What makes an entrepreneur?

Recent research by Innovate UK and YouGov asked 18-30 year olds that were not in employment, education or training about their attitudes to innovation and entrepreneurship. One of many findings suggested that young people have problems with the word ‘entrepreneur’ and only 8% of those interviewed said they would describe themselves as ‘entrepreneurial’.

This got me thinking about the images conjured up by the word ‘entrepreneur’ and why young ‘disadvantaged’ young people might distance themselves from that image.

I think mass media has a lot to answer for here. TV programmes (or ‘shows’ as Lord Sugar once described his) like The Apprentice and, to a lesser extent, Dragon’s Den have long since given up on pretending to reflect real business and typical business people – no doubt in the scramble for viewing figures and the need to edit hours of filming down to a few handpicked moments of high drama, however contrived they may appear in the final cut.

The confrontational format of both those TV programmes probably does nothing to encourage more thoughtful and less gobby would-be entrepreneurs to consider starting their own businesses. This may also explain why 82% of those young people that YouGov consulted viewed the business sector as ‘difficult to access’ (whatever that really means).

But I also think the contrasting portrayal of entrepreneurs – as super-cool, edgy, risk-takers – is equally unhelpful. I assume this portrayal is intended to make entrepreneurship more attractive to younger people, but giving entrepreneurs super-hero qualities can also be off-putting if you’re perfectly capable but low on self-confidence.

Maybe the potentially confusing terminology is also to blame. I’m not sure I could clearly describe the difference between an innovator, an inventor, and an entrepreneur. And that’s just in a business context; as far as I’m concerned all three individuals might have no plans to invest their particular talents in setting up a business, but still aspire to make a difference and change the world.

There are any number of articles defining ‘what makes an entrepreneur’. A Google search with this question gets you 30.7m results and I myself have written about this in the past, in relation to ‘social entrepreneurs’ in particular. There’s a mind-boggling array of arguments about whether entrepreneurship is about having the right mindset, relevant practical skills, or suitable character traits – in reality it’s probably a mix of all those elements.

Sometimes I work in the Entrepreneurial Spark incubator in Milton Keynes – a business start-up-and-grow facility (‘powered by NatWest’ it says on the publicity) and there I’ve seen a large poster with E-Spark’s interpretation of what it means to be a successful entrepreneur. The poster’s list of 22 ingredients in their recipe for success [with my own commentary in brackets] are below:

I focus, focus, focus [yes – procrastination and being all over the place is rarely helpful]

I re-imagine daily [whatever that means… could it be about constantly monitoring progress?]

Outcomes rule my day [being effective as opposed to efficient (which is about outputs) makes sense – ‘results-focused’ is another way of putting this]

I am self-aware ALWAYS [if this means knowing what you’re not good at, knowing your limits and how to plug the gaps, that a good thing]

I know my numbers [yes – whether you like or loathe them, you need to understand figures]

I engage my customers [Engage is one of my red-rag words because it’s so vague – so is this ingredient]

I am constantly curious [although they say the best entrepreneurs are not too bright – so they don’t always think about what could go wrong and focus instead on the destination]

My business has vision [I suppose as long as your vision and that of the business are complementary…]

I am humbly confident [yep – I think that strikes about the right balance]

I inspire my team to excel [leading by example is clever, leading from behind is even smarter]

Uncomfortable? I’m comfortable with that [the ability to take yourself out of your much-talked-about comfort zone is an essential requirement when starting a business – be prepared to do it]

I love to collaborate [yes – I believe collaboration (rather than competition) is the future for businesses that matter]

I am aware… Always on [I hope this doesn’t mean you never switch off from being an entrepreneur – that is not a healthy habit]

I make decisions intuitively [gut feeling is important for some people and, if you’re wrong, they also say ‘fail early, fail fast’ to make you feel better about your mistakes]

I take action – ALWAYS [cue old joke – I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure]

I am constantly selling and pitching [interestingly there’s a current backlash against pitching. And a tip – don’t sell and pitch to your friends and family]

I wake up ready to communicate [as long as this doesn’t keep you or your partner awake at night!]

I have a lean work ethic [makes sense for some businesses – particularly those with low start-up costs, as does the concept of a ‘minimal viable product’]

I develop a relevant network [love or loathe networking, it can get you further faster]

I value working with mentors [never stop learning and never think you know it all]

I am opportunity hungry [I think this means being able to spot opportunities and take them]

The buck stops with me [exciting and scary – as is much of ‘going it alone’ in business]

Further reading:

Slowing the spin about social entrepreneurs https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/slowing-the-spin-about-social-entrepreneurs

Age and social entrepreneurship https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2015/04/08/age-and-social-entrepreneurship

Has pitching had its day? https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/15/the-apprentice-pitch-pitching-productive?

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