The Case for Entrepreneurship

The enemy of entrepreneurship is conformity, and conformity derives its power from being so well distributed.

There is no central power dictating conformity-inspired speaking notes, nor is there an executive command conscripting new recruits, motivating seasoned veterans, or deploying soldiers to wherever manpower is needed to take up the fight against optimism, bravery and hubris.

There isn’t even a Ministry of Conformity, a national or international organization, or even a Meet-Up group, for that matter.

And yet, conformity manages to act as one of the most powerful forces holding us back, second in my mind only to gravity.

I got to thinking about the power of conformity to halt entrepreneurship after a series of discouraging conversations I have engaged in since moving back to my adopted country of Ecuador with the intention of undertaking a variety of entrepreneurial activities.

Throughout these conversations I noticed two simple assumptions which are dogma for the safety-seekers and ignored by true entrepreneurial types. They are:

1.) Entrepreneurship comes from common sense, and your idea will never work.

2.) The entrepreneur is an über-talented god-like genius. You don’t have what it takes.

Allow me then to deconstruct and rebut each of these arguments, a task I undertake as much for your benefit as for my own.

1.) Entrepreneurship comes from common sense, and your idea will never work.

Since I’ve been back the inevitable question I get is “What are you going to do?,” which is a fair enough question but in the Ecuadorian context is often based on another false assumption that we live in a society of scarcity rather than abundance.

At any rate, when people ask I tell them, and most often I’m met with the response: “Oh that’ll never work”, said matter of factly, dismissing my dream like it was a Baldwin brother other than Alec.

This response comes from the assumption that good business ideas are crystal clear propositions whose value is inherent and implicit.

Most often however, entrepreneurship rises from the ashes of dismissed and discarded ideas and necessarily requires a healthy disregard for the facts. Entrepreneurship is then the embodiment of what it means to be counter-intuitive.

Indeed, the reason why so many successful ventures are started by individuals as opposed to groups is that it is difficult to convince a group of people to spend time and money on something that doesn’t, on the surface, appear to make sense. Later, when the entrepreneur is successful, the naysayers will ask themselves, “Why didn’t I think of that?”. You did think of that but you dismissed it as preposterous. The entrepreneur didn’t.

“That’ll never work” is then often followed by “oh someone’s already done that and it didn’t work out”, or “oh someone’s already doing that now.”

In order for the first of these excuses to be valid one has to accept that the free market is as a game of dibs where if you don’t lay a claim to your idea in time you may as well trade in your courage for overalls, a mop and a walkman.

Likewise, if someone else is already pursuing a similar business idea it is assumed that the market can’t handle another. Either that or you’re doomed to execute exactly in the same way as your predecessors, thus discounting any creativity you might bring to the delivery of the good or service.

When we change the context and say, “I have an idea for a book about a talking-dog that is tired of the daily grind of the real-estate business and is ready to make a major life change,” we immediately see the opportunity for the application of creativity to act as the differentiating factor.

Even if we know two people writing a book about a talking-dog working in the real-estate market, we understand that throughout 300 pages the plot will evolve, the characters will take shape, and the authors’ creative juices will produce two texts that while based on the same idea will ultimately be fundamentally different. We don’t, for some reason, extend the same benefit of the doubt, or the same credit for that matter, to entrepreneurs.

The error thus is to place too much emphasis on the originality of the idea and not enough on the execution of the idea.

Facebook followed numerous well-regarded (in their time) social networks in trying to connect people: where it succeeded and where others failed is ultimately in the execution.

Similarly, Toyota came from well behind Ford and GM before consolidating its position as a market leader. The car company got to where it is today not by imitating the market leaders but instead offering a very different alternative. Similarly, there were lots of attempts at iPods before Apple found the fight formula. Just because we don’t remember them doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

In other words, a river full of miners is not a sign of a scarcity of opportunity: it’s a sign of an abundance of opportunity.Differentiation in execution as opposed to differentiation of concept is what will ultimately determine the success of the entrepreneur.

Others will tell you your idea won’t work because ‘the market isn’t ready,’ which is an insight based on a realistic reading of what the market looks like today but that fails to take into account what the market will look like tomorrow. The false assumption of continuity is a trap that prevents regular people from seeing what entrepreneurs see.

Addressing this point the Y-Combinator Founder and start-up guru Paul Graham famously wrote, “live in the future and build what’s missing.

If I take the case of Quito, for example, 15 years ago anyone who said, “I am going to open a sushi restaurant” would have been considered crazy, laughed off like like a Ralph Nader presidency. Quiteños, she would have been told, don’t eat raw-fish and never will.

Nowadays if you come to our city and you will find sushi restaurants on every block.

Some are run of the mill sushi-restaurants, whereas others are hi-brow fusions, incorporating local ingredients into traditional japanese recipes.

Whereas the naysayers were focused on today, the sushi entrepreneur focused on the overlooked success of the penetration of chinese food into the Ecuadorian diet and said, “someday sushi will be like that, and bigger.”

Starting early is always a good idea when you’re confident that the market will someday reflect your vision of the future. The question when starting early therefore is not whether or not you will succeed or fail, but how long you are willing to fail before you succeed.

Sometimes that vision comes from a deep counter-intuitive conviction, whereas other times its as simple as looking at what is happening in the rest of the world and assuming that it will eventually come to your market.

All in all, the entrepreneur sees speed bumps where others see stop signs, and continues on despite all of the evidence to the contrary.Whereas others see limited opportunity in a limited market, the entrepreneur sees an opportunity to expand the market to a size previously thought impossible.

Even if you believe your idea to be good, the next question is whether or not you are the person who can ultimately deliver. No doubt this is a question you ask yourself and may be the question behind others’ attempts to dissuade you from acting on your intuition, thus leading to our second false assumption:

2.) The entrepreneur is an über-talented god-like genius. You don’t have what it takes.

As most of my academic formation is in literature I’m keenly aware of how we as humans respond more favorably to certain stories than others, and eventually we mistake our favourite narratives for truths.

When it comes to the lone genius entrepreneur, this accepted truth became a myth for me when I started working around a lot of entrepreneurs and noticed that most were extremely normal except for their shared uninhibited spirit.

I found proof in my theory one night after two bottles of wine with an important client. He was younger than me, managed a business of more than a hundred people and had revenue in the hundreds of millions.

I asked him if he ever doubted he was the right guy to be CEO given his lack of experience running a similarly sized organization. He responded in the affirmative with these two points:

1.) Since he had been there from the beginning he had the opportunity to do every job that existed in the company from presenting to investors to counting his fingers in an effort to balance the books. Everything he needed to know about how to run the business he learned on the job.

2.) He admitted that his secret was to hire people smarter than him and listen to them. Though he received much of the glory as the lone entrepreneur, he was but a proxy for a star-studded team, and he never forgot it.

This is not to take away from domain experts or to suggest that anyone can create multi-million dollar companies out of nothing. The entrepreneur I refer to clearly has the good judgment to seek and take good advice and make the right decision most of the time.

What’s more though, his ability to lead is dependent upon his ability to move others to action. Not only does my former client listen to his staff, he also empowers them and provides them with a sense of ownership for their decisions and hence the future of the company.

As an entrepreneur, therefore, he would not boil down his success to his innate abilities: instead, his success is the result of building the right team to accomplish the task, of recognizing when his baby became bigger than one person, and knowing that he could be as much an obstacle as an asset to its growth and prosperity. Team leader yes: but team builder = yes squared.

The demystified entrepreneur then is not only the design-genius Steve Jobs, but the Steve Jobs that recruited and held close people like Jony Ive and Tim Cook when both maintain enough leadership ability and talent to start their own entreprises. Though we love the Steve Jobs story, Apple is far too big to be micro-managed by one man. Instead, Apple is but a manifestation of dozens if not hundreds or thousands of examples of leadership working in coordination, even if we only choose to focus on one such manifestation.

If genius entrepreneurs sit on pedestals it is not because their exceptionally taller than the rest of us but because we put them there. What entrepreneurs have that we don’t is a sense of being uninhibited by the power of conformity that holds the rest of us down, and an ability to learn faster than the rest.

As a child I was always haunted by the biblical verse Luke 9:62 “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God,” because I didn’t know what it meant.

Now I think I do, and whereas I have my doubts about its veracity in explaining the road to a care-free afterlife, I believe the same might hold for the kingdom of entrepreneurship.

Recognizing that there are no perfect predictors of market behaviour, entrepreneurs take action to prove a theory that is otherwise impossible to demonstrate, in spite of the force towards conformity emanating from their most dearest loved ones and strangers alike.

All of this is to stay that the time is now and the person is you. If you’re reading this because you’re hesitating then there is only one thing left to do: pick up the plow, and don’t look back.

Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo (@EcuaMatt) is the co-founder and CEO of Céntrico Digital, a digital marketing agency based inQuito, Ecuador. If his businesses don’t work out he plans to write a book about a talking dog tired of the daily grind of the mortgage business and eager to test the limits of his creative potential.

@EcuaMatt #2013

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