Read this exclusive extract from The Entrepreneurial Myth…
TAKE ANOTHER LOOK
You’ve met THEM before. The guy in jeans, frowning at his laptop; the woman pushing back her glasses to focus on her paper. Hunkered in a business incubator humming with entrepreneurship, they help deliver approximately £196 billion to the British economy, $8.5 trillion stateside.
Perhaps it’s you. You trace each contour of your business in the small hours of the morning. You can still see the early breakthroughs and taste last week’s mistake. The grief and the glory of small business rests in your gut.
You’re an entrepreneur.
Defining entrepreneurship is notoriously difficult. Many claim entrepreneurs are psychologically different, marked out from the crowd by distinct traits. The label is permanent: once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur. Others reject this trait theory and consider entrepreneurship as an activity completed by different actors, at different times. Like basketball, entrepreneurship is a game you can start, stop, then start again later if it suits. The label shifts: the player is only a player when they are standing on the court.
Research usually lumps entrepreneurs together, whatever their motivation, experience or ambition. The academic gaze often follows entrepreneurial behaviour or personality, instead of the context or values that drive activity. The economist Joseph Schumpeter suggested entrepreneurs innovate in five ways; they introduce a new good, a new method of production, create a new market or organization, or conquer a new source of raw materials. Innovation, in all its forms, is “not a feat of intellect, but of will … a special case of the social phenomenon of leadership.”
But entrepreneurship is exponentially more than sweat and intellect, will and leadership. It rests on much more than innovation. With crushing logic, a businessman once claimed the only thing leaders have in common is followers. Perhaps the only thing entrepreneurs have in common isn’t innovation after all, but the creation of opportunity.
Entrepreneurs create opportunity. Opportunity sparks hope. And you chase hope wherever it leads. This book is an opportunity to pause and contemplate where entrepreneurship ends. And it doesn’t always end well.
But let’s start at the beginning. The spark for this book was kindled by a master’s dissertation at the University of Aberdeen nearly 20 years ago. Modelling the Evolution of Entrepreneurial Mythology examined how journalists and a newspaper-loving public created vivid entrepreneurial caricatures in the pages of national broadsheets. Male entrepreneurs – and they were nearly always men - were portrayed as wolfish charmers, supernatural gurus, saviours, corruptors and skyrockets. Two media samples were compared; the first in 1989 and the second in 2000. Between the two samples, heroic entrepreneurs were portrayed with increasingly fantastical superpowers and steadily grew in political influence. As the entrepreneurial ego surged forward, the uncritical public adoration recorded in 1989 gave way to irritation by 2000. The gap between the idolatry of business creation and the gritty reality of entrepreneurship grew. In this gap, the entrepreneur’s psyche suffered: it is impossible to be god and (business)man at the same time. The thesis closed by predicting a new post-entrepreneurial age in which entrepreneurship could be reinvented for the benefit of all. It was an audacious conclusion: 2000 was a year weighted with worship of businessmen as they gulped champagne with celebrities and loudly advised politicians how best to save the world. Nevertheless, the dissertation earnt full marks from Aberdeen University’s Centre of Entrepreneurship and was featured in special edition of the academic journal Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice.
After the master’s degree, life resumed with marriage, sons and friends; with work in journalism and public relations (PR); with the expectant launch and painful sale of a consultancy business. The Entrepreneurial Myth hummed throughout. It underscored the business features commissioned by editors. It was the drumbeat of numerous PR campaigns created to launch client adventures and build public personalities. It was the metronome to seven years as an entrepreneur in the creative industries. A PR knows stories matter. And if a story sticks, for decades, it should eventually be tested, told and trusted.
So, in the summer of 2018, the master’s research was carefully repeated. Instead of pouring over newspaper articles preserved on royal blue microfiche film in the library, evidence was comfortably gathered by Google. In total, over 1,000 media articles were sampled from a 30-year period, and 50 years of UK, US, Chinese and Indian enterprise policy was interrogated and analysed. All this proved that entrepreneurs are still promoted and pursued as modern Greek gods. This isn’t a harmless cartoon-ish characterization. The gap between the entrepreneur of myth and reality has damaging consequences for business creators, their communities and economies. The Myth’s insidious toxicity had simmered and intensified over the past 30 years; people still suffer today because of its exaggerations, distortions and lies.
It’s time to change. This book, which originated in the university library and has been enriched by corporate decades, is now in your hands. It is an invitation to help break The Entrepreneurial Myth’s momentum; to help rebuild a more reflective, more effective entrepreneurship for the health and wealth of all. The wellbeing of brilliant entrepreneurial minds and the wealth of global economies depend on it.
This is a love letter to entrepreneurship; a heartfelt intervention by an author who has studied, launched, grown, sold, joined and promoted entrepreneurial businesses for decades. The mission is to recalibrate entrepreneurship so that it works better. The criticism is directed to the distorted image of entrepreneurship in popular culture – the Myth – not towards the vital human drive to create and trade. Entrepreneurship has the power to energize communities, fuel nations and, literally, change the world.
There is a unique pinch of pleasure to be found in creating a business from scratch. Sometimes the satisfaction is profound and takes you by surprise. It’s the keys to a new office; the blur of an evening at an industry awards party; the spike of adrenaline on hearing that a client wants you. But there are already numerous books, articles, podcasts and shows offering entrepreneurial romance.
The urgent, unexamined, problem is that society’s hunger for entrepreneurship’s mythical promise, plus an ancient craving for heroic stories, distorts how businesses are perceived, created, delivered and supported. This distortion damages entrepreneurs and the economies they serve.
And there is a different way.
So, take another look. Compare the entrepreneur promoted through business schools, economic policy and your newspaper, with the real-life, first-person experience of running a small business. The 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’s larger than life; a time traveller; an economic saviour. He is courted by politicians as the personification of a healthy, dynamic economy. The Entrepreneur creates jobs and drives growth. The deliberate male pronoun jars, but the Myth is doggedly and unapologetically male. You know the names of The Entrepreneurs; Richard and Steve, Elon and Jack. They need little introduction.
In stark contrast, the entrepreneur at the heart of real business is just a man or a woman. Let’s say it’s you. Invisible to most, you shoulder the gruelling 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 - 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.
This must change.
The Entrepreneurial Myth also damages our economies and societies as it persuades the public and politicians to accept, even celebrate, appalling business failure rates. Essential business talent is excluded and attitudes to success and failure distorted. All this is to the detriment of our economy. Name another economic sector which potentially receives more government funding than essential emergency services, without providing the jobs or innovation to justify that support, and stubbornly boasts a 90% failure rate.
This, too, must change.
This book’s purpose is to deconstruct The Entrepreneurial Myth and strip it of its power to damage business creators and the economies they serve. You need to see it, and understand it, to change it. Then, a more reflective, more effective, form of entrepreneurship is proposed for the health and wealth of all. We need entrepreneurship but we also need to look after the people that drive it. A revolution rests on the fact that a more reflective entrepreneurship is a more effective entrepreneurship. Rarely can you have it all, yet nurturing entrepreneurial mental health also nurtures economic productivity; it circumvents the breath-taking waste of failed businesses. This is not a soft option; it’s the smart option.
Three pillars prop up the analysis: first, the ancient history of storytelling, myth and metaphor explains why we deify entrepreneurs. Second, social psychology explores the personal impact of The Entrepreneurial Myth on individual business creators. Third, economics explores the costly economic exchange society makes for the inefficiencies of The Entrepreneurial Myth.
Change will come. Entrepreneur is an almost ubiquitous job title. Entrepreneurial business birth rates increase year on year, as do business death rates. This start-up churn creates and takes jobs; it demands blood and sweat, tears and generates eye-watering transaction costs in an imperfect market. Imagine the prize if the churn was steadied and reduced.
Back of the envelope calculations show that if business success rates improved by just 10%, it could be worth £19.6 billion to the UK economy; $850 billion to the US economy. Detailed financial analysis will follow, but whatever the financial advantage of unpicking the Myth to create enterprise fit for the next generation, it is coupled with the urgent, unquantifiable human benefit of preserving the mental health and well-being of entrepreneurs and their families.
Imagine seeing entrepreneurs as they really are. Just men and women with a patchwork of skills and a fallible flash of brilliance. Like you, like me; not God, guru or superman. Closing the gap between the mythological entrepreneurship peddled in public, and the real thing, changes how entrepreneurs are supported and how businesses are built. It changes how failure is managed and success is celebrated.
This is a global issue. As economies converge, we need a shared understanding about enterprise and its protagonists.
Consequently, this book considers the impact of The Entrepreneurial Myth in the UK and the US, India and China. Norms, aspirations and business practices merge as the 88% of the world’s population who live outside the West seek the living standards, (relative) peace and prosperity that most Western citizens have enjoyed over the past few decades. Countries with radically different cultures pursue the same entrepreneurial ideals to drive their economy towards prosperity. Entrepreneurship blends values, ideas, models, money and markets in a way that accelerates globalization. The Entrepreneurial Myth bridges cultures and countries, sectors and decades; a broad global perspective is absolutely essential.
You are invited to speak, reflect, connect, learn and persist in a movement to preserve the best of real entrepreneurial business. Pick up a pen, scrawl in the margin,
join the discussion online and make the Real Business Manifesto yours.