What’s your perception of an ‘entrepreneur’? For many it conjures up the vision of a lone worker toiling into the early hours doing everything themselves, from product development, to logistics, to selling, and financial management, hoping to establish a viable and valuable business of the future. Certainly from my own experience in previous start ups, this is a fairly accurate view, but I recently had a meeting at Shoreditch House (London) that challenged that perception. It left me both amazed and impressed not only at the youth of many of the members using its facilities as a base for their own start up businesses, but also the open collaborative style that typified their ways of working.
A lot of what I saw seemed to embody the long-established idea of an ‘incubator’ environment, but rather than being closed off in an exclusive science or innovation park, this was real-life entrepreneurialism in action, co-existing and co-operating alongside other more established businesses. There was a buzz of excitement and collaboration quite unlike any other business group I’ve seen recently, and a welcome although unstated understanding of open and transparent relationships where protectionism has no place, combined with the belief in infinite opportunities that was tangible. This was a ‘Collective of Pioneers’, and it was inspiring.
By my estimation most people there were under 28 years of age and of no obvious unifying educational or societal grouping. This seems to support recent research showing an increasing number of Millennials and Gen X who intend to start, or had already started, their own businesses. These are not just the teenage whizz-kids in their bedroom with a techie understanding way beyond mine, but your average post-GCSE individuals who see a chance to improve on what’s currently being done, and have a plan to do so – no matter what sector.
This got me thinking. What is it about the entrepreneurs of today that makes them feel that a more conventional career path was not for them? Why do they believe that they would be ‘squashed’ in established or larger companies? If they do join an existing company, how can they express this ‘inner entrepreneur’ spirit? And why does this matter to the rest of us?
I spoke to a few of them to find out more about their choices, and the overwhelming response to the question regarding why they wanted to start their own businesses was not to increase the financial gain for themselves, but rather to fully explore the opportunity that they had identified, to be free to work as they chose, be passionate in their Mission, and break some rules in the dogged pursuit of their goals. Of course, these are not new imperatives by any means, but it does seem to suggest that established businesses have learned very little about capturing and encouraging this entrepreneurialism.
So how can existing companies encourage this spirit in their own teams, and therefore perhaps in time attract some of these budding entrepreneurs who could view them as a realistic and appealing way to explore and realise their ambitions? Given the responses I had, it would appear that this is not about setting up a separate group within the larger organisation, which is generally a discrete collection of individuals that have little connection with the wider business. This simply corrals innovation and subversive entrepreneurialism into a convenient ‘safe space’ for the company, minimising risks, and ultimately forcing conformance to existing processes and management in order to generate a return, which you could argue simply loses the edgy, rule-breaking, fast approach that characterised the original concept.
Entrepreneurs need space to create and to grow, to challenge and to redefine, to test and to fail, to learn and to taste the heady excitement of success. And I do believe that they have a lot to bring to the rapidly changing corporate world, but we have to change the motivation for this, moving from a wholly commercial focus of ‘what can we get as a financial return on their ideas’ to a more culturally driven ‘how can we build on their entrepreneurial spirit across our wider structure’.
Companies have tried a number of ideas to try to develop more agile and flexible ways of working, but often this has focused on the physical manifestation embodied in ‘hot-desking’, for example. This is certainly disruptive, and in my experience, deeply unpopular with many employees. I think we need to go beyond this to a much deeper, cultural level, which may have profound implications for the way that businesses manage their workforce in future.
Avoiding the corporate lethargy, complacency and conformity is key to building the inner entrepreneurial spirit in teams. Let’s think radically. Could we reduce the core group of permanent employees to the bare minimum and bring in more fixed contract freelancers who bring fresh thinking and new perspectives, have no prior knowledge of the company politics or processes, and no personal concern regarding promotion or pay rises? We might even build a productive excitement and innovative approach that gets things done faster. Perhaps ‘Hot-Heading’ is the new way forward. It certainly fits with the revised employment expectations of the younger generation.
But returning to the original idea of an entrepreneur being a founder of a new business, there are some lessons that can be learned by existing companies that could help them overcome Change and Challenge in their strategic planning and growth management. In their excellent book ‘The Founder’s Mentality’ (pub. Harvard Business Review Press, 2016), Chris Zook and James Allen argue that there are 3 entrepreneurial behaviours that businesses need to adopt when seeking to build and maintain strong and profitable growth:
- Have an insurgent’s clear mission and purpose
- Develop an unambiguous owner mindset across all teams
- Focus on a relentless obsession with the front line
All too often complexity in structure, over-burdening with processes, internal politics, and a loss of focus or purpose can result from growth. However, as Zook and Allen demonstrate, some of the biggest companies in the world, including Apple, IKEA and L Brands, have managed to maintain the Founder’s mentality whilst still growing rapidly. The ability to still see’ bright shiny opportunities’ whilst managing a $multi billion business is clearly absolutely essential for longer term success.
Something to think about:
Here are 3 things for you to ask yourself about your inner entrepreneur:
- How do you define and develop your own personal ‘inner entrepreneur’?
- What is your company’s ‘insurgent Mission’? How aware of this are your teams?
- What do you do better than anyone else in order to deliver on this mission? How obsessed is your business with the details of the front line?
And as a final thought until next time….
“The heart of the entrepreneur can beat freely in anyone.” Ciputra, Indonesian Businessman
Have a great week.
Lead Consultant & Founder – Primaverita