What is an entrepreneur’s primary motivation? What should it be? Why become an entrepreneur? Why keep doing it?
Elon Musk, claims entrepreneurship is like, “eating glass and staring into the abyss of death.” Not exactly the way I’d choose to spend my weekdays.
So much of the prevailing narrative focuses on ‘how to get rich’ and/or ‘how to build the next unicorn’ (aka how to get rich) – not about what entrepreneurship means for ‘normal’ entrepreneurs and why do it if you’re not building the next world-dominating business. It’s a story of superheroes: Gates, Jobs, Musk, Bezos, Zuckerberg are extraordinarily intelligent, privileged white-males who attended the best schools, who also have superhuman work ethics and got supremely lucky. They are the extreme exception, creating idols which, much like in sports, most people cannot emulate.
For first-time founders, the motivation to begin is often misattributed – entrepreneurship has become wrongly glamourised. Many believe entrepreneurship is a way to be in control of one’s own destiny, to become rich, and to ‘make the world a better place’. Each of these are potentially possible, but sometimes the opposite is true. In a WhatsApp group recently, a couple of successful entrepreneurs joked that they were founders because of ‘the glamour’, precisely because those in the know understand that this sentiment is so laughable.
So why become one? Why continue?
I could talk about all the things being a founder is not – a good way to become wealthy, freeing, glamorous and so on. Or what it is in reality – lonely, tough, stressful etc. Yet instead of disappearing down these rabbit holes, I want to focus on the ‘why’ – why be an entrepreneur? As much so I can pin the answers over my own door or computer screen, so that when I don’t build the next Facebook, I know why I did it.
This morning, under coronavirus lockdown, without leaving home – I woke up in a bed in a warm house, between comfortable cotton sheets, ran, meditated using an app, showered, drank a coffee, read a book, listened to some music, ate porridge. Now I sit here, at my computer. Almost everything that I’ve interacted with is the product of a someone else’s effort and creation, and a business. The running shoes, the asphalt I pounded upon… even the ingested porridge involved suppliers, farmers, transport, different countries, retailers and hundreds of invisible hands.
I’ve probably interacted with thousands of different businesses and their products already today, from toilet roll to the news (perhaps these aren’t that far apart). I’m privy to thousands of peoples’ efforts and creations everywhere I look.
The reason why entrepreneurship is magical, to me, is because every one of these products started with someone having a ‘what if’ moment. The paint on my walls are a product of thousands of different peoples’ thought, dedication, innovation and so on. Yet I’ve never even really considered the evolution of paint before, even when watching it dry. Sure, I’d rather look at a tree and wonder at the majesty of nature’s creation, but I can’t create one myself – so entrepreneurship is my own canvas or kiln.
These ‘what if’ moments people have had, have then been executed and actualised. Someone has acted on an impulse to solve a problem and dedicate themselves to that. The tastes, comforts, heat, smells and sensations that we take for granted have been brought to us by the industry and bravery of another, usually wanting to solve something in the world that doesn’t quite work, or isn’t good enough. The world becomes better through these invisible hands.
Like writing, painting, music – entrepreneurship is about creation. Of taking something that doesn’t exist and making it alive. To start a business is to give birth to something that in some way ‘lives’ independent of its founders. Some founders like their businesses to be in their likeness, others recognise that starting a business is to create something much bigger than themselves.
In the excellent film, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ the protagonist is shown the impact of his life by seeing his town and community as if he had never existed. He sees the tendrils of his own life’s impact, and how different the world would be without him. Therapists often prescribe the film to people who suffer depression.
Starting a business changes things forever. Let’s take the first business I started – Blue Ventures. Whilst I was only there at the beginning – for the first ~3 years of its creation and have been one of perhaps 500 people who’ve made it what it is – it wouldn’t exist without me. I was the person who took the idea and gave birth to it. Therefore my involvement was a catalyst for change. A number of babies have been born, relationships started, people have died and hundreds of thousands of peoples’ lives in Africa and beyond have changed a little or a lot indirectly as a result of that initiation.
Whilst I don’t claim credit for the organisation’s success, it’s humbling to think of those ~3 years and the ripples of change that have occurred from that founding. Through the businesses and initiatives I’ve been involved with – like Tenner for example – the ability to impact people’s lives and create change is palpable. The world has changed because of me. Whilst it’s not unique to businesses – a piece of music, politician, therapist, friendship all create change – a business is often a significant creative act that changes the world in some small way. There is some ego in here, but that can be healthy or unhealthy depending on its actualisation. There is a lot that is broken in the world which could do with being changed. Many businesses do not do good, but a business is one of the most effective tools for change that we have.
I never learned much by being told I had to learn something because it might be useful, or being taught theory. I wish I could, but it’s the way I’m wired. I learn when confronted with something, preferably tangibly so. I joke that I learned more about business in the first year of running one than I did in 5 years of undergraduate and graduate studies – but it’s true. It is why studying entrepreneurship is mostly a less effective learning mechanism than doing it.
Starting a business requires quick and constant learning – it creates a rolling syllabus that, whilst daunting, forces the entrepreneur to learn at high speed and then practice that learning in real life, embedding it quicker than via any other methodology I’ve come across.
Whilst compound interest is one of the wonders of the world, starting businesses in different sectors does enable broad learning and problem solving. My own ventures – in marine conservation, social enterprise, environmental recruitment, big data and tech, travel and so on have resulted in an excuse to sate my curiosity and learn about a wide range of issues and skills in many different countries and cultures. I’ve learned fastest and with the most hunger and joy through entrepreneurship, regardless of the outcome of the businesses.
Entrepreneurship gets you close to the action. It makes you feel alive. It involves actually doing things with immediacy, rather than working on something remotely related or theoretical. In Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly she quotes Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; . . . who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
In being an entrepreneur, there’s a palpable sense of being in the arena, of being part of the action. The rollercoaster is great – the highs and lows extreme, but once you’ve tasted that action and risk of failure, it’s hard to go back. Said another way – through these extremes, you feel more alive.
Although related to the feeling of aliveness, entrepreneurship is also about connection. When you create a business it brings people together – as employees, customers, stakeholders and so on. Like any relationship, a co-founding team or team-mates draw people together in ways that test those individuals. Co-founders, myself included, sometimes fall out with their partners, or teams. Yet like any romantic relationship, we are usually richer for having had those intense, deep and challenging relationships with others. It is through these relationships that I have learned about myself. Whilst I choose to be a ‘Founder not CEO’, and I enjoy working on things as an individual, you cannot avoid working closely with people. I find working on things together with people a great way to connect.
Being a CEO or founder is lonely – the connection is often not reciprocated, or maintained. Yet because of the extremes, the connective tissue that is formed seems stronger than in many other areas and fosters deep camaraderie.
I’ve not mentioned, or even come close to mentioning, many of the usual explicit or tacit reasons for becoming an entrepreneur: to make money, achieve, gain status or power. To those that believe starting a business is about those – good luck. I’ve known and seen the hollowness of chasing those ‘whys’. For me, the above 5 whys are the reason why I keep working to help others build businesses when I don’t have to.