Illustration Karl HIlzinger
Every so often, an interview sticks with you for weeks or months. I have thought about a refreshingly honest comment from Billie Goat Soap founder Leanne Faulkner, about the downside of media stories on successful entrepreneurs. I profiled Faulkner for BusinessDay in March.
To recap, Faulkner suffered depression when her venture struggled with the weak retail climate. She said: “I used to read all these stories about successful entrepreneurs and wondered why I was such a failure. I thought I was the problem, not the business.
All too often, entrepreneurs are judged by how quickly they build revenue.
“I found these superficial success stories were very damaging. In some ways it was like a schoolgirl getting anorexia because she thinks super models are the norm. It took me a long time to realise that very successful entrepreneurs are the exception.”
What’s your view?
- Do you gain valuable insights from reading about successful entrepreneurs?
- Do you get sick of reading about the same entrepreneurs?
- Do you ever question your own ability, based on comparison with successful entrepreneurs?
- Why don’t we read more about ethical, failed entrepreneurs who start again?
Regular readers know I have written on the incidence of depression in entrepreneurs and failure for The Venture over the past four years. Like Faulkner, I tired of reading stories about the same supposed “super hero” entrepreneurs for the thousandth time, and felt they often did little more than spruik the business owner, and present a clichéd, superficial view of entrepreneurial strategy.
There was as much, or more, to learn from ethical entrepreneurs who struggled, failed, and had the guts to start again, or know when to give up and deal with petty community attitudes. Real people who had real problems, real insecurities and real challenges, such as putting food on the table each night for a young family and motivating staff when they were wracked with self-doubt.
But few people write about entrepreneur failure in a positive light. We still have this mindset that all entrepreneurs who fail are crooks or complete dopes. Some are. Yet many more have a go, try their best, and struggle with an underperforming venture for years. They are admirable in their own way. To top it off, there is little support to help them when their venture fails, or if they suffer health problems, such as depression, because of financial or personal stress.
Entrepreneurs are partly to blame: they are only too happy to talk when things go well, but rarely want to talk about failure or their insecurities for fear it will damage their brand. Consequently, we don’t gain genuinely valuable insights into how they deal with failure, and recover.
Faulkner’s comment stuck with me because I, too, wonder about the possible dangers of this torrent of entrepreneur hero stories. Don’t get me wrong: genuine business success stories are important. That is why I have written plenty over the years and edited magazines devoted to researching and writing about entrepreneurs. Case studies promote entrepreneurship to a wider audience, educate and motivate aspiring business owners, and help start-ups raise their profile.
It is no different to other fields, such as sport, music, the arts and big business: people want to read about the best and brightest. But unbalanced stories about successful entrepreneurs can create a false impression that sustained business success is easy, that it requires huge risk-taking, or a genetic predisposition for entrepreneurship. Or that unless you drip cheesy charisma and have a fabulous lifestyle, you cannot build a fast-growth venture.
I wonder how much these entrepreneur hero stories help the other 98 per cent of business owners who struggle to build a bigger venture, or earn a decent wage, and keep their marriage, family and friendships intact. Perhaps these stories just create more self-doubt in struggling entrepreneurs, as was the case with Faulkner.
Here is some advice to consider when reading stories about successful entrepreneurs:
1. Know they are the exception
Star entrepreneurs who build multi-million-dollar ventures in a matter of years are rare; probably 1 to 2 per cent of all business owners. Use their success as motivation, if it works, but don’t question your own ability based on comparisons between your success and theirs. Set realistic goals based on your expectations; not those manufactured in publicity driven entrepreneur stories.
2. Understand that success is often short-lived
All too often, entrepreneurs are judged by how quickly they build revenue. Those who build a venture with a few million dollars of revenue in a matter of years must be a huge success, right? Sometimes they are. But often they cannot maintain fast growth, or they grow for growth’s sake and become unprofitable. Or the business eventually crashes because it had poor structures and systems, and they could not lead.
3. Understand the game
Some entrepreneurs are relentless media spruikers. They have the same dull, repetitive story written about how great they are; how they sold lemonade at the age of five; and how they overcame the odds in their own rags-to-riches tale. It is shameless theatre designed to get free publicity, promote their brand and provide media content. Seldom do we read about the real ups and down and insecurities that all entrepreneurs face at times.
4. Consider the advice
It always bugs me when people criticise academics who teach entrepreneurship. Apparently students would rather learn from real business owners than someone who studies entrepreneurship. Some successful entrepreneurs have much to teach others, and they provide a perspective rarely found in textbooks. But they usually have only one perspective – theirs – and it is always biased. Management insights based on a large sample of entrepreneurs are more instructive and reliable, yet too many aspiring business owners automatically think a tip for an entrepreneurial hero is gold.
5. Learn from like-minded entrepreneurs
I always find the best advice comes for those with similar ventures. Sometimes you can learn practical tips from entrepreneurs battling the same business conditions, and meet people who can empathise with your situation and provide emotional support when needed. Yet we gravitate to tips from entrepreneurial heroes who outsource stories to their publicity agents, who in turn ghost-write glossy rubbish for them, all in the name of more self-promotion, rather than genuinely helping others.