From the moment I started writing about entrepreneurship, I began to get emails and messages asking, “what is an entrepreneur” and “how do I become one.” Sometimes it was “help me become a great one.”
But overall, the question was the same. I don’t even know what is an entrepreneur, but I know I want to be one because it sounds good.
You could say it was this lack of clarity over what is an entrepreneur and obsession of becoming one is akin to becoming “a pop star.” Spun off the back of shows such as “The X Factor,” “American Idol,” Pop Stars,” we saw generations obsessing at high-drama that they had to become a star.
You didn’t hear “I want to be a musician” because the very rare few were that already didn’t have to say it,” and those who were obsessed with singing their way to stardom never seemed overly bothered by the relevance of musicianship.
The wannabees want to be stars, without any reality of what that life is like, the loneliness, the hard work, the highs, and the lows. What they see and obsess over is the wealth, the glamour, the fame, a picture concocted from a toxic mix of media, reality shows, and ignorance.
What we have with this profusion of people demanding what is an entrepreneur while at the same time seeking someone who will wave a magic wand and make them into one is pretty similar. They, too, see only the surface glamour, the money, the fame, and overlook the loneliness, work, and ups and downs.
There is also curious, inverted snobbishness. We all know musicians who pour scorn on the contestants, announcing they are the real musicians because they know music and yet are left starving in the gutter. When looked at like that, it does seem wrong.
However, it is hard to listen to them and not hear the sourest grapes because, in most cases, there has been some talent, some star quality, that has propelled the inexperienced into orbit. And if there isn’t, they don’t last. You only have to look at the trail of dropped reality show winners.
But so, it has become with entrepreneurs and business people. With the onslaught of “entrepreneurs” being so fashionable, more and more people started to ask, what is an entrepreneur. Then more people are adding the title “entrepreneur” to their bio’s. When I start to look in more detail, I would question if, in reality, they truly are an entrepreneur at all.
It doesn’t help that if you ask the question “what is an entrepreneur,” you get back a whole range of answers. Nearly all agree that it is someone who sets up a business, with a view to financial gain, and takes risks.
By which you might think, of course, that all small business owners are entrepreneurs. Both need hard work, determination, and dedication to get them going. Both bring sleepless nights of worry – at least at some point.
More startups but which and what are entrepreneurs?
The numbers of start-ups are growing year on year. In the UK alone, there were 5.9 million private sector businesses, according to government figures in 2019, up 200,000 on the previous year. A study by SME Loans showed that 61% of people in the workforce want to start their own business.
The highest number of those are aged 18-24, and that same group is the one that sees it as a way to financial gain. This desire for riches explains a lot about the repetition of the question of what is an entrepreneur. They assume the two go hand in hand.
Of course, COVID has upped the numbers heading for trouble, which is why Crowdcube is leading an SOS campaign to Save our Start-Ups. For many people, dreams of glamour, success, and money are already becoming something in the past.
But in these all these reports, there is no distinction between what is an entrepreneur and what is a communal garden business owner.
So, what is an entrepreneur as opposed to an SME owner?
At the heart of the difference lies the size of their goals and the degree of risks they are comfortable to take to get there.
Both see a need for their service or product, a place in the market. It might be your SME corner shop or Dyson’s invention of an entirely different sort of hoover. But the size of the market they dream of serving is altogether different.
Small business owners are most often intent on providing for their families. Entrepreneurs are setting out to make a difference in the world. Small business owners are content with steady growth and sound accounts.
To understand what is an entrepreneur, look for the people who are obsessed with scaling and know that scaling comes with high risks, both financially and in terms of failure rates.
Some people are now defining the difference between the two in terms of how the businesses are funded. There has been a trend in recent years for venture capital to start becoming involved in start-ups. It is a trend on which entrepreneurs are hugely divided.
Some believe it is an essential part of what is an entrepreneur. Others believe it is entirely wrong, putting the emphasis on pitching ability instead of the viability of a business and encouraging newbie entrepreneurs to borrow money too freely when bootstrapping would have both done the job and taught them more.
Those who put forward this argument do so with disregard to many of the greatest entrepreneurs who started out with nothing, and did whatever it took to make money to fund their growing ventures. There was no other way to do it.
I would argue that an entrepreneurial career launched without funding could be considered far more entrepreneurial rather than less.
Other confusions in what is an entrepreneur
Entrepreneurs are ideas people. To generate a market of the sort of size they need to scale, they have to have come up with a new idea, or a great concept of doing something that exists in a whole new way.
Small business owners, as a rule, do neither of those things. They do something that someone else is doing, but for their local market and with small differentials. I also have an issue with franchisees and licensees calling themselves entrepreneurs.
They aren’t. They are not responsible for the original idea. Even their supply chains, methodology, systems are often provided for them. They can be useful training grounds for learning business in a reasonably safe way, but they are not entrepreneurial
Entrepreneurs are innovators who think outside the box and solve seemingly impossible problems and keep going. The innovation trait is what brings on another confusion. We now have the intrapreneur, a term for a particularly innovative employee who has a hugely novel idea while working within a company. Not to be confused.
And while you are trying not to be confused about what an entrepreneur is, in the days of more bootstrapping and organic, but fast growth, part of the journey would be for the owner and founder to step back and employ a CEO so that they could work more on the business, not in the business.
Now, founders are entitling themselves as founders and CEO’s or bringing in CEO’s at an early stage and allowing them too to call themselves founders. The truth is that the skill sets required for a founder entrepreneur and a CEO are very different and it is rare that people are adept at both.
To answer the question of what is an Entrepreneur?
They come in all shapes and sizes. You only have to read of Cody, Carlene, Alyson, Jimmy, Keiron, or the countless others I interview to understand that. Some with funding, some without. Some are trained, some not.
But they do think big, they are risk takers, and want to make a difference.
That said, when someone I was going to interview asked me recently for my definition of what an entrepreneur is, I said I also thought it could be defined as someone who takes charge of their own destiny.
Can I or anyone else make you one?
I don’t think so.
When someone asks me both what is an entrepreneur and if I can make them be one, my first thought is that if they haven’t the savvy to work out the former, they have no hope of the latter.
The greatest entrepreneurs make themselves. That is what being an entrepreneur is. Taking an idea and running with it.
What is an entrepreneur? Someone who dreams big