivator to act and the reason why many of the world’s most ubiquitous businesses get off the starting block. Beyond the formative years, optimism can fuel the passion and perseverance needed to navigate the complexities of starting and growing a business, from securing funding to scaling operations.

The science says it

The fact that optimism is “good for business” is anecdotally true and has been proved by science in many ways. One study, published by the American Psychological Association, found that people with higher levels of optimisms as an inherent personality trait, generally have better levels of mental health and are more successful across multiple life domains. Similarly, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that a people who display a higher degree of optimism also benefit from a longer duration and quality of sleep.

A large body of research supports similar findings that optimism is linked to better physical health, longevity and professional and academic achievement.

All the health-related factors add up to the fact that entrepreneurs who are happier, healthier and more fulfilled are more set-up for success than their peers, and the science proves it. The synergy between a positive outlook and the entrepreneurial spirit is not just a coincidence but a necessity for the success and growth of any business.

Ben Bierman is the managing director of Business Partners.