I’ve always considered myself an entrepreneur. But lately I’ve been questioning what that means … and why it matters.
A quick Google search produces many similar-but-subtly-different definitions of the word “entrepreneur”, such as:
- a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so.
- a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.
- a person who attempts to make a profit by starting a company or by operating alone in the business world, esp. when it involves taking risks.
The main thing these definitions have in common is the element of risk. But what does risk entail? Is it purely financial risk, in the form of cash investment? What about opportunity cost — also known as “sweat equity” — meaning the investment of unremunerated time. In the context of modern society, both of these investments — time and money — are essential to entrepreneurship … but entrepreneurial ventures also require other ingredients to succeed, including:
- the ability to create valuable products and/or services;
- a tangible opportunity to generate income; and
- healthy doses of both patience and perseverance.
I have been involved in a few entrepreneurial ventures, and I’ve lived on the periphery of a few others (those created by friends or family). In getting up close and personal with startups that included sole proprietorships, small companies, non-profit organizations and a co-operative, I’ve noticed a few patterns:
- The most successful ventures have a truly entrepreneurial leader.
- Committed leadership is far more important than profit motive — a non-profit organization can be just as entrepreneurial as a for-profit one.
- Entrepreneurs are often more interested in the creative process — i.e. creating a new product or service — than doing the day-to-day sales & marketing, administration, support and other drudgery required to manage an organization.
The most financially-successful ventures deliver timely and relevant products and services to meet an existing market need. But many entrepreneurs — myself included — lack the motivation and discipline to approach their enterprises this way. Admittedly, I often ignore these drivers for entrepreneurial success, because my motives are largely based on non-financial outcomes. Some of the most entrepreneurial people I know run non-profit organizations, where their “revenue” comes from grants, donations and other fundraising activities, and their own income is seen as an inconvenient necessity — not as the prime objective of their venture. What makes someone truly entrepreneurial is that he or she operates with uncertain income and takes full responsibility for paying their venture’s bills.
I have one modest but significant entrepreneurial success under my belt: a software company, Techneos Systems Inc., that I co-founded and managed for the better part of sixteen years, then sold to one of the leading firms in our industry. In some ways, I feel proud of my accomplishments at Techneos: from writing the first lines of source code to painstakingly negotiating every clause of the acquisition contract. But I also know that I made a lot of mistakes along the way. Although I was one of the company’s greatest assets, I was also its greatest bottleneck. In order to succeed, I often had to get out of my own way — hiring people who were better than me at various aspects of the business, and letting them make their own decisions and mistakes. I even handed over the keys for “my baby” to a new CEO during the last couple of years, leaving the people I’d hired to manage day-to-day operations while I limited my involvement to chairing the board of directors.
Since selling Techneos in 2011, I have dabbled in a handful of entrepreneurial ventures: running a co-working office; self-publishing a novel; providing administrative support to a local arts-based startup; supporting my wife Sheila’s experiential tourism business; and, most recently, joining the volunteer board of our local car co-operative. Maintaining the motivation and discipline to help these ventures become self-sustaining entities has been a challenge, for a number of reasons:
- I still prefer the creative process to the ongoing discipline of running a business;
- I’d far rather invest my time into raising my two home/un-schooled kids than into another business venture;
- I constantly question the purpose and value of each venture I am involved with; and
- I’ve developed a degree of disdain for capitalism, especially the challenges it presents for initiatives that are not focused on generating profit.
Even though I benefited from my own for-profit business, the you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours culture of modern capitalism has always turned my stomach. I have struggled to balance my desire to create socially-beneficial organizations — i.e. ventures that benefit my community and/or the world at large — with my own need for income. I’ve milked the modest return I received from Techneos — enough to pay off my mortgage and provide a runway while I figured out what to do next — for longer than I would have though possible. This privilege has allowed me to invest a great deal of time into my family, and into non-profit and volunteer efforts. It has allowed me the luxury of time to explore my own life’s purposes, and to determine what actions provide me with the greatest sense of meaning.
As I grow to understand the challenges that so many people face in our world, appreciation for my privilege — both financial and otherwise — grows in equal proportion to the weight of that privilege. I know that as a middle-aged white Canadian male, I was born into the unique opportunities of Generation X: the ability to own a home while participating in the formative stages of the computer revolution, while cruising along the surface of the consumer economy deliberating over “first-world problems.”
While this most recent stage of my life has not been as easy as it may appear, it also hasn’t been particularly hard. The difficulties I’ve encountered for the past six years have come mostly from within: from an ego that still hasn’t fully embraced that my career does not define me; from a conscience that cannot reconcile my “have” status with all those who “have not”; and from my entrepreneurial self, who wants to invent my way to peace and contentment.
The social entrepreneur within me feels stifled, muzzled, held back. I try to blame that on society — on our unsustainable growth-based economy and our rampant consumption of Earth’s resources — but I know that my biggest obstacle to building something great is a built-in self-defence against my own ambition. I am essentially retiring in reverse, opting out of the high-pressure workforce while my kids are in their formative years, understanding that I will likely need to go back to work when many of my friends are wrapping up their careers.
I don’t think there is a blueprint for entrepreneurship — or for life. There are all sorts of “best practices” for business, especially when it comes to serving the capitalist economy we live in. But there are many ways to succeed in this world, and many ways to measure success. It seems that we so-called entrepreneurs, those of us who eke out an existence by creating things outside of the big machine, must come up with our own definitions of success. I still don’t know what mine looks like — what combination of creativity, social benefit and financial remuneration would provide me with an optimal balance of meaning and stability.
I suspect that I have at least one major entrepreneurial venture left in me — one that will combine my need for self-fulfilment with my desire to change the world. In time, I will likely shake the dust off my entrepreneurial hat and unleash the full strength of my ambition. In the meantime, I’ll keep working my own blueprint for success: to live with purpose and find meaning in everything I do.