Are You an Entrepreneur?

Are You an Entrepreneur?

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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.

The standard

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.

Going-at-it-aloneship

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.

Entrpreurlaboration

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.

Tim Bishop
Tim Bishop spearheaded Prezence Digital UK’s expansion into South Africa in 2002 and is currently the company’s CTO. With more than 18 years in the online and mobile industry, his focus is 'mobile for the masses' and he has been instrumental in high profile mobile web and application developments, brand strategy and enhanced user experiences throughout Africa.
  • Lots of food for thought here Tim. Allow me to respond (from my humble perch)…

    As South Africans, we tend to have the need to be seen as Entrepreneurial for a number of reason:
    1 – Ego
    2 – ‘Last Man Standing’ Thinking / ‘First Man to Think of Something New’ Thinking
    3 – I don’t want a Job thinking – Being an Entrepreneur is simply another name for a guy who ”works” when he feels like it – and plays golf on Wed with other Entrepreneurs, who may or may not be useful contacts later on in life.

    I think the word you are looking for in South African terms is a little word that needs to be stuck before most of the peoples names wanting to bear this truly ambitious word – Nascent. So, we are a society full of nascent entrepreneurs, all waiting for the same thing – to be born, to become alive. The reality is so so different. The work, the sweat, the luck (spelled h a r d w o r k) the bits and and bobs (and yes, figuring out how to juggle a few rand to pay all the bills is sometimes so rewarding, but for many it will simply be another ‘job’ ( or just over broke) situation -where playing golf at all becomes a luxury in and of itself, never mind a midweek break to connect.

    As a South African business person, I too struggle with the idiocy of fragmentation (you can quote me on that) I have to contend with daily. I submit a quotation for a job, and some small garage developer wins out over me because his overhead is non existent. Later, when the client realises he has made a mistake, he will call me to come and fix the mess, often at twice the price of the original quote (look around at the all WordPress Theme specialists doing websites) – they are all very entrepreneurial and completely missing the point of work – building a craft one can be proud of, chasing excellence in your chosen profession. But we do end up with what we have spawned here at the bottom tip of Africa. A mess, a hodge podge of skills thrown together to try and fashion an industry of some credibility – designers, developers, product managers, all trying to get ahead. But still fragmented. Broken up, and not a team of players.

    So what if they choose titles like Entrepreneur? Does it matter? No, it does not. They will expose themselves as nascent, or even less flatteringly as substance less, very quickly. The clients will wake up and smell the (instant) coffee, and realise that there is more to the business of media and technology than simply calling up a website and copying it to a small screen. That building quality comes at a price. And that doing business with Entrepreneurs can come at a very high price…

    PS: To those who have made it through three years of ‘go it aloneship’, well done, you getting there, and maybe one day you will have a ‘title’ to use on your card. Now, get back to work..lunch time is over…

  • You are right, there is a huge difference between being an entrepreneur and a self starter. I am definitely a self starter – I took a risk of starting up an Administrative Support business rather than face unemployment. I offered a win-win solution to my then employer who subsequently became a client. To those entrepreneurs or go at it alone who are spending 50% of your time on the administration of running your business, there are self starters, like me, who can take the burden off your shoulders to keep you focused on your talent and skills. Wendy founder of Admin without Borders, http://www.virtual-admin.co.za

  • I live by the Entrepreneurs’ Credo:

    I do not choose to be a common man
    It’s my right to be uncommon – If I can

    I seek opportunity – not security

    I do not wish to be a kept citizen, humbled and dulled by having the state look after me.

    I want to take the calculated risk, to dream and to build, to fail and to succeed.

    I refuse to barter incentive for a dole;

    I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence,

    The thrill of fulfilment to the stale calm of utopia.

    I will not trade my freedom for beneficence nor my dignity for a hand-out.

    I will never cower before any master nor bend to any threat.

    It is my heritage to stand erect, proud and unafraid; to think and act for myself, to enjoy the benefit of my creations and to face the world boldly.