Why Mindsets Matter: Insights from Professor John Mullins

As a three-time entrepreneur and seasoned business school professor, John Mullins has spent decades delving into the world of entrepreneurship. His journey, marked by successes and failures, has provided invaluable insights into what drives entrepreneurial ventures to thrive. He shares his reflections below.

John Mullins
John Mullins, Associate Professor of Management Practice in Marketing and Entrepreneurship at London Business School

In my initial career as a three-time entrepreneur – with a victory, a setback, and a draw under my belt – and now, having served as a business school professor and case-teacher for about three decades, I’ve been fortunate to rigorously study what makes entrepreneurs tick and their ventures thrive. This exploration took shape through two distinct avenues.

The first is by having researched and written four trade books, with each of the first three of them focussed on one crucial aspect of the entrepreneurial journey:
• Assessing opportunities, so you pursue an attractive one and don’t waste your time on the pursuit of a no-hoper (The New Business Road Test);
• Figuring out a business model that will work (Getting to Plan B);
• And finding a way to finance your venture without selling your soul – and your freedom and control – to venture capital investors (The Customer-Funded Business).

The other method, which has consumed the majority of my research and writing efforts, involves developing case studies for over 50 entrepreneurial companies and their founders. This process has granted me an intimate, up-close, ring-side seat into what’s driven their entrepreneurial journeys, ranging from successful to less prosperous outcomes.

A couple of years ago, I was taking stock of what I’d learned over these many years of both having been an entrepreneur and having studied entrepreneurs of all shapes, sizes, motivations, and more. I had an epiphany. Entrepreneurs are different from the rest of their similarly successful peers in the business world. They are different in some fundamental ways – six ways, as it turned out, once I put my mind to it and dug into my already substantial body of case research. But that epiphany flew in the face of a body of research that I knew well.

As you might guess, when the practice of entrepreneurship entered into the business mainstream in the late 20th century and as what is now Silicon Valley was transformed from a peninsula dotted by bucolic orchards into today’s frenzied start-up epicentre, academics began studying these creatures called entrepreneurs. “What makes them different from other successful businesspeople?” they wanted to know. A decade or so of research published in leading academic journals reported the answer. Nothing! We find no discernable differences.

Why? For every brash and swashbuckling character like Virgin’s Richard Branson or EasyJet’s Stellios Haji Ioannou there were introverts like Michael Dell helping to make personal computing ubiquitous or Palm’s Jeff Hawkins developing personal digital assistants that would pave the way for today’s smartphones. For every sales-minded founder or leader like Victor Khiam (“I loved the product so much I bought the company”, the TV ads extolled for the rotary Remington electric shaver back in the 1980s) there were self-confessed nerds like Steve Wozniak pairing with Steve Jobs to found Apple and Bill Gates and Paul Allen creating Microsoft.

Sure, the studies found, there are some personality traits that such people possess. They are generally open to new experiences and often driven by a fierce and relentless passion that lets nothing stand in their way. But, guess what? So, too, are other successful business people in more established business settings! Paul Polman, the now-legendary CEO of the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods marketer Unilever somehow instilled a new sense of purpose, one that embraced sustainability, into that slow-growing company and soon left arch-rival Procter & Gamble in the dust.

OK. So apparently there aren’t any discernable differences that characterise successful entrepreneurs, the academic world concluded. Here enters my epiphany. From my ring-side seat, I’d observed how more than 50 entrepreneurs think and act. How they take in information and what they do with it. How they respond to circumstances that come their way.

In short, I’d observed that what’s different about successful entrepreneurs is not their drive, as they are highly driven creatures, just as the Paul Polmans of the corporate world are. It’s not their willingness to take risk, for what the good ones do is find ways to offload the ever-present risk onto others; they manage risk, they don’t take risk, at least not willingly. It’s not their personalities, either, as they are all as diverse and different from one another as you are from me.

It’s their mindsets, I concluded. These mindsets cause entrepreneurs to think and act fundamentally differently than many of their peers in large, well-established businesses think and act. Moreover, and counter to the accepted wisdom, these mindsets fly in the face of much of what we teach – and have taught for decades – in business schools like ours. They run counter to what many have come to accept as near-universal truths about how business works and what one should do to manage a successful one.

Thus, my newest book was born. In Break the Rules!, you can read about these six mindsets. They are brought to life by the stories of well-known and iconic entrepreneurs like Nike’s Phil Knight, Tesla’s Elon Musk and more. They are further revealed through stories of people who have created and led unsung, little-known entrepreneurial ventures to sometimes astonishing levels of success.

Happily for me and my counter-conventional ideas, London Business School’s TEDx team saw fit to invite me to deliver a TEDx talk last April at LBS. Its success on the TEDx London Business School platform then led TED.com to promote it to the TED.com main stage, in February 2024. In its first 24 hours on TED.com, it’s won more than 200,000 views, now with over 1 million views!

Source: TEDxLondonBusinessSchool

If you’ve not seen it, now’s the time. If it leaves you intrigued, then I suggest you grab a copy of Break the Rules! for the rest of the story on the counter-conventional, break-the-rules mindsets that enable the very best entrepreneurs to challenge assumptions, overcome obstacles, mitigate risk – and sometimes, change the world. If an entrepreneurial journey is in your future, I invite you to master one or more of these mindsets and make them your own.

The 6 mindsets

#1 Saying “yes, we can”.

#2 Applying a problem-first, not product-first, logic.

#3 Asking for cash; riding the float.

#4 Thinking narrowly, not broadly.

#5 Begging and borrowing (but not stealing).

#6 Seeking forgiveness later, not permission beforehand. 

About the author:
John Mullins is an internationally recognised thought leader on entrepreneurship, professor of management practice at London Business School, and a best-selling author of new book Break the Rules! The 6 Counter–Conventional Mindsets of Entrepreneurs That Can Help Anyone Change the World (Wiley).