Not a day goes by without hearing we are in an era of the cult of the entrepreneur.
There is no shortage of articles shouting it from the rooftops and many popular TV shows today try to put startups under a glamorous light. However, and I know many of you will say I´m wrong here, I still think entrepreneurs are not given the credit they deserve.
I will even go as far as saying that we live in an era of the disparagement of entrepreneurship and independence.
Entrepreneurship as part of the pop culture
Yes, there is a lot more interest in entrepreneurship today than there was a couple of decades ago.
There is no shortage of kids dreaming of being the next Zuckerberg or Musk, and we have seen an explosive demand for entrepreneurship courses both on and offline. There is a very tangible and growing interest in the business world for small startups, innovative industries and the pursuit of economic independence away from the constraints of regular employment.
30 years ago, this was almost unheard of. I remember there being a few courses directed at running a company or managerial skills back then. However, it was hardly a trend like, say, becoming a lawyer, a doctor or a journalist. Being “in business” just meant becoming a mere cog in the corporate machine, and having to follow orders for the rest of your life. That´s how you measured success in the corporate world not too long ago. Everybody can remember that scene in the movie Gremlins 2 where our hero Billy Peltzer went to work for a heartless corporation that tried to suck his soul dry from day one.
We can safely say that those days are gone. Today´s dynamic business environment is a direct product of the internet. I believe it unleashed our potential of becoming the masters of our own destiny, and now kids look up to people like Jeff Bezos or Gary Vaynerchuk.
However, the mainstream media is struggling to catch up.
There is a relentless attack against the entrepreneurial forces of the market, and it seems that politicians, media pundits and intellectuals are doubling down on it. Outside of our relatively small circles, business owners are constantly looked down upon or even considered products of undeserved privileges. My belief is that they feel threatened by the fact that young people no longer dream of becoming journalists, lawyers and doctors.
Don´t get me wrong, I know there are hundreds of articles singing praises to entrepreneurship, but they get lost among thousands of hit pieces repeating the usual mantra against entrepreneurship. As soon as you turn on the TV, the media, the news or watch the latest Hollywood movies you will learn that there is something sinister about wanting to start a business or working hard to become a millionaire. And our politicians, with a few notable exceptions, are leading the charge. I still shudder at the memory of Obama´s speech where he nonchalantly dropped the famous “you didn´t build that” sentence as if building a business from scratch is something that just happens instead of being a product of toil and moil. And don´t get me started on things like the Green New Deal, or the nightmarish regulatory labyrinth we are all forced to navigate to even make our first sale. But let´s not go into politics.
I like listening to the predominant narrative to see what people really think of certain topics. For example, it is hip today to mirror the mainstream belief that the most common shared trait of entrepreneurs is merely access to capital, in the form of family money, inheritances, influence and connections of all sorts. And you can hear the same thing every day in TV shows, or at the nearest coffee shop in casual conversations between kids with colored hairdos and Che Guevara memorabilia. It is all too common to hear that all it takes to start a business is to start off from a position of privilege.
Every time I hear that, I can´t help but remember that, for most, entrepreneurship takes a lot more than just being born right, and is a lot harder than most people realize.
I recently had a conversation with Guy Sheetrit, our president here at Over The Top SEO, about what it takes to be an entrepreneur.
I showed him a piece I read recently that made a number of assertions about being an entrepreneur, especially about the alleged correlation between privilege and success. He literally snorted.
First of all, success is not something that happens to you. You need to work hard for it to occur. In order to eventually achieve a position of “privilege” you need to have talent and skills. Even if you have a head start in life, without any skills and real hard work, it becomes meaningless.
I could not help but agreeing with him. The data shows that the idealized cases of young dreamers working in their car garages and suddenly becoming industry moguls are extremely rare.
In fact, it takes a ton of work and years of your life to become moderately successful. The most common entrepreneur is a middle-aged person who has worked non-stop for 20-30 years, has managed to garner a set of valuable skills, and has put some money away for rainy days.
This is extremely important as consumers want high quality products and services, but these can only be created by people with experience, skills and capital. For the vast majority, the only way to have all three is to work harder than anyone thinks is possible and then some more.
Just imagine a young person without any kind of savings or acquired skills trying to satisfy thousands of customers. Without any previous work experience and years worth of savings, his probabilities of succeeding are very close to zero. Heck, even those with the right set of tools, skills and capital have a hard time before reaching any kind of victory.
It is not impossible, but starting a business is extremely HARD. The vast majority must spend most of their productive lives working and saving in order to feel adequate enough to start their own thing.
The Entrepreneurship Black Legend
No matter how popular the idea of becoming a business owner has become, the mainstream media insists on displaying a distorted picture of the world of entrepreneurship. They describe the typical entrepreneur as a young clever man with no work experience who happens to have an amazing idea and suddenly hit the jackpot. They then assume the market is oozing with dormant fortunes waiting for someone to come up with a groundbreaking invention. These market forces just sit on top of their piles of money, and become de facto gatekeepers of innovation and business success.
If you have taken serious steps to open a business and keep it afloat long enough, you know this is a bunch of horse manure. Venture capitalists and angel investors are not a dime a dozen. In fact, they are extremely hard to find, and even harder to convince in investing in a particular idea.
Interestingly, ideas are the most abundant resource in the world. Everyone seems to have at least a couple of great business ideas. Think about it. 5 minutes into any conversation and someone will always mention an idea that can be turned into a business. My father comes up with a new idea every month, I have close to 20 ideas written down somewhere, and my building´s super has told me of at least three different businesses he would like to start by next year.
Contrastingly, resources are scarce. These venture capitalists, angel investors, and lenders that have all the money, are being bombarded with tons of ideas every day. If they really expect to make a difference, they have to carefully decide where to allocate their resources in a way that satisfies the most people.
But, what is entrepreneurship?
Here is where the problem lies. I do not think the people who make a living out of disparaging entrepreneurship know what they´re talking about.
After reading some scholarly sources, one of the most curious concepts I came across was that of “entrepreneurial alertness”. The concept essentially describes entrepreneurship as merely being unusually alert. Simply put, the entrepreneur would be the one noticing the hundred-dollar bill laying on the ground while everyone else just walk by unaware.
This idea has floated around in the academic scene for decades and has taken many forms. A more complex example would be someone finding out that chairs are being sold for 25 dollars in New York, while the same item costs 35 dollars in New Jersey. Next, he is setting up shop in Newark, bringing chairs from Queens, and making a profit. And that´s it. Easy money.
But this is completely misleading. It does not take into account skills, hard work or even risk.
I like Ludwig Von Mises´ definition better. He said that entrepreneurs had “a specific anticipative understanding of the conditions of the uncertain future”. In other words, they see the future in ways others can´t. They intuitively anticipate future market conditions. That is why it has been said that entrepreneurship cannot be learned or taught. And they also have a unique penchant for risk.
An analogy that would capture this sense would be a man that sees a piece of green paper that´s beneath a huge rock. It might be a hundred-dollar bill, but he would have to lift the rock in order to find out. If he invests, say, 50 dollars in some equipment or junk removal service in order to get the rock out of the way, he would be risking part of his limited capital just to see if it´s really money or just a candy wrap. If there is indeed a hundred-dollar bill, then he would have made a $50 dollars profit. But if it is just trash, then would have lost $50 dollars. The point is: only the entrepreneur is capable of envisioning a future where he is richer by investing his money and time on uncertain endeavors, and is the only one willing to work hard regardless of the uncertainty of a reward.
That´s a better description of entrepreneurship.
However, the intellectual, artistic and political elites seem to abhor these traits and the goods they bring about. Being unable to see the future the way entrepreneurs would, they are constantly attacking them for not investing in their pet projects, and denouncing the profit motive as a corrupting force. Curiously, they don´t seem to have a problem with wealthy athletes, artists or politicians. They just seem to have problems with entrepreneurs in general. For them, if someone becomes wealthy through commercial activities (A.K.A. giving their customers what they want and making their lives better), it must be because they started from a privileged position and just got lucky.
But we know it takes a lot more than just being in the right place at the right time to keep a business running, don´t we?
I asked Guy if he felt he was privileged and his answer was surprising. “The way I feel privileged has more to do with having being allowed to prove my worth than anything else.” Shared Sheetrit. “I certainly didn´t feel especially privileged when I was trying to make ends meet busting my ass off on Fiverr some years ago. I had to work harder than anyone I knew until my value got noticed. In fact, I am nothing without the partners that believed in me in the first place.”
The good news is that entrepreneurship is now so popular that people are breaking culture and straying away from what the cultural gatekeepers want us to think. The value of industriousness is gaining massive traction and that´s something we should all celebrate.