Sharks, Dragons And True Entrepreneurs
I am an entrepreneur, not a dragon, and I don’t have a tank either.
I find it interesting and somewhat concerning how segments of our society have chosen to characterize entrepreneurs. The issue is undoubtedly connected to the news media’s constant desire to find big personalities and colourful behavior. Entrepreneurial reality shows such as Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank have also contributed. In these programs, entrepreneurs are portrayed as ferocious beasts (dragons, sharks) sitting on raised platforms looking down on earnest, nervous business people as if it were the Roman Forum.
The simplest definition of an entrepreneur is a person who starts a business and is willing to risk loss in order to make money. I would argue the vast majority of these people are mild-mannered, next door neighbours who do share certain traits, but a big ego is not one of them. They own restaurants or hair parlours, or make crafts to sell online or run a landscaping business.
In my career, I have co-founded at least half a dozen companies and invested in the very early stages of almost a dozen more. Altogether, hundreds of people are still employed in these companies. At the same time, a few of them are no longer in business – that’s the risk part mentioned above. I share this record simply to demonstrate my credentials as an entrepreneur.
But I don’t relate to the big personality image often associated with entrepreneurs. I don’t subscribe to the extreme image of entrepreneurship – endless hours of work, brash behaviour, loud personalities and courageous gambits against all odds.
Sometimes, the academic world joins this frenzy. One US business school website talks about game-changing ideas and big personality mentors. Everywhere in society, big personalities help put bums in seats. But it is a show, not the reality.
This view that entrepreneurs have been distorted was discussed recently in a very good Wall Street Journal column written by Morra Aarons-Mele regarding the dangerous stories we tell about entrepreneurs. Aarons-Mele calls it “entrepreneurial porn”, where entrepreneurship means disruption, sacrifice away from family and endless self-promotion.
My motivations in starting a marketing company in 1994 were the belief that I could create a better business to serve clients and a better place for people to work, including myself. Sure, financial success is a great motivator, but I also wanted the certainty of seeing my daughters grow up and getting home for dinner as many nights of the week as possible. If we create an unattainable, unrealistic and undesirable image for entrepreneurship, how many good businesses are we preventing? How many jobs are we denying?
Returning to that shark tank of distortion, a prime example of entrepreneurial ego exaggeration comes in the person of Kevin O’Leary. His current political posturing may be an interest in public service, but is certainly a continuation of public aggrandizement. An article last summer in Toronto Life talked about O’Leary’s fondness for attention. He apparently carries his own make-up kit for television appearances and has a defined look; black suit, white shirt, black tie. He’s very articulate, in an outrageous and often offensive manner.
The traits that I think make a successful entrepreneur include vision, perseverance, ethics, inclusiveness, and thoughtfulness. An ability to sell and serve customers is obviously important. As Jim Collins wrote in Good to Great, the most successful leaders of companies are self-effacing and understated.
There are likely also an underlying set of societal values that differ by community or nation and contribute to the definition of an entrepreneur. A person who owns a restaurant in Moose Jaw may be different than a person in a downtown Vancouver eatery. The values of an Italian differ from an American or German. It, therefore, becomes necessary to look at both the person and the social context. This is worthy of further study.
We should all calm down about the people who start businesses and stop the unrealistic portrayal that confuses ego with entrepreneurship. Small and medium-sized enterprises create many new jobs and are the most trusted part of the private sector. Finding ways to encourage these people and businesses will be much more useful than putting makeup on a shark.