Tall poppy. Illustration: Michele Mossop.

Illustration: Michele Mossop.

Is the tall poppy syndrome for Australian entrepreneurs more fiction than fact? Perhaps it's a myth that finally needs to be put to rest amid a resurgence in our early-stage entrepreneurial activity?

I hear this complaint regularly from emerging and established entrepreneurs who believe the public does not give nearly enough support for venture creators, takes great delight when successful business owners stumble or fail, and is overly suspicious of self-made millionaires or billionaires.

There is even a view that we should idolise entrepreneurial heroes, in the same way that sports and entertainment stars are glorified in the media. After all, an entrepreneur who takes great risk and builds a big venture creates a lot more jobs, and wealth for themselves and the community, than other occupations.

The tall poppy complaint came through loud and clear in my latest BRW Young Rich story, where I asked entrepreneurs and other experts how to make Australia the most entrepreneurial country by 2020. One solution was better community recognition of entrepreneurs, to make starting a venture more desirable for aspiring owners and easier for those already running ventures.

I wonder if this tall poppy complaint about entrepreneurship is vastly overstated these days and an easy excuse for business owners when things do not go their way. Or a simplistic generalisation where cases of tall poppy syndrome create a widespread misperception that all entrepreneurs are affected.

There is no doubt that the image of entrepreneurship badly suffered for years after the excesses of business criminals in the 1980s who posed as entrepreneurs.

Current media criticism of the resource moguls, Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer, might suggest entrepreneurs are still public enemy number one.

I would argue that this criticism is more about their combative entry into public debate, and their motives, rather than anything to do with entrepreneurship - although the federal government’s class-war rhetoric does appear anti-entrepreneurship and anti-success at times.

What’s your view?

  • Is there still a tall poppy syndrome for entrepreneurs in Australia?
  • Does entrepreneurship’s image still need to improve?
  • Do successful start-up entrepreneurs deserve more public recognition?
  • Are entrepreneurs who complain about the tall poppy syndrome a bunch of whingers?
  • Is the federal government’s class-war rhetoric damaging the image of entrepreneurship?

The reality is Australia is a much easier place to start a business than most countries and it has better conditions for entrepreneurial success than most. Yes, more work is needed: access to finance for early-stage ventures is still a problem; there could be greater tax breaks for start-up ventures, and more incentives for superannuation funds to invest in emerging companies.

For all the criticism, there have been many good developments in entrepreneurship in Australia in the past five years. The latest Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report found our early-stage entrepreneurship rate is second only to the United States among developed countries.

Australia easily beat the US and UK when it came to perceived business opportunities. The growth expectations of local entrepreneurs, and their perceptions of innovative activity, were second only to those in the US. OECD research showed Australia had higher rates of business creation.

In terms of recognition, I have never seen as many websites and magazines write so much about successful entrepreneurs. Media attention for entrepreneurs in Australia is well above the global average for innovation-driven economies, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. More publications have finally realised that business readers want to hear about successful entrepreneurs, and advertisers want to reach them.

In terms of other societal attitudes, Australia was only slightly below the average in terms of “entrepreneurship as a good career choice” and “high status to successful entrepreneurs” in the GEM study. These findings do not support claims that entrepreneurs suffer from a tall poppy syndrome in Australia.

Some do, of course, but there is not enough evidence that society attitudes are a problem for all entrepreneurs. I suspect some entrepreneurs like to talk up the tall poppy syndrome to make their achievements look all the more meritorious, dramatise their against-the-odds story of business success, and have a ready-made excuse should they fail.

It’s not all good news: Australian entrepreneurs still have a higher-than-average “fear of failure”, which can discourage people from starting a venture, according to GEM. Many so-called failures may be because owners saw better opportunities elsewhere, so decided to exit their venture. This fear of failure among entrepreneurs deserves more academic research to shed insight on why this problem persists.

It may be that the attitudes towards entrepreneurship still need to catch up with the success of Australian entrepreneurship over the past five years. More work is needed to raise awareness and understanding of entrepreneurship’s benefits to society, but there is enough evidence to suggest the tall poppy syndrome for start-up entrepreneurs is more generalisation than fact these days.

I reckon enough people realise that creating your job is the way of the future – and that it’s time to get behind those who do.

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