When George W Bush was reported to have said “the French don’t have a word for entrepreneur”, my how we laughed. Yet the common French usage of the word is far more bland than its common usage in the UK. According to Wikipedia, a French economist, Jean-Baptiste Say, is believed to have coined the word “entrepreneur” first in about 1800. He said an entrepreneur is “one who undertakes an enterprise, especially a contractor, acting as intermediately between capital and labour”.
In researching for this article, I came across a wide variety of interpretations of the term. There is a common theme around innovation, a bit of risk taking, ‘making it happen’. Often ideas of leadership come to the fore. An entrepreneur is often thought of as someone who is inspired, and able to inspire others in turn. And I think there is an element of the entrepreneur seeing a opportunity and exploiting it for their own gain.
All this is in contradistinction to a business owner or manager who is maybe a bit uninteresting, a bit of a plodder perhaps, unimaginative, content to do today what they did yesterday.
Looking at the description of an entrepreneur, it seems to me that most of the qualities listed are desirable in any business person, at any level of the organisation. Why wouldn’t you want everyone in a business to be imaginative, innovative? Able to ‘make things happen’? On the other hand, maybe we have a bit of an issue about risk-taking seeing it as acceptable, or at least necessary, in young businesses, but not worth it in more established one. Maybe we feel that in a joint endeavour the rewards should be fairly shared.
The problem with this situation is that it leads many people to say “I’m not an entrepreneur” ore even “I am an entrepreneur, I could never run a big, stable business”. And this is not the most useful approach to take – even if it’s true. If it is true for someone, then I am suggesting replacing the belief with a different belief that is more empowering as the rest for this piece attempts to show.
I think it’s worth reframing all of the above and, instead of making it about the individual, make it about the business. We all know the classic model of a business’s development in three stages: start up, growth and advanced growth. My argument is that a business in start up needs a different approach, a different attitude from its owner and staff than one that is in growth. It is the attributes of the business not the attributes of the individual that need to be addressed. How does the business owner need to be for the sake of the business?
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, a business in start up has one overriding need – it needs to do one thing more than anything else, and that is to get clients. Being good at getting clients is usually, if not exclusively, about being good at interpersonal relationships: about directly bringing on clients and about creating and maintain advocacy and referral relationships which deliver clients. Of course businesses in growth need clients as well, but there are other things they have to do in addition which are as important.
Going back to the supposed attributes of an entrepreneur, one wants many of these to be present in businesses at all times. You can see this in successful retailers, such as Marks and Spencer. Clearly M&S combines the traditional qualities of entrepreneurship with those needs to run a century old business. Personally I am not so keen on risk-taking per se. Risks are more dangerous to an infant business than they are to a strong, mature one. In all businesses, risks need to be carefully evaluated and managed with an intelligent understanding of the consequences and suitable provision for them.
Everyone can be an entrepreneur if they do well the things a business in start up needs. Equally, everyone can run a more mature business if they do well the things that business needs. It’s about putting the business’s needs before those of the individual. Of course, the different sets of tasks will attract people of differing personality types. But the personality type isn’t a quality and it doesn’t, in of itself, guarantee success.
This article was commissioned by, and originally appeared on, the Academy for Chief Executives blog