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A Bewildered Reflection on Entrepreneurship

The longer I am engaged in entrepreneurship, the more I wonder at the experience.

Before anyone rushes to get me into therapy or to tell me what he or she thinks entrepreneurship is and that maybe I am not so suited to the life, let me explain.

I have been actively involved in entrepreneurship since the mid-1980s. That’s quite a long time! Much of my involvement has been with social enterprise. Whatever the form of enterprise, it makes little difference to the essential questions I scratch my head over, nor to the essential requirements of the entrepreneur. In fact, having cut my entrepreneurial teeth on social enterprise development in some pretty challenging environments and developed private and profit motivated enterprise, I know which is more demanding!

My own journey from social enterprise to profit motivated private enterprise, began with someone saying “why don’t you become a proper entrepreneur for a bit”, as if somehow social enterprise wasn’t ‘proper’. Anyway I did. I had a go at becoming a ‘proper entrepreneur’.

The journey into becoming that ‘proper entrepreneur’ was motivated by loads of questions. Of course I wanted to develop a successful business, but the motive in developing my own entrepreneurship was more complex than simply creating a successful business or generating a load of cash.

Motives may be different for each of us, yet I suspect a, ‘proper entrepreneur’ is rarely motivated solely by making money or building value.

Maybe I am wrong.

What do you think?

Of course generating cash and building value is critical in both a social enterprise and a private, profit motivated business. How can it not be? Cash is ‘currency’ or a means of trade – think of it as being like oil in an engine – for both. However there is a second means of trade that affects both profit motivated and social enterprise: trust.

In the world of social enterprise a good deal has been written about ‘social capital’, by which is meant the strength of the bonds and connections between people that enable them to live, work and flourish together. The currency of social capital is trust. Think of it this way: when levels of trust are high, people work together more effectively and efficiently; conversely when levels of trust are low, connections between people become progressively more dysfunctional.

OK. So we are arguing that trust is a kind of ‘currency’ that is particularly emphasized in building what is described as “social value” or “social benefit”, the main measures of the effectiveness of a social enterprise.

Hang on though. Are we saying a private enterprise is concerned with money as a currency to the exclusion of trust? Surely not.

I learned from a private sector entrepreneur friend of mine many years ago that business couldn’t function without trust.

In fact I argue that trust is a basic currency of humanity. Human society, from personal relationships, through families and neighbourhoods and nations: trust is fundamental. When trust breaks down, relationship break down. Society becomes dysfunctional.

Anthropologists would describe humanity as a ‘hyper-social” species. We need to collaborate, to work together. The currency of trust is fundamental in this.

And it is at this point that I want to share one of the questions I scratch my head about.

It seems to me that we should very properly measure value in terms of both cash and trust. Although, how we measure and value them will vary.

It seems to me that if the purpose of entrepreneurship is in creating cash and trust then the entrepreneur and their business may end up poor, not rich.

For surely the creation of value (in cash and trust) has to be more to do with what is done with them than anything else.

We might say that the two currencies of cash and trust have little real value unless they are put to work. We cannot say, “Look at my big pile of trust.” Trust only has any meaning when people are trusting or when it is put to work. And of course, entrepreneurs know that cash is only really of value when it is put to work. Having a big pile of cash may be very nice, but stuff your mattress with it and it will have diminishing value. It has to be put to work.

Having moved from being described as a social entrepreneur to being described as a private sector entrepreneur, I can’t escape the conclusion there is no difference between the two. Success in both is measured in terms of both currencies: cash and trust; but to what end.

If cash and trust and the measures then the purpose of entrepreneurship is simply what philosophers can “utilitarian”, or an end in itself. Surely the purpose must be richer than that?

Back to this fundamental that humanity is a “hyper-social species”. My own head scratching about entrepreneurship is that, it’s fundamental purpose is to do with the creation of wealth.

Now I can sense readers raising the point that wealth is about getting rich. Let me explain.

Leaving aside the common understanding, look at the root of the meaning of that word “wealth” and we find it is connected to ‘well-being”. Well-being relates to health, education, connections within communities and so on. Interestingly, the word “wealth”, which we take to mean “well-being” is also at the root of the meaning of the word, “happy”.

Now there have been some who have argued since the time of the Greek philosophers that measures of happiness can also be utilitarian. In other words, if I seek happiness or pleasure for its own sake, that is enough.

I am not making the point that the pursuit of happiness in terms of personal pleasure is adequate at all.

I am arguing that the pursuit of happiness is about creating wealth by which I mean, well-being. In consequence I am saying that the currencies of trust and cash serve the purpose of promoting well-being.

And so as I engage in entrepreneurship, it is irrelevant whether this is in a private sector, profit motivated environment or in a social enterprise environment. What does matter is that the fruit of that entrepreneurship is in contributing to well-being, wealth creation in society.

In this one of my personal entrepreneurial hero’s is J Arthur Rank, who developed Rank Hovis MacDougal, Rank Cinemas and Rank Zerox. As arguably one of the greatest British entrepreneurs, Rank invested consistently in creating well-being in society and contributed to legacy to

Think for a moment about

When engaged in entrepreneurship through social enterprise, someone suggested I “have a go at being a proper entrepreneur for a bit.” so I did.  The commitment was to have a go whilst reflecting on the development of sustainable entrepreneurship and innovation through people, so I have.  The thing is, I did and I have, by pointing my activity in a particular direction. I can’t say I had a plan. I could try and say that, but it would be an exercise in self-deception. The decision, the extent of the plan was to set a direction of travel.

 I couldn’t have planned, since there was no way I could predict what was going to happen. I could guess. I could hope. I could fear. I could intuit. I could imagine. None of this is necessarily any more reliable in generating success than intending to win a table tennis match using a shuttlecock whilst blindfold. Yet entrepreneurship is often like trying to playing table tennis blindfold with a shuttlecock.

 Oh I know, there will be those shouting, “No, no, you are wrong. Let me show you how to think strategically and then we can write a business plan. Everything will be OK with a business plan.” If it is you who wants to shout out, let me offer you some comfort: I am overstating a point.

 I understand about planning and developing strategies. I have read the books……….It feels I have read almost all of them! I have listened endlessly to business coaches and consultants. I have given lectures and seminars and I have listened to lectures and shared in seminars. Yet I am dissatisfied. I think the metaphor of the blindfold table tennis player serving with a shuttlecock is more compelling as an image of thoroughbred, raw entrepreneurship than so much twaddle I have heard.

 I am dissatisfied. I am made to think about that brilliant writer Jonathan Swift. You might know he wrote Gulliver’s Travels. When most of us think of that book, we think of the little people who tie down Gulliver. We neglect that Swift’s stunning book is full to thoughtful satire amongst which is an account of people so full of a notion of their own importance that any sensible idea they have is used to add to their baseless conduct over others who are full of grace, courtesy and an openness to wisdom.

I am made to think. Entrepreneurship is not likely to reside in self-satisfied grey suits. (Forgive me, if you have a grey suit. I have a very nice one too. I am sharing a metaphor, not deriding a suit; although I did once read a 19th century writer who described a suit as men clothed in “five tubes”.)

Entrepreneurship seems to reside in the courage to set out in a particular direction: to feel, to dare, and to set off with resilience.

To be inclined to overly emphasise strategy seems to lead to the opposite of resilience: rigidity and fragility.

Oh for sure, within certain tolerance, the “five tubes”, let’s call them that, with their conventions of planning and some notion of strategy will do OK. The odds are stacked in their favour, though I doubt many “five tubes” are entrepreneurs. Certainly I can’t think of many who are.

Let me be clear, by entrepreneur, I am not meaning someone who has helped build a business, nor am I thinking about someone who has become very rich from running a business. I am sure such folks are fine and upstanding people. No. By entrepreneur I am thinking of the person who had started and done something that no-one else has done; perhaps something astonishing or disruptive or disturbing or jaw dropping or just dead simple. By entrepreneur, I don’t simply someone with other people’s trappings of success; I don’t even mean someone who succeeds by their own or any other standards. By entrepreneur I mean the person who balances the might be with the what is, who reaches for the may be and the not yet.

And so I am bewildered by such a lot I see around me: the “five tube”, yahoos (See Jonathan Swift’s use of the word!) who seem to inhibit entrepreneurship as much as they enable it and the consultants and coaches peddling methodologies that are substantially unevidenced but convincing in their conventionality.

What is to be done? How do we support the blindfold table tennis player; the disruptive entrepreneur; the change-maker and rain-maker build of our economy and society. Again, I think Swift has it: encourage, support, be generous, listen and learn from them. It is from the entrepreneur, adventurer that we learn for new places and new wisdom that enriches. Many will not find riches or success measured by the “five tubes” yet they will continue entrepreneurs. I have learned: we need them. Do we need them as much as the “five tubes” though?

I wonder?  What do you think?