The Making of Entrepreneurs

By Alan Foy on June 1, 2010 in Business

What is an Entrepreneur? It all depends on who’s talking.

Members of the political class, media, industry, academia, and the general public have a variety of perspectives on entrepreneurship.   Often, it means something altogether different for each cohort.  The unfortunate thing about entrepreneurship, however, is that it is sometimes completely misunderstood, and worse still, entrepreneurs themselves are viewed as having almost enigmatic and somewhat obscure personalities.  Are they mad, attention seeking, unscrupulous, greedy, independent, ingenious or terrifying?  Or are they simply misunderstood?

Our perspectives are often driven by a textbook definition which can be a linear interpretation of what it means to be an entrepreneur.   From a leadership perspective, we apply a “great man theory” lens to entrepreneurs.  We assume that they have some magical, charismatic and mystic quality that makes them entrepreneurs.  At some levels, we believe that entrepreneurs are born, not made.  They take risks that the ordinary man or woman would not take.  Why?  Because they have some extraordinary genius that makes them, well, entrepreneurs…

Personally, I would like to challenge that thinking.  Firstly, I would argue that having met a range of highly successful entrepreneurs in Ireland over the last few years, that each one of them would attribute their success to the team they have around them.  People are key.  In fact, the most successful would put even more emphasis and value on the people that surround them; their attitude, their teamwork, their energy and their competence.  The most successful companies of all time have built high energy “hot spots” (check out the book by Lynda Gratton) and which are built around cultures of performance. 

High performance people create high performance cultures.  The problem is that “culture” is a very esoteric and fluffy term.  From the start-ups and SME’s that I have seen, the culture of a business is created and built by people working in the business.  Culture is more than the original founder, although they have a huge impact on the business.  But it’s more than them.  It’s a collective thing, a way of operating and set of behaviours, all of which are reinforced by the team.   The entrepreneur is more like a team captain.  They are not the team, they are a part of it.

Secondly, in my opinion, entrepreneurship is about innovation.  It’s not all about the next big thing.  It’s not all about revolutionary, game changing technology.  We can be entrepreneurial in existing businesses.  We can find new, better and more innovative ways of doing business and serving our customer.  Some of the most recent successful, enterprising ideas have been centred around business model innovation like DELL or Amazon or Ryanair.  

I can safely say that the majority of entrepreneurs don’t see visions of the future and then arrive back on earth to prepare a business plan and seek funding.   Business, as in life, just doesn’t work that way.   Entrepreneurship is about serving a need or a gap and fixing it.  I would even go so far as to say that most inventions have been a reaction to a gaping lack of something and a clear, identifiable need.  It’s not about sitting on top of some mountain somewhere and strategising.  It’s about knowing your customer and their needs and doing everything in your power to serve them and address those needs.  

Entrepreneurship firstly involves identifying gaps and weaknesses in the current order of things.  But coupled with this, entrepreneurship involves actually doing something about it.   This is what differentiates entrepreneurs and this is potentially why we elevate them to celebrity status.   But we forget that sometimes these entrepreneurs weren’t so visionary, so talented or so lucky.  Sometimes they needed to make a living.  They had to take a risk which led them down a path they might not ordinarily have chosen.  They committed themselves to a course and a trajectory, which either worked or did not.  But it’s safe to say, they almost never went it alone.

Alan Foy

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