Can you be a good entrepreneur if you've never built a successful company?

This question is riddled with ill-defined words. What is “good”? What is “successful”? For that matter, what is “entrepreneur?”

But I think it’s an interesting question to ask nonetheless. It turns out that folks seem to fall into two different camps on answering it, and it depends on whether you want to take a strict definition of “success” and “good” (you can read the comments on Facebook here for a more nuanced view of everyone’s actual opinions).

If you want to measure success in the typical, stricter sense (does this business create and keep customers?) then it’s pretty hard to be a good entrepreneur if you’ve never managed to do the one thing all entrepreneurs must do: build a going concern, or reach an exit for your investors.

On the other hand, if you’re a bit more forgiving on what it means to be either “good” or “successful,” then we start realizing that there must be good entrepreneurs who have not had financial success for their businesses.

This interpretation makes more sense to me, because we consistently acknowledge that failure is inevitable as an entrepreneur, and VCs will make a habit of funding a “good entrepreneur” even after a failed venture, even if they haven’t had a successful exit yet.

Entrepreneurs need to be good with people. It’s hard to find talented people to work with you for less money than they could elsewhere. It’s hard to find customers who will buy a new product, or sign a contract with an untested organization. It’s hard to find believers in a new vision.

Over time, and sometimes multiple startups, these characteristics will become apparent. If you’re a good entrepreneur, failure will not be an obstacle to raising money in the future, or reaching out to past customers and partners, or poaching old co-workers.

To quote Scott Berkun: “there are many different kinds of not-succeeding and some are far more impressive than people who got very lucky and won.”

So fear not: exits are not the only measure of your value as an entrepreneur!