Change Work January 2012

In good company

entrepreneur  noun: a person who sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit.

I seem to live in a world of self-employed people.  Apart from clients within bigger companies (who are employees), most of my face-to-face contact is in networking with people who've left paid employment, either by choice or through redundancy, and then gone into business for themselves.

And then there's the alarming lack of opportunities for young people.  Whether graduates or not, many are finding it impossible to land their first job and I think that we're going to see a new phenomenon, a crop of businesses started by young people who've never been employed.

We don't have a newsagent where I live so there's no opportunity for a paper round.  Instead, a pair of very young brothers keep chickens and deliver eggs to the neighbourhood.  They'll probably grow up with a sense of self-sufficiency that will stand them in good stead in tomorrow's world.

So we're all entrepreneurs and entrepreneurism is just what's needed to turn the European and American economies round - right?  Well, it may be what we need but it's perhaps rarer than it appears to be.

In his book "The E-Myth", Michael Gerber challenges the assumption that everyone who starts a business is an entrepreneur, i.e. someone who takes financial risks in order to secure a profit.  Whilst running a business inevitably involves risk, and we all hope to make a profit, those factors are seldom the initial motivators. Gerber asserts that most of us start our own businesses because we don't want a boss.

If you're thinking of setting up a business, be aware of what you really want to get from it.  If you're not truly driven by the excitement of risk and profit then you'll probably experience motivational lapses.  There'll be things you don't like doing that really need to be done.

On the other side of the coin is the illusion of security that comes from having a regular job - particularly if you've worked for that employer for a long time.  Because your salary has always come through every month you naturally assume that it always will.  If you stop to think, you might accept that no-one is safe and any job can disappear.  But you might not feel that - until something happens to shake your confidence.  For me, it was the sudden redundancy of a number of colleagues that changed my feelings about the company I worked for.  Even though I was spared - even benefited from the resulting organisational changes - I didn't feel safe or comfortable any more.

Even so, for many people, perhaps most people, being employed is the best option.  If you know that you don't want to run a business then that's OK.  You accept the risk of being subject to someone else's decisions.  On the other hand you can avoid that situation by starting your own business - but you accept a raft of other risks instead.

It may be that what you really love to do, and what you're very good at, requires the resources of a large organisation. (A self-employed astronaut anyone?) If so, then you're committed to being employed, which is OK if you can get the job and if the working environment allows you to flourish.  If you can't get the job of your dreams then you're back to looking at going your own way (as an alternative to a job you don't really want).

On the other hand, you might land the job you do want only to find that you can't stand your new boss.  Then you might feel like leaving and doing something else, but there's another option in this case: you could learn how to adapt yourself to the situation at the same time as influencing it to change.  (If you're in this situation let me know and I'll expand on the possible approaches.)

I'm quite sure the "E-Myth" idea of businesses being started by people who want to get away from their old job and their old boss is valid in many, probably most, cases.  But of course "real" entrepreneurs also exist.  These are the people who love being in business and get their emotional kicks from succeeding - often evidenced by profit.  The nature of the business is of secondary importance.  They see the world in terms of opportunities, unmet needs that they can fulfil.  And they're ready to take fast action to exploit those opportunities.  The original Virgin company could easily have been started by a pop fan who just wanted to sell records - and if it had been then it would still be just a music shop.

So, are you an entrepreneur - or do you just want to be your own boss?