ENTREPRENEUR – A term used far too lightly and what right do you have to call yourself one… and how does this go-at-it-alone philosophy affect SA digital?
We all go through stages where we latch onto a word or phrase and over-use it to the point where it loses its impact or real meaning. One example that comes to mind immediately is the word awesome. Awe is defined as ‘an overwhelming feeling of wonder and admiration’ or ‘a feeling of profound respect.’ Suffice to say the burger you just wolfed down, no matter how delicious is not awesome.
Another term which is suffering at the hands of over and incorrect use is entrepreneur.
Do a quick search on Twitter as to the number of people who include the word entrepreneur in their profile. It’s a wonder the global economy is in such a precarious position given how many entrepreneurs are broadcasting their brilliant existence via social media.
Let’s be honest, there are some fundamental criteria for being identified by society, rather than just by you and your mum, as an entrepreneur.
The makings of an adventurer
You are someone who has put their financial neck on the line, be it your house, savings or little Timmy’s university fund. You have put your existing career or job at risk by actively pursuing an idea, opportunity or vision. Prominent American political economist Robert B Reich defined the meaning as someone who also possess strong qualities in the areas of leadership, management, team building and has the ability to succeed, albeit success is never guaranteed.. .
Entrepeneur is therefore a rather big compliment to give yourself, as you are essentially saying as your career description ‘I am an all round brilliant human being who was clever enough to have (or take) a great idea and build it through my extemporary vision, skills in people and structural management. Did I also mention my strong leadership and mentoring skills?’
Entrepreneur (a good one – as surely there has to be varying types) is not a title you should bestow upon yourself, instead it should be a term that someone might describe you as, in recognition of your achievements and the multiple qualities described above. I believe that Richard Branson is of course a great entrepreneur, I also believe that Kylie has a wonderful bottom, neither of which I’m guessing they choose to lob into introductory conversations about themselves.
There are of course people like Branson who genuinely are referred to by all as an entrepreneur, and have every right to use that label to describe themselves should they wish. But let’s be honest we’re in minority territory here and even the best generally don’t.
Entrepreneur must not be confused with a business starter, business owner, having an idea, freelancing, or anything else that falls outside traditional employment. Also, don’t confuse entrepreneurial with being an entrepreneur. Likewise the word ‘serial entrepreneur’ is also increasingly making the rounds of business lexicon in a thoroughly meaningless way. You are either an entrepreneur or you are not. You cannot be a serial doctor or a serial accountant.
Which brings me to entrepreneurial. The way most people refer to themselves as an ‘entrepreneur’ would define my housekeeper as an ‘entrepreneur’ and a good one at that. Whenever we need more help (extra cleaning, gardening, etc) she pulls in her friends and family and takes a cut of the wages.
She may not fit all of the qualities defined here for being a true entrepreneur but it certainly ticks a lot of boxes and she is surely more worthy of being labeled an entrepreneur than most who use that label so easily. Instead I would view her business acumen and practice as being entrepreneurial.
So, given that entrepreneur is such a widely abused term in SA which has been diluted to mean ‘going at it alone in some way’, I would like to highlight the danger within industry sectors where ‘entrepreneurship’ (from now on: going-at-it-aloneship) is widely promoted and glamourised. This buzz and promotion is flippantly given and seen by many as the answer to the country’s economic challenges, which in under privileged areas it may well be, but in over privileged areas such as digital and advertising I strongly disagree.
This glamorising of ‘go-it-aloneship’ is irresponsible and should be promoted with caution, not unlike gambling. The difference is that gambling comes with a health warning (responsible gambling) and so should the promotion of ‘go-at-it-aloneship’ as it is just as dangerous and frequently produces more losers than winners.
Responsibly promoting this ‘go-at-it-aloneship’ should at the very least be to those who tick the big boxes of entrepreneurial flair, have a lower risk of failure and crucially understand all of the risks both financial and personal.
At least gamblers have support structures and help lines for when things go wrong, ‘go-at-it-aloners’ do not! We have warnings all over any financial and investment adverts as well as the aforementioned highly regulated gambling industry. But what gives us the right to glamourise and oversimplify the fine art of business success with so much financial and personal collateral at risk?
My next point is that the promotion of ‘go-at-it-aloneship’ creates talent dilution, not least in industries with an already starving talent pool. There is no doubt that when great minds and visionaries get together, amazing things can and do happen.
Diluting strengths vs capitalising on them
In my industry, the digital industry, where we already have a huge talent shortage, the very best people that you would really want in your team are already ‘going-at-it-aloners,’ and to be fair in a few exceptional cases, worthy tech and digital entrepreneurs.
What this creates is something that continues to dilute our depth and quality versus world class digital standards.
It does that by fragmenting great brains through the creation of hundreds of small digital companies or talent silos, headed up by the ‘going-at-it-aloner’, each of which is consumed with the 50% wastage of running that business. Less time for digital brilliance and breakthroughs when you have to invoice, pay salaries, keep the VAT man happy and so on.
More often than not our gifted but creatively lonely ‘go-at-it- aloner’ is the sole driver without the benefit of true collaborative and strategic business thinking, resulting in offerings that can quite often only be extremely niche, spread too thin or competing in an overcrowded and competitive market fighting for the same small slice of pie.
The beauty of teamwork
Don’t underestimate the time, money and the collective brains required to be truly digitally innovative and deliver world class products and campaigns on a large scale. With very few exceptions, these silos will never unlock the true potential of the visionary spearheading them.
The best analogy for the digital industry in South Africa? What we should and could be as an industry is an FC Barcelona, World Cup winners Spain, Manchester United or the entire Premier League in football terms. In essence a team made up of the cream of the crop.
Instead we have a culture of ‘go-at- it-aloneship’ that tells each of these players that they can easily setup and manage teams themselves, make lots of money, all run their own stadiums and cleaning staff and then perhaps a Russian billionaire will come and buy them for squillons of dollars. In most cases, this may spawn the odd (but rare) good team, many mediocre ones and lots of minnows, struggling to attract fans and financial returns and of course scrapping over world class team talent.
The reality is the greatness of those teams lies in the collaborative teamwork of all those combined talents which unite to create something truly world class.
Of course FC Barcelona and Manchester United wouldn’t exist if someone hadn’t started the team, but you get my point.
So what then is the answer?
Instead of blindly promoting the ‘go-at-it-alone it will be great’ philosophy, there needs to be other outlets for entrepreneurial minded individuals.
Companies need to look at promoting and harnessing the essence of entrepreneurial spirit. Offering infrastructure and the relevant rewards, ownership and control for people with the added benefit of personal de-risking with a ‘not so hard landing’ should it not work out
I believe that true entrepreneurs can be born and housed within companies, they too will need to fit the criteria as discussed, and they still carry risk, it may not be monetary, but in order to succeed as a true entrepreneur you will always be making some kind of personal sacrifice. Keeping the brains and entrepreneurial drive together can only mean great things for digital or any other industry on the world stage.
Alternatively, in a land of ‘go-at-it-aloneship’, most of those labeling themselves tech and digital ‘entrepreneurs’ need to drop the self appointed labels and look to create an ‘entrpreurlaboration’ approach where by collaborating and joining these small silos of great talents would deliver creative solutions, products and ideas far greater than the sum of the parts.
As a rule of thumb, for collaboration to be effective it requires leadership. Not typically ‘do as I say’ leadership but rather a form that is social or decentralized, a form of leadership that can be liquid and malleable. By that I mean where a skill set is strong a natural leadership will be formed and where that person was weaker they would automatically look to support the leadership of another in the group more suited to particular task with the shared goal of a common vision.
The collective, collaborative leadership should all of our ‘go-at-it aloners’ work with an entrepreurlaboration approach would have a profound effect on South Africa’s digital landscape and its global competitiveness
Why? Because it is a way of coordinating ideas from the best of breed to generate wider and more impactful knowledge. Think of it as an ongoing brainstorm with the best and brightest brains in the field, with people who have insight and the willing to take what’s inside your head and make it better.
Collaboration with a selected few firms as opposed to collaboration with a large number of different firms has repeatedly been shown to positively impact firm performance and innovation outcomes.
Neither of the above are likely, but the constant dilution of our nations great brains in this way is detrimental to a country trying to claim it’s rightful place in the global digital economy, but if you must go at it alone, please do it with caution, it’s hard out there
For all of you self-labeled ‘entrepreneurs’, let us instead park the egotistical titles and work harder to make the digital landscape greater. Entrepeurlaboration can create true digital greatness for South Africa and within that is there is still room for others to think of you and label you as a true entrepreneur.