Another great article from my favourite FT columnist, Luke Johnson, wondering if it is time to reclaim the word “entrepreneur”, eschewing the constant stream of conferences, summits, workshops, festivals and other such events set-up to celebrate the concept of being an entrepreneur. Much thought goes into how, where, when, why one should step out alone, it feels as if it is almost an industry in itself – full of entrepreneurial entrepreneur-supporters, looking for answers to challenges met by each and every person who decides to step out alone.
Yet, he espouses, the answers are pretty straightforward – less red tape, more early-stage funding, and more mentors. But more than that, the basic solution is… more people need to start a business. Of course, if it were that simple, there would be far less publicity, and fees, for the participants of afore-mentioned get-togethers, and it’s clear that talking about something is far easier than actually doing it.
He then goes onto give an example, having been invited to attend a four-day forum in Lyon in the next few weeks, where those lucky enough to attend would “hear the opinions of the world’s leading entrepreneurial figures” – all apparently academics, politicians or beaurocrats, none leading figures in their respective fields.
I was minded to recall a conference I attended a couple of summers ago, held by a creative technology institute aimed at helping us to navigate the digital landscape. What I found was:
– I was one of the few people to have actually paid to be there, most having been given freebies, due to a severe lack of interest, the day before the event started, in order to boost audience figures for the speakers (see next point);
– the contributors, bar one, seemed to be there purely to satisfy their egos, publicising how amazing they were in their chosen discipline, yet totally disinterested/unreceptive to any approaches after the event to talk about collaborating on a few projects I had in the pipeline at that point in time – in fact, all such approaches were met with stony silence; and most disappointingly
– the organisers had no idea what the ‘real world’ was like, full of their own self-importance, and no doubt happy to work towards having their funding confirmed for another academic year, they were totally ignorant, (nor interested), in the challenges faced by those of us in attendance.
The problem with such “experts” talking about start-ups is that it is a little like virgins giving sex education lessons: they have never actually done it. And at heart, business is not about theory, or white papers, or even blunt articles such as this one. It is about getting out there in the marketplace and selling your idea – to backers, partners, recruits, suppliers and, most importantly, customers. It is about putting your savings on the line for a dream, sacrificing your personal life to keep that dream alive, and picking yourself up and trying again if it all goes wrong. Almost all the rest is hot air.
Back to Luke, who would rather that intellectuals discuss, celebrate and support entrepreneurs than devote all their time to complaining about public sector spending cuts. But he worries that they are not credible figures who can inspire someone to take the plunge, and that they over-complicate matters – and incessantly involve the government in everything. Entrepreneurship is fashionable right now – until the bandwagon moves on to the next cultural concept.
Moreover, many of these new commentators are uncomfortable with raw capitalism, which is what entrepreneurs undertake for a living. So they tack on politically correct stuff such as “social justice” at the Lyon event, or insist the agenda includes social enterprises when they get too squeamish about the profit motive and free markets.
We probably do not need any more well-intentioned initiatives or non-profit organisations to help enterprise. Without doubt, current state policies could be communicated better, and promised reductions in regulation and taxes need to be carried out. But from that point on, the issue is about the start-ups working harder and smarter than everyone else, innovating and generating value one tough step at a time. The most important ingredients in business success are not great advice or public sector sympathy: they are hard work and a sense of purpose from the founder. Self-help is the best answer.
Just as corporate lifers do not understand the loneliness and the independence that self-employment and business creation can bring, so public servants and educators should step aside from the circuit because they do not possess first-hand experience. Probably the best lesson any would-be entrepreneur gets from a start-up event is sheer inspiration from a role-model founder who initially failed but then went on to make it. Or perhaps the event provides an opportunity for a fledgling founder to meet a like-minded partner, and agree to charge forth as a team.
In essence, he feels the events worth hosting are those full of principals rather than hangers-on. Unfortunately, many of the best entrepreneurs are very busy running their companies. That is always the way. So we should probably follow their example, leave most of the abstract stuff to one side, and get back to what entrepreneurs do best: strive.