This week (15-21 November 2010) is Global Entrepreneurship Week and its theme is “Make a Job, Don’t Take a Job”. Having a look at their website got me to thinking about what makes an entrepreneur? Why is it that some people work all their lives for large organisations whilst others feel the need to strike out on their own? And are there some myths around the characteristics of an entrepreneur?
One of the fascinating facts on the Global Entrepreneurship Week website is that if self-employment rose by just 1% - that’s less than 300,000 new entrepreneurs – then the UK’s GDP would be boosted by £22 billion wiping out Government cuts for two years (YouGov Report 2010). So entrepreneurs have a massive impact on the state of the economy. If you run your own business, then you matter.
What makes an entrepreneur is a fascinating question. Many people believe that entrepreneurs are born rather than made – you either have it or you don’t. The reality is more complex. The classic stereotypical entrepreneur is very competitive and motivated (your Type A individual); typically male; often not formally educated beyond school level; a high risk taker with the drive to work incredibly hard to achieve his (and I use that word advisedly) objectives.
However, we will all know very successful entrepreneurs who do not fit that stereotype so let’s look beyond obvious and the superficial assumptions to what really makes the great entrepreneurs tick.
Certainly the instincts to succeed and to work hard are essential to developing a successful business. I don’t know a single person who has founded their own business without putting in extra hours and working weekends and evenings in the pursuit of getting it right, particularly in the early days. It’s also about having the belief and tenacity to get on and do something about your ideas. In the words of Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, "The critical ingredient is getting off your butt and doing something. Its as simple as that. A lot of people have ideas, but there are few who decide to do something about them now. Not tomorrow. Not next week. But today. The true entrepreneur is a doer, not a dreamer."
Whilst there is, by necessity, a certain amount of personal courage involved in setting up your own business, entrepreneurs are not always high risk takers as might be the perception. In fact those who do take high risks tend not to flourish, unless they are very lucky. But those who spot a gap in the market, do their research, assimilate information quickly, make conscious and confident decisions and then work their butts off tend be the more successful; managed risk rather than pure gambling.
Another characteristic of entrepreneurs is high energy and enthusiasm. Being innovative and constantly thinking of ways to improve and develop your organisation and your product is natural to the true entrepreneur. To quote the UK’s most famous entrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson, "Business opportunities are like buses - theres always another one coming." It’s all about keeping your eyes open, reading, learning and feeding off your environment.
Which brings me to education, or the lack thereof. It’s true that many – although not all - entrepreneurs didn’t have much in the way of a formal education and there is a belief that this often inspires people to work harder in their professional lives. Some entrepreneurs simply wanted to get out into the “real world” and get on with building a business. But equally the thirst for knowledge – whether it’s reading business books, following the news religiously or learning constantly about things seemingly unrelated to business such as culture and the arts – is another hallmark of many entrepreneurs. A lack of formal qualifications should never be taken as a lack of intellect. Also the good entrepreneur has to be self-aware – knowing his or her own deficiencies, they are often canny enough to put people around them who fill the gaps, be it lawyers, researchers, developers, programmers. The true entrepreneur is of course confident enough in his or her own talents not to feel threatened but to celebrate the skills of the wider team.
The stereotype of the male entrepreneur is another one worth challenging. Admittedly there are still more male than female entrepreneurs but statistics show that more women than ever are opting to start their own business. A quarter of the UK’s self-employed workforce and 30% of business owners are women – statistics that may surprise.
As the saying goes, necessity is the mother (note – not the father!) of invention, and sometimes women may find that whilst a traditional career path is no longer their cup of tea having started a family, other unexpected opportunities may arise as a consequence. Justine Roberts, founder of MumsNet, is a prime example of that dynamic. A former sports journalist, she spotted the opportunity for a social networking website for Mums to swap advice, tips and chat when she was feeling isolated at home with new born twins. Similarly, the late and wonderful Dame Anita Roddick set up the Body Shop to earn some extra income for herself and her daughters whilst her husband was working away in South America.
Having said that, many female entrepreneurs set up for exactly the same reasons as their male counterparts, irrespective of their personal circumstances – they simply have a great idea and the drive and energy to see it through – and those ideas may extend far beyond businesses traditionally seen as a “female” domain.
Entrepreneurs are also often the sort of individuals who don’t really enjoy toeing the line. By definition, if you feel you can set up your own business, it’s because you think you can do something faster, better, more quickly, more efficiently, more innovatively, more smartly or more creatively than your competitors. So an independence of spirit and sometimes even a touch of non-conformity can often be marks of the successful entrepreneur.
And finally there’s the myth that entrepreneurs are just in it to get rich quick and it’s all about the money. True, for some founding your own business can lead to immense wealth. But so can some of the more traditional corporate routes too. There’s more to it than money. It’s also about building self-esteem, self-worth, setting yourself a challenge and achieving it, even surpassing it.
Furthermore, according to the Global Entrepreneurship website, 64% of entrepreneurs think they have a key role in addressing issues such as climate change and poverty. Bill Gates – the most famous entrepreneur in the world – is also one of the world’s biggest philanthropists through his foundation. Often entrepreneurs are multi-faceted individuals with an interest not just in themselves, their personal wealth and their own empire, but also in social issues, the arts, the environment. They can be as driven in contributing to those areas as they are in building their own businesses. It’s wrong, and again superficial, to stick to stereotypes.
To conclude, I hand over to someone who summarises the true spirit of entrepreneurship in this fantastic comment – the inspirational Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple and Pixar.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
– the Global Entrepreneurship Week website
Deborah Done, the author of our Big Ideas, is founder and director of Nab Communications, a freelance public relations agency which provides sensible and value for money PR advice to regional and national businesses. www.nabcommunications.co.uk