Mind The Gap
Meet our jean-wearing, blue-sky-thinker; our economic-saviour and espresso-drinker.
You know each other already. Of course. He is an entrepreneur. Over £196 Billion thrums from entrepreneurial ventures to the British economy. But it’s so much more than money. There is a pinch of alchemy, a glance of magic. The thirty-year media sample at the heart of my book, The Entrepreneurial Myth, revealed the vivid caricatures created by journalists and a newspaper-loving-public in the pages of national broadsheets. Male entrepreneurs – and they were nearly always men - are portrayed as wolfish charmers, supernatural gurus, saviours, corruptors and skyrockets. The bold words below are plucked straight from the pages of newspapers sampled, no poetic licence is necessary. Listen to this.
As early as 1989, entrepreneurs are described in the daily news as the supernatural magician at the heart of it all, with near magical powers and the ability to cast a spell and make it all alright. Founder of Cowboy Ventures, Aileen Lee, recently coined the term unicorn for any tech start-up that reaches a billion-dollar value. The fantastical label has captured commentators’ imagination who embellish stories with descriptions of the shiniest horns and cleanest hooves. The BBC’s reality show where entrepreneurs pitch for cash, Dragon’s Den, played with similar metaphors of Herculean beasts and pitches going up in smoke. Magical imagery surges through the 30-year sample with frequent references to conjuring and bewitchment. Entrepreneurs are portrayed as sprinkling magic dust on businesses, producing ideas and concepts like a magician might fling confetti out of a top hat in a mysterious modern form of alchemy. Business protagonists take the secret magic sauce to become Goliath, Gandalf or a titan of the internet.
Stranger than fiction.
At least one entrepreneur is rumoured to have inspired a superhero’s foil as real-life Tony Stark. You can meet his peers as Welsh wizard, pirate, Marlboro man, Aztec chieftain, iconic legend or master of the universe. In a spectacular piece of modern media mythology, Richard Branson is granted supernatural powers as a bearded shadow … hovering over the market. Features paint the entrepreneur as Darth Vader, or the sun king, or Peter Pan, working as a whirlwind, in the labyrinth, striving to take away the poison to create the blinding glow of profit.
At the beginning of the 30-year sample, the entrepreneur might have been described as blessed with resources or God-given opportunities. By the noughties, he is described as God himself. He is a priest architect, guru, godhead of an extraordinary network of power or, in one brilliantly underplayed commentary, at least like the Archbishop of Canterbury. Disciples, followers and fervent believers in product are urged to put their faith in the entrepreneur’s parable and build Jerusalem. The entrepreneur is granted power to answer prayers, evangelize, prophesise, even defy original sin. Business people create temples of endeavour, a new artistic Eden, peace in heaven or the reincarnation of economic policy. The entrepreneur is a technological missionary madly pursing the Holy Grail. Biblical weight is given to an entrepreneur’s decision to return to Britain: the land of free enterprise calls back lost prodigal sons. The Entrepreneurial Myth builds impossible fantasies of world domination, a brave new world and a masterplan for life. The entrepreneur is an untouchable demi-god who needs worship. The audience is happy to oblige and obediently sit at leaders’ feet for ten top tips to achieve insane success.
Words make worlds
This entrepreneurial mythology is not mere journalistic licence or editorial narrative. The potency of imagery ricocheting from ancient myth to your daily newspaper – and the world it creates in your mind – cannot be underestimated. If the guru entrepreneur is an all-powerful magician, distorting time and space like God, you unwittingly hold stratospheric expectations of the business protagonist in front of you. If they are depicted as a charming eccentric on an inevitable climb to riches, perhaps it’s harder to believe business success is possible for people like you.
Warm white wine
This Entrepreneur strides through the daily news as an all-powerful, never-fail guru. His personality fizzes with energy; he’s bold, creative, comfortable with risk and uncertainty. He is courted by politicians as the personification of a healthy, dynamic economy. The Entrepreneur creates jobs and drives growth. You know the names of The Entrepreneurs; Richard and Steve, Elon and Jack. They need little introduction.
But the entrepreneur at the heart of real business is just a man or a woman. Like you. Invisible to most, you shoulder the grueling hard work and gnawing anxieties of small business. You drink warm white wine at networking events. You accept responsibility for your workplace family, to the detriment of your own. The vertigo of a successful month still sparks anxiety.
One bears little relation to the other. There is a yawning gap between the mythical Entrepreneur promoted through education, politics and media – and the messy, fallible, real thing. This gap matters. This gap - the Entrepreneurial Myth - damages people by isolating, stressing and exiling real business creators.
Consider the collateral damage to entrepreneurial mental health: entrepreneurs are significantly more likely to present mental health concerns than a member of the general population. Consider the lazy celebration of appalling business success rates. This must change. And I’m going to show you how.