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Rice University research finds certain cognitive factors appear in the minds of entrepreneurs

Does your brain have the right components to be an entrepreneur? Getty Images

The entrepreneur strides into a room of potential backers. Swathed in understated grey, she walks with assurance and chats in the cool, easy-going cadences of the leaders she plans to woo. But will an approach like this really affect the fate of her startup? And if not, what will?

A literature review by Rice Business professor Robert E. Hoskisson and colleagues Jeffry Covin of Indiana University, Henk W. Volberda of Erasmus University and Richard A. Johnson of Arnold & Porter offers clues to a vast range of questions about the entrepreneurs' trade. It also outlines where research still falls short. What, for example, most influences a startup founder's success? Is entrepreneurial triumph driven by innate ability or acquired skill? What's the role of factors such as regulatory structures or an entrepreneur's own work environment?

Traditional research, Hoskisson and his associates note, makes it clear that certain cognitive factors really do differentiate people who start new ventures from their more staid counterparts. And recent scholarship has traced how individual entrepreneurs decide to launch their startups and how they spot entrepreneurial opportunities. Still unclear, though, is whether entrepreneurs think differently overall, possess innate qualities that lend themselves to entrepreneurship or somehow become catalyzed by the entrepreneurial role itself.

More research could help answer those questions. Research is also needed to pinpoint exactly how the best entrepreneurs express their plans in order to sound legitimate enough to earn funding and support, Hoskisson's group says. What the scholarship does show is that that the grey-clad entrepreneur with the easygoing patter knows what she's doing: symbolic language, gestures and visual symbols all help create professional identity, emphasize control and regulate the emotions of a viewer. Setting, props, style of dress and expressiveness all count, and the more experienced the entrepreneur the more props she uses.

At the same time, no unified model fully explains how successful entrepreneurs gain their funding. Models range from the hyper-rational analysis offered by game theory to a stimulus-response model in which people react as if they're marionettes. Other mysteries include how the entrepreneurship impulse arises, how it shapes innovation and competitive advantage and how it is translated in individual actions and interactions. More research in these areas, says Hoskisson, would help not only entrepreneurs in the eternal quest for funding, but also the understanding of how to nurture human potential.

Examining institutional differences among countries and how that affects entrepreneurship is also ripe for study. So far, entrepreneurship research has focused on individual attributes. But there's a need, Hoskisson and his colleagues say, for scholars to connect the dots between startup success and political environments, rule of law, regulation and entrepreneurship.

The same goes for work on diverse contexts in emerging economies. In transition economies, China being one example, networks create political and social capital that allows special access and legitimacy. On the other hand, in those same countries ponderous bureaucracies and basic resource limitations can hamper entrepreneurial projects. Detailed understanding of such cultures will only get more urgent as ventures in emerging economies increase and companies that are "born global" proliferate.

Also on the research to-do list about entrepreneurs: the chances of securing funding in given emerging economies and the power — or frailty — of their intellectual property laws. Regulation, especially, plays a pivotal role in these countries, Hoskisson writes. The lighter the regulation, the more entrepreneurship flourishes, according to one study of 54 countries. On the other hand, countries blessed with a strong rule of law offer entrepreneurs more opportunities for strategic entry.

Understanding the entrepreneurial mind, and its interaction with the material world, isn't simple. Consider the late Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot's plan to send gifts to all POWs in Vietnam during the height of the Vietnam War. Unsurprisingly, the Vietnamese government announced that a gift delivery was impossible while Americans were bombing the country. Undeterred, Perot offered to rebuild anything the Americans had bombed. Rebuffed again, Perot chartered a plane to Moscow, instructing aides to deposit the Christmas presents, one by one, at Moscow post offices, addressed to Hanoi.

Amusing as it can be to hear about such entrepreneurial gumption, it may be even more useful to study entrepreneurship systematically. Not everyone can have an entrepreneur's brain, Hoskisson's review of research suggests, but good scholarship might be able to teach people how to walk the walk.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Robert E. Hoskisson is the George R. Brown Emeritus Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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