Monday, May 01, 2006

Five Myths About Entrepreneurship : Conversations with My Brother

My brother is teaching a course on Entrepreneurship these days. I must clarify – this is not an MBA, but a subject taught in High Schools, perhaps as a part of another, broader subject.

I found this to be a brilliant idea – implanting minds at a rather early age about a career option, and also encouraging creative thinking in an indirect way. I did sit up and listen, and immediately engaged in a conversation on what is being taught, and how people respond to it.

I must admit I was rather disappointed with the curriculum. While the idea of teaching about entrepreneurship is bold and creative, the curricula seems to have been written by people who never had the slightest intention to be an entrepreneur, or to put it differently, wished their own child become one.

Two minutes into the discussion, I found myself rather exasperatedly explaining to my brother what I think are the wrong ideas being taught. And, after two hours – he suggested that I write this down, and he would add my perspectives in his classroom lessons, though, sadly and expectedly, he has no powers to change the curricula or affect the examination papers.

So, this is why I write. These are what I would call five systemic myths about entrepreneurship that we grow up with, whether we attend a class or not.

Myth 1: Entrepreneurs are Adventurers

Well, they are not. This is the most damaging myth about entrepreneurship, as this causes maximum number of failures.

To start with, I am not undermining Adventurers. They are the pioneers; they have created the civilization, as we know today.

Also, there are certain common traits between entrepreneurs and adventurers. Both tries to go beyond the obvious, and both are in the business of creating possibilities. Both thrive on risks – though in various degrees and kind. And, both, to be successful, need to be very persistent.

But, there is a significant difference. Entrepreneurs, while thinking beyond the obvious, must conjure a vision what it is going to be like; the Adventurers are under no such obligation. For the adventurer, it is necessarily about the journey, but an entrepreneur must know and have a strategy to reach his goal. And, therefore, while risks need to be taken, the entrepreneur must know what they are going to be like and what needs to be done to circumvent them – the adventure, by definition, is about not knowing the risks and taking it in one’s stride.

Myth 2: Entrepreneurs come from Entrepreneurial families

When my brother mentioned this, I initially thought this is a mischief; someone inserted this in the textbook intentionally. But, as I would discover – this is a rather widespread myth.

Again, this is saying doctors come from family of doctors. True sometimes, but not always, as one would agree. Extend that and say – good doctors come from family of doctors – and you will probably discover the extent of absurdity.

I don’t deny that entrepreneurship needs some early moulding of character, and this is why I was so excited about training on entrepreneurship. Also, entrepreneurs need role models like all of us – inside family or otherwise.

Can we say that being from an entrepreneurial family in any case enhance the chances / success rates of becoming an entrepreneur? I would think, not at all, though family businesses are so common, and this myth usually defines succession plans across the board. But, in such cases, failures are as common as successes, and lots of times, vision of the future, the defining characteristic of an ‘entrepreneur’ is missing in the heir-apparent. Without this, the person tends to become a manager, protecting the founder's legacy, and eventually loses his/her way when an industry change happens.

Myth 3: One should try to become an entrepreneur only after achieving a high level of professional skill or success

Like the other myths, there are some truth and a few favourable examples, but there is also over-generalisation to the extent of undermining reality.

So often than not, brilliant entrepreneurial successes have been brought about by ordinary people, indifferent pupils or unsuccessful employees.

People, by nature, are good at certain things – but this is no guarantee that this will mean an all-round ability. For example, thinking beyond the obvious may not be an asset in school, nor ability to take risks is greatly appreciated in most ‘industrial-age’ corporations or public sector enterprises.

Modern life is a sequence of accidents under the garb of some kind of irreversible rationality. This sequencing – patterns designed and defined based on the experiences of times past – is always anti-creative. The entrepreneurship is also about breaking this sequence, and becoming what one is NOT destined to become.

This would also necessarily invalidate Myth 1 and 2, as you can see.


Myth 4: Entrepreneurs bring fresh new ideas to market

So often than not, they don’t. There are invention-based enterprises, which come at the back of a new discovery. [I am tempted to see a pattern and say – usually by university-to-enterprise business-people, but I shall refrain from generalisations]

But, mostly, entrepreneurship is about looking at ‘better’ – as opposed to ‘new’ – way of doing things. An HBR study by Amar Bhide looks at where entrepreneurs get their ideas from – an overwhelming 71% say that they have replicated and modified an idea encountered through previous employment. Contrast that with accident [‘Swept into the PC revolution’] at 5% and other reasons like ‘built casual interest into business’, ‘wanted as an individual consumer’, ‘happened to read about’, ‘developed a family member’s idea’ or ‘thought of during honeymoon’ at 20%, you will know that it is not even about accidental creativity. Sadly, the ‘Systemic Research for Opportunities’ of the business school variety does much less better at 4% in spawning entrepreneurship.

Myth 5: Entrepreneurship is an individual quality/ attribute

As in ‘some people are born entrepreneurs’. Very true, but one must remember that many people – born entrepreneurs – never finally become one.

This is a matter of belief for me – it is important to have an entrepreneurial society to foster entrepreneurship. The social milieu – which includes the education system, the financial environment, the approach to risk taking, the acceptance of failures, and also, I suspect [amateurishly] the use of language – has a direct and profound impact on entrepreneurship.

No matter how hardworking the entrepreneur is, how bright an idea he may have, or how ‘indomitable’ he is – he will still better chances of building a world-beating success in California than in, let’s say, Normandy. I disagree that this is only about resources – clusters, as I heard you say – and would strongly believe that there is a strong cultural element in this.

My interests in Entrepreneurship run deep. I do see this to be the motor of capitalist progress, and only hope in sustaining a dynamic society. This is even more important today than a century ago – because today the resource distribution [e.g, energy, media, finance and people] and public policy [e.g, governments’ willingness to make concessions for large foreign investors over local business and innovation] are more skewed against enterprise than ever before. But, here is a point – small, start-up entrepreneurs generate more employment and contribute far more positively in a nations economy than either foreign aid or investment.

Time now to build an entrepreneurial society! The high school curricula reflect the demand, but sadly, reflects the social bias and propagates counter-productive mythology about entrepreneurship.

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