There is no questioning that entrepreneurs are in the media limelight now. Every week, Shark Tank airs to over 4 million people, showing off entrepreneurs from all over the country and a panel of successful entrepreneurs-turned-investors. Yik Yak is finally shutting down after years of decline, with a heartfelt message from the founders that have reveberated across dozens of news outlets. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick basically shows up every other day on someone’s news feed with yet another company scandal or problem under his belt. Elon Musk is on his fourth company in a row now, and everyone’s a buzz about it.
To an extent, it’s fantastic that entrepreneurship and industry are celebrated in such a way. It’s great to have such a supporting culture for people taking on risk to do something meaningful and impactful. There is no shortage of resources, help, and advice for aspiring business men and women. The digital age has lowered the barriers to entry tremendously for new entrepreneurs. People can access market research and data that would have taken weeks to gather decades ago. In an era of near-instant feedback, entrepreneurs are able to absorb information and adapt so much faster than their historic counterparts.
Yet, at the same time, there is an element of embellishment and glorification that has permeated throughout the environment. Entrepreneurs are certainly celebrated, but not always in a correct and healthy way. It’s far too common to see Business Insider articles that proclaim something to the effect of “See how this young woman quit her job and is making $65,000 while travelling the world”, or “This man sold his side-hustled business for $30 million”. When an entrepreneur becomes successful, the results of their efforts are often trumpeted much more loudly than the latter.
Take Evan Spiegel for instance. Young, white, college-educated, and technology-savvy. The classic example of a technology entrepreneur in today’s world. When Snap went public in March, one of the most common types of articles floating around the digital realm was the article that talked about how much money Evan was calculated to receive from his IPO. And it wasn’t just small niche sites. It was Fortune, USA Today, Recode, Mashable.
All of this unhealthy hype around entrepreneurship has created a number of individuals who seek to become entrepreneurs for the absolute wrong reasons. According to a report from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), fifty-one percent of the working population believes there are good opportunities to start businesses. Aside from the unlikelihood that fifty-one percent of the population decides to start a business, it begs the question: How many of these people are actually willing to do what it takes to start and run a successful business?
These “feaux-entrepreneurs” often are people who are enraptured by the successes of people by the likes of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerburg. They believe that, just because they have an idea for an app that they think is cool, they too can become successful. The necessity for hard work, humility, and tolerance of risk is easily ignored. They take actions that seemingly look productive while actually accomplishing nothing at all. The classic “CEO and Founder of App Idea” in their Twitter bio. A candid, depth-of-field heavy shot of them building a Squarespace website with their Macbook Pro at a coffee shop with a caption like “building a dream today.” They talk a great deal about their vision yet can’t seem to assemble coherent thoughts when asked about their business model or feasibility.
Gary Vaynerchuk, founder of Vayner Media, put it well: “This is the greatest period of fake entrepreneurship.”
Entrepreneurship has become a religion, of sorts.
Just the other day, I had a conversation with an “aspiring” entrepreneur. He was a young student from a different university — he didn’t go to Georgia Tech — who was talking about his dreams for the future.
“I want to be an entrepreneur,” he said.
“It’s the lifestyle that speaks to me,” he breathed, looking distantly past me as we sat in the corner of the lounge we had been in for hours. “I guess it’s always been an innate desire. When I started talking to people and getting advice from founders, I slowly began to realize that it was my calling. I’ve been thinking about it wrong all of these years.”
“What do you mean?” I asked innocently.
“You know, we only have a finite amount of years on earth. I want to spend those years with people like me doing something exciting and dangerous. I started going to conferences like these a year ago, and it’s kind of addicting, actually. I just love being in this type of environment. It’s, like, I found my calling.”
Unfortunately, the conversation turned repetitive and devoid of real content after that point. Still, it serves its purpose.
We have come to mythologize entrepreneurship. It’s all too common nowadays to see posts by people from college-age kids to middle-aged adults proclaiming that they have taken the leap and are following their dreams (evidently, by starting their startup). People speak of it in glowing terms, like “I have chosen my path in life to be entrepreneurship”, or “I realize, deep down in my heart, that I’m an entrepreneur.” These people, mostly the feaux-entrepreneurs, see themselves as almost Messiahs of business. When someone starts a startup nowadays, their inevitable startup manifesto or mission includes a phrase like “we’re going to change the world”. In most cases, they’re changing the world of email or food delivery.
Just think about the concept of entrepreneurship. At its most basic, you’re starting a business. It’s not revolutionary, by any means. According to the 2016 Kauffman Index of Startup Activity, an average of over 500,000 people became self-employed business owners each month. And, for most business owners, starting a business is actually fairly simple. It takes some paperwork, a couple of filing fees, a visit to the bank, and, as we are in the digital age, a domain name. The hard part is the actual running of the business, but that’s beside the point.
The point is that it’s neither end of the world nor the beginning of one when you start a business. Sure, it’s something to be lauded. But, most of the time, it definitely doesn’t deserve the glowing aura we attach to it nowadays. The startup culture has created a setting that’s attracting the entirely wrong subset of people, who see it as cool, sexy, and lucrative, when, most of the time, the image couldn’t be further from reality. As entrepreneurs continue to receive more attention, we need to remember why we do this. It’s not about money, fame, or glory. It’s about doing good work and creating value.
When my parents first started their business, they didn’t get caught up in the hubris of startup culture that’s all too prevalent nowadays. To them, they were simply spotting a business opportunity and taking a risk to exploit it. They thought about it, and then they got to work. No instant gratification or embellishment needed.
That’s what people need to focus on: the actual work. We need to hear more about the process. Not what returns these entrepreneurs received on their initial investment, not how much they make a month, not what their new company headquarters looks like, not more empty, contentless, motivational platitudes, but the real substance that led to those results. On the flip side, we, whether you’re an aspiring entrepreneur or a real one, need to stop glorifying our own experiences. Sure, sometimes it’s fun, risky, and exciting, but we’re not helping the next generation by making it seem like that’s all there is to it. If we continue to do that, all we’re really helping are these feaux-entrepreneurs.
And that’s helping no one.