7 key traits it takes to be a ‘multi-preneur’

As an executive coach working with innovators and influencers, I’ve been engaged by several multi-preneurs over the years. Each time I’ve been fascinated with their drive, focus, and ability to achieve. While there are some famous multi-preneurs, like Elon Musk or Richard Branson, there are also many entrepreneurs quietly emerging from obscurity to successfully helm more than one business simultaneously.

For most entrepreneurs, having the energy and smarts to lead just one company requires a Herculean effort, meanwhile an increasing number of multi-preneurs have cracked the code on how to lead numerous teams, sometimes across industries, with style and grace.

So what does it take to run multiple companies at the same time? Let’s meet a few multi-preneurs:

In 2011, Fast Company named Eric Rodenbeck as one of the 50 Most Influential Designers in America. This recognition was bestowed upon him while he was running one of the 50 Most Innovative Companies in America. He is the founder and CEO of Stamen Design, a company that pioneered data visualization and mapping. Stamen Design has developed projects for companies as varied as CNN, Google, Facebook, the Museum of Modern Art, and the London Olympics. Having worked with Eric, I’ve been continuously impressed with his ability to create, adapt, and evolve. By 2011, he was already wildly successful as a designer and company founder. In 2013, he founded and became president of the Community Arts Stabilization Trust, an organization that would facilitate equitable urban transformation by creating stable physical spaces for arts and cultural organizations in San Francisco, a city that was suffering from a shrinking arts infrastructure.

When asked what advice he has for aspiring multi-preneurs, Eric responded, “You have to follow your gut and get good advice. You have to surround yourself with competent people and coach them. I try to make sure that my work with each organization is of benefit to the other. That’s the main thing. I think of them all as part of my work.”

Arun Apte founded and is CEO of two companies while he is considering starting a third. In 2014, he won the Bronze Award for CEO at the 6th Annual Golden Bridge Awards, which recognizes organizational performance, innovations, products and services, and executives and management teams from all over the world. He lives in San Francisco and runs both of his businesses in India: PREMIER BioSoft, providing data and statistical analysis software for labs and life sciences companies, and CloudLIMS, a software company that manages lab samples.

Since his two companies both serve the bioinformatics industry, they share partial infrastructure, including an office building and some staff; however, the two businesses serve separate markets. Arun says, “I bootstrapped my businesses. When I started the first company in an extra bedroom of my mom’s house, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it became profitable. That allowed me to create the second company. Now I devote different days to each company so that I can maintain a balance. Running the companies remotely requires me to rely on staff in India, which required me to develop leadership skills that I wouldn’t normally have to develop if I were on-site. It really requires me to trust my team.”

Adrian Tay has the calming demeanor of a zen master. He runs two organizations: Ministry of Flow, a nonprofit collective dedicated to cultivating flow in its many forms, enabling practitioners to be present to live fully in each moment, and Green Tiffin, a plant-based lunch service that uses electric bikes to deliver meals packed in reusable tiffins in San Francisco. When I asked why he chose to start and run both organizations, he said, “These two organizations are purposeful for me as they harness my talents and passion. I find meaning and impact, and I have fun doing it — that’s not too zen, hopefully!”

His advice for aspiring multi-preneurs? “Firstly, breathe. Don’t try to run both companies at full speed. Timing is everything. I started one organization, got it running with support from a great team; now I’m building my second company.”

While each of these multi-preneurs has achieved success, they all share some common traits: 1. They are a little crazy — in a good way! They don’t accept the norms, they don’t believe it’s too hard to run multiple businesses or that running a business must look a certain way. 2. They sequence. Each of these guys started one business and stabilized it before starting the next. You need focus in order to make any business successful. If you believe you have what it takes to be a multi-preneur, make sure you have one business running well before you attempt another. 3. They split their time. Scheduling is critical. Devote specific times to each of your businesses. 4. They have clear roles and responsibilities. Given the complexity of running multiple organizations, it’s important to carve out clear roles and responsibilities for yourself and for your team. 5. They rely on key contributors. They don’t try to do everything themselves. They hire competent people and get out of their way. 6. They have a passion for each business. This is probably the most important trait. If you don’t love what you do, you probably won’t do a great job. If you’re dreaming about running more than one business, be sure to choose industries, companies, or areas of interest that fuel you, nurture you, and inspire you to devote your time to them.

Do you think you have what it takes to be a multi-preneur?

Michael O. Cooper is the founder of Innovators + Influencers and serves as executive coach, facilitator, and trainer for design, software, public relations, and communications firms, as well as TED Fellows.