I’m not entirely sure what it is about Deborah Hill Cones’ “Stop drinking the entrepreneur Kool-Aid” that I find so perturbing.
Is it the way entrepreneurs are tarred with the same dirty brush? The belittling of a particular young mans attempts to do something positive with his life? Or just the general ignorance of the role of entrepreneurship, and how critical it is for us all – especially our kids – to be able to think entrepreneurially in today’s modern world?
I don’t think it’s the first point. After all, people have been making negative generalisations about entrepreneurs since the dawn of… well, entrepreneurship. This one time, a guy called Marx even thought it should be banned altogether. Why should people who risk their time, money, and effort to be innovative, expect to be rewarded more handsomely than those who don’t? Clearly these sorts of people must be ruthless and greedy, he argued.
The regrettable dealings of Theranous’ Elizabeth Holmes makes for a perfect case in point, and we all know that this sorry saga is but one drop in an ocean of examples we could use to reinforce this narrative of the moral and good citizen, turned evil and corrupt entrepreneur. But for every Holmes, there are 100 more (mostly unsung) entrepreneurs whose contributions to the world, their countries and the citizens and communities within them are a shining example of entrepreneurship used for good. Some of you reading this may even be employed in a business or industry pioneered by one of these entrepreneurs right now. Avery, Beck, Tindall, Hart, Foreman, Hackett, Walker, Drury to name just a few home grown examples.
So no, while judging all apples on the appearance of a few rotten ones may be misguided, it is hardly uncommon.
Is it then the singling out of young entrepreneur Jake Millar as an example of… well, I’m really not sure what the intention is here. Is it meant to illustrate the young entrepreneur “hero-worship” Hill Cone talks about? A jibe at people having a party in a mansion? A comment on the editorial credibility of the Unfiltered website? A dig at the business model? The “wannabe do-gooders” featured on the site? The wisdom of the investors who backed it? I honestly can’t tell.
I really hope it is one or more of these things. Because the only other explanation I can give it, and I hope I’m wrong, is that it’s just a general sleight on a young person doing his best to do something useful, and who has succeeded in winning the backing of others who believe in his potential.
Other than swapping a few emails I don’t know Jake, and I don’t know how his business is performing. What I do know is that like the rest of us in this free and beautiful country we live in, he has the right to dream big and set and pursue his own goals. So what if they are high? So what if we may not understand or personally approve of them? Are people with smaller goals any more or less valuable? I think not.
In the end of course, regardless of our personal opinions about someone’s goals, ideas or business plan, market forces will be the ultimate judge. If you’re not creating something of value, you won’t be around for long.
By the same token, entrepreneurs should understand that a critical and objective analysis by media and financial markets is essential for a transparent and well functioning market. You cannot court the media when it suits, and avoid it’s scrutiny when it doesn’t. Hopefully Jake will understand that it goes with the territory, and not let it discourage him from pursuing his goals.
So to the last. Twenty-odd years ago, when I first heard the word “entrepreneur” in fourth form economics, there was a lot of mystique about what an entrepreneur actually was. On the one hand, among my working class suburban peers at least, there was a sense that entrepreneurs were some sort of an elite dark society that you had to be born into. “They’re the ones who control all the money,” we whispered conspiratorially to each other. Yet at the same time, being an entrepreneur was somehow made out to be the domain of dropouts, rebels and layabouts. Something you said you were, if you were not qualified for anything else. While this belief still pervades in some circles, it is changing, and not a moment too soon.
Because in the next twenty years, the very nature of what we consider to be employment is going to change dramatically, and if you cannot think like an entrepreneur it’s going to be tough.
Political, economic and environmental uncertainty as our world comes to grips with too many people and too few resources; outsourcing, downsizing and automation of both blue and white collar jobs due to globalisation and technological disruption; downward price pressure by industry juggernauts with untold economies of scale; housing unaffordability and rising costs of living in our big city work hubs… for many, the days of the mythical “safe and secure job” and it’s companion the “steady paycheck” are looking increasingly numbered. Rather than careers comprising five or six jobs over the course of a lifetime like our parents and grandparents, the future workers career is likely to require people to find and juggle five or six small contracts at any one time, perhaps running their own business or as a freelancer or contractor for hire.
The best thing our kids can do for their long term financial futures is to learn how to take 100% responsibility for creating their own revenue streams, rather than being reliant on “the boss.” We must transition quickly from a society in which most people leave school asking,”How can I get a good job?” to one in which most people leave school asking, “How can I create more jobs?” Even if there are still those who don’t believe it to be necessary, as a parent I take great heart knowing that our young people now hold building their own businesses high up on their list of life goals anyway.
So no, on reflection, while eyebrow raising, I don’t think it was any of these things in and of themselves that disturbed me.
Rather it’s the continued inference that to be a successful entrepreneur, you must somehow compromise your morals.
Because contrary to what some would lead you to believe, the decision to become an entrepreneur is not a binary choice. Our kids do not have to chose between building a successful, possibly massive business, and being a good person, any more than they have to choose between being a policewoman, a rugby player, a teacher, a plumber, an accountant, a retail assistant or a rock star… and being a good person.
In fact, unlike the (good old?) days when “people who went into business were assumed to be in it for the money”, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be a successful entrepreneur if you are a bad person – today’s consumers just won’t put up with it. Doing something just for the money? Customers will buy from brands aligned more closely with their values. Ripping off or abusing your customers? The Internet, courtesy of customer review sites and social media, will put a stop to that quick smart. Forcing people to work in inhumane conditions? Ditto. Poison the environment? Good luck with that.
Evidence such as that gathered by Conscious Capitalism, is increasingly clear. Today’s consumers are voting with their wallets, choosing to support wherever possible, businesses who operate not just in the pursuit of profit, but in the pursuit of public good, and our young entrepreneurs understand this.
Yes there will still be the occasional “arsehole with a snazzy marketing pitch” who achieves a modicum of financial success before the zeitgeist falls but I find it refreshing beyond belief, to see the majority of new entrepreneurs, old and young, coming through not just with the desire to improve their lot, but with the understanding that they can ultimately only do that by helping others improve theirs. Among today’s entrepreneur community – themselves conscious consumers – it is actually no longer cool (or smart) to do things just for the money and social entrepreneurship is thriving as a result.
This old fashioned notion that entrepreneurship is a zero sum game – that one person’s success can only come at the expense of someone else – is a myth that perpetuates the narrative of the greedy entrepreneur, and holds many back from giving it a go for fear of being judged as “selling their soul”. It has to stop.
While not everybody can be the next Steve Jobs, belittling young people who wish to try is not the answer. Teaching them the values of hard work, honesty, benevolence and respect in whatever field of pursuit they choose, is.
So go ahead kids, drink the entrepreneur Kool-Aid. You can aspire to Napoleonic greatness and still be a good person at the same time.