How Not to Be an Entrepreneur
Telling fact from fiction as an entrepreneur in the 21st century
Even if you’re not someone who considers themselves as part of the typical “innovation & entrepreneurship” crowd, I’ll reckon that you’ve certainly heard of it. After all, it’s nearly impossible to avoid. Just take a look at your favorite news source and I bet that two or three articles down (or perhaps front and center, if you read Wired, TechCrunch or Forbes), you’ll find an entry about a company that’s just launched, a private business acquired or gone public, a piece about digital nomads, or something along those lines. Maybe even at the office, even if you work for the most long-established and traditional of companies, you’ve heard discussion about “innovating in the workplace,” “outpacing the competition,” or “adapting to new ideas of what it means to serve our customers.”
If you’re me, and, not only work as a quasi-entrepreneur but also for other entrepreneurs, the entrepreneurial “buzz” is almost deafening. And for entrepreneurs and the self-employed worldwide, this is nothing short of amazing. With the expansion of technological capabilities, the slow but sure abandonment of the idea of a “physical office,” and more focus on spaces for freelancers, lone-workers and small teams in cities around the world, there is perhaps more attention (and more money) than ever being spent in the entrepreneurial market. Larger companies are embracing this idea with the creation of positions like “intrepreneurs,” or, in laymen’s terms, internally-facing employees who’s job it is to look for ways to improve processes and propose solutions unique to their large companies so that they can work more efficiently. Being an entrepreneur is to be “what everyone else wishes they could be.”
Even the nature of this statement is changing, though, as already 15.1% of the entire labor force in the UK (4.8 million people) identified as self-employed in 2017. If you moved all of these people from their various locations into greater London, they would comprise nearly half the city’s total population (ons.gov.uk). And in the US, while the percentage of self-employed workers is lower (10.1% in 2015), the actual number of people is a staggering 15 million. If you relocated them all they would fill Singapore 3 times over (bls.gov). Keep in mind that this doesn’t take into account all “employees” that work for small companies (including LLC’s), that may be spin-offs of these self-employment efforts.
This trend isn’t just isolated to developed countries. In India, the rate is much higher. As much as 51% of the population identifies as self-employed (aegon.com), though many of those would not identify as the sort of tech-focused digital nomads we might think of today. Regardless of location, the trend is still crystal clear: self-employment as a means of making a living is steadily growing more popular.
All-in-all, these developments have lead to the rise of incredible new ideas. Putting aside the more well-known success stories of the modern day (Facebook, Uber, SpaceX, Airbnb, Slack, etc.), there have also been boundless advancements in the medical field. Take 23andMe, for example, the biotech company well-known for its genetic testing services that can “provide genetic health risk information for conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and hereditary thrombophilia” (inc.com). Or Oxford Heartbeat, a company that makes “medical device software that’s designed to make minimally invasive surgery more efficient and effective by providing surgeons with crucial real-time information about what’s happening in the body” (techworld.com). Undoubtedly both of these have made the world a safer, better place and have worked to improve quality of life.
The media attention and exaltation of these success stories along with the more popular stories of services designed to make our lives easer is certainly well-deserved, but they come with an unavoidable side-effect: they make the desire to “become an entrepreneur” ever stronger. While this is by no means a bad thing, (in fact, it’s quite the opposite, it inspires others to build their own ideas and endow the world with new products and services) it can be a double-edged sword.
The inevitable danger of all of this attention is that it unconsciously shapes the perception and expectation of what it means to be an entrepreneur. More often than not, this perception doesn’t align with the real entrepreneurship experience, and, what’s more — it can lead to expectations of behavior that must be associated with entrepreneurship that are, in fact, destructive to the effectiveness of of the ideas, products, and/or services themselves.
For risk of sounding over-dramatic, I believe most of these behaviours often overlook the fact that there are real people behind the ideas they represent and that, in the end, these people are the ones who are truly important. What I hope to provide here are observations and, perhaps recommendations for how to get back to the real idea of entrepreneurship. I don’t claim to be an expert in this field, but I have had enough experience to strongly believe that there aren’t enough people telling this story, and I want to make sure people hear it.
#1. “The money is in the idea”
— Sure, but only if you back it up
Quite a bit of recent discussion in the entrepreneurial world has focused around the belief that the real money to be made is in the idea, and, to some extent, this is true. Simply recreating the same product or service that another company offers (though a valid business strategy) is often not an advisable way to forge a career for yourself (it usually leads to hard feelings, broke companies, and, in the worst cases, lawsuits).
On the flip side, a business’ IP, as we’ve seen in recent news, can be worth millions on its own. In this way, everyone is championing a new approach to the work they do in an effort to create “the most unique idea.” But, no matter how great the idea, it’s often completely worthless unless you can produce some way of backing-it-up, or proving that it really does create a positive impact in its target market.
I’ve seen many businesses attempt to sell on “the idea,” alone. For young companies this might be necessary, especially if they’re looking for potential investors or backers in their project. But even then, young companies are usually working to create an MVP, either a most viable product or (one of my favorite re-abbreviations) a most viable profit. The idea is that they can show a part of the positive benefit that their idea or business will bring about. If your biggest game is your ideas, though, and you can’t execute on the plans that you have (or at least have a plan for how to bring them about), you’re set out for a rough ride.
At the end of the day, your clients are really paying you for a solution, not just the idea of one. My recommendation is that, while always referencing your greater vision to help you move forward, be humble. Make sure to stop and think about how you actually plan to carry this out. Hiring someone to do this for you isn’t enough. If you’re truly an all-ideas person, then your hire is eventually going to burn out in an effort to tie-down all of the ideas that haven’t been fully developed. As much as you can, take part in the step by step process so you can better understand your clients’ needs (and the needs of your future team), and you’ll not only have more people who believe in and support your vision, you’ll also be on the road to building a much more sustainable business.
#2. “I can do anything and everything”
— Nobody likes a superman wannabe
At the start of any new venture, there’s an exciting sense of having the whole world open to you — you can go anywhere you choose to go and do anything you choose to do. This is true, but, when communicating with the people you’ll be working with, it’s important to have a clear, easy-to-understand description of how what you do can provide them with value. Try saying you do everything and you’ll end up with quizzical looks and an untrustworthy reputation. Most of all, be honest about what you can do — inflating your sense of accomplishment or your abilities won’t help you land big clients if you can’t put your work where your mouth is. Let the work speak for itself. If you work toward providing the best value you can to a client, their referrals will mean much more than your assertions of expertise.
#3. “The social-media entrepreneur”
— Try telling people you “hustle” for a living
When I mentioned earlier that the buzz of social media can be deafening, I wasn’t kidding. Faced with an ever-surmounting number of social media campaigns aimed to shape our perception about products and services, the simple, more direct messages, those that offer up services honestly as open invitations and focus on the quality of the work itself can easily be drowned-out in the noise of shameless promotion. Not that promotion is a bad thing — everyone needs a bit of it. But the danger is when you stop promoting the true product and start promoting an idea of the product that’s something you can’t deliver.
This doesn’t just go for products and services; it’s also true for social-media behaviours. The constant barrage of posts about how entrepreneurship is “all about the hustle” and how “24/7 work is my life,” are just empty noise, and are to me, frankly, sickening. Far from idolizing the idea of working toward your passion, they idolize instead the assertion that we have to be constantly working, selling, living in our work to be an entrepreneur. This simply isn’t true. If anything, the assertion that working 24/7 leads to a sustainable, effective business is wrought with problems. Rather than the evidence of a productive an efficient work process, advertising a 24/7 work-style can foster the idea that you and your company are unable to properly manage your time, or are working harder rather than working smarter. And, while your clients may enjoy constant 24/7 support from you directly, if you ever do need to take time to yourself, you’ll be hard-pressed to keep work away from what you’re doing.
My advice is to focus on being smart with your work. Set boundaries, and appreciate time spent away from it, to recharge, reset, or, gather inspiration. This doesn’t mean that hard work or long hours won’t be part of the equation, but understand that if you only ever spend your time doing one thing, you’re not likely to learn from anything else.
Furthermore, if it’s your style to use social media frequently, focus on the work that you do, not how often you do it (unless you can tie that directly to a certain special process or a service you provide). Most likely, your clients will be more impressed that their project is in good hands rather than that you’re working on it at 2am.
This particular social-sharing trend can also be destructive because it reinforces the perception that work is to be placed above all-else, and, more importantly, that if you don’t place work on the highest pedestal, then you must be doing something wrong. I don’t know about you, but work is certainly not the most important thing in my life. Yes, it’s important for me to work for something I believe in, and work because I want to use my skills to help others, but the main reason I work truly is to be able to support myself and the people I love. If it really came down to it, I could do something else to achieve my goal. For the people you work with, I think it’s important that they know what these personal goals are — it helps them identify with you and gives meaning to the work you do, rather than taking away from it.
#4. “I can’t waver from my path”
— The journey isn’t always as easy as it’s made out to be
There are many accounts of successful entrepreneurs widely available as good reading material. While social media may represent the rosy-side of things (the growth, gains, sales and wins), most of the real work that goes on is like the bottom of an iceberg — cold, hard, invisible, and much larger than you think it will be.
Thinking that being an entrepreneur is going to be a breeze is not going to get you places. Getting to those successes requires hard work, and very rarely will you get something from nothing. For most of the time, it may feel instead like you’re getting nothing from everything. Earlier this year I’d been working almost 2 jobs nearly 14 hours a day for 6 days a week, and despite that, I was having trouble contemplating how I’d be be able to afford health insurance, plan a wedding, and account for the most basic living expenses for the next year. It was ridiculous, but it was up to me to change it. Add all this to the fact that, while there’s a huge support system to help entrepreneurs and freelancers, the most common ways for business to get off the ground are big investments. The average cost of a “hot desk” (access to non-personal space in a coworking office) at a WeWork in London is £500 (about $635 USD), which is no small investment for someone just starting their venture.
The lesson: Keep things in perspective
In a sea of what seems like entrepreneurial mayhem, the important thing is to make sure that you don’t lose sight of your goal (or rather, what’s really important to you). You’ll need to work to find the best way through, which means being willing to accept criticism and being willing to change — the way you think you should go to get to where you want to be may not be the way you need to take. Putting your own needs first isn’t wrong — the only way you’re going to be able to provide value to the people you work with or for is if your own needs are understood and met.
Remember that everyone works in different ways. Shina Lindahl makes a great point when she talks about how a monolithic view of entrepreneurship is natively destructive to its own interest in her article “How the Silicon Valley Entrepreneur Stereotype Is Killing Entrepreneurship”. Being an entrepreneur in the 21st century is going to mean making sacrifices, different ones than in earlier times, but the consistent great thing about working for yourself is that you have the power to determine what you want to work for. Rather than follow society’s expectation of what an entrepreneur should be, focus on the innovation that you want to bring to the world and let that guide your path forward. Everyone hustles, but only you do what you do best.
I’m a curious designer who rides bikes, travels often, stargazes, and enjoys speaking in foreign languages. If you’d like to learn more about what I do, visit benmarkoch.com.