There’s been a lot of buzz on the campaign trail lately about entrepreneurs. But what exactly is an entrepreneur?
The word often evokes images of boisterous, over-the-top, larger-than-life people like Donald Trump. But ask a dozen people and you’re likely to get 12 different answers. Some will give you the easy answer: an entrepreneur is a person who starts a business. Well, that’s not necessarily so. While most entrepreneurs are the founders of their businesses, not all are. And many people (in fact, I’d say most people) who start businesses are not necessarily entrepreneurs. They’re business owners.
One of the most heralded, respected, and successful entrepreneurs of all time was Ray Kroc. As most of you know, Kroc did not start McDonalds. He was selling multi-mixing machines when he wandered into a California burger joint founded and run by Richard and Maurice McDonald and convinced them to let him open a McDonalds in Illinois. Kroc didn’t create the company, the concept of a burger chain (White Castle had that honor in 1921), or even the iconic golden arches. But it was Kroc’s vision that turned McDonalds into one of the world’s most recognized brands.
Another common definition of an entrepreneur is someone who assumes the risk of starting an enterprise. We’ve already dispelled the “start” part of the myth, but the risk part is questionable as well. Though I’m not denying many people take on great risk when they first open their doors, in many cases, most of the entrepreneurial risk comes well after the startup stage. It is really after a business is up and running, when there are customers, suppliers, vendors, and employees, when every new idea and action could be packed with potential consequences, that the real risk comes into play. I have long contended that, in most cases, it is riskier to grow an existing company than to start a new one.
Not all entrepreneurs are natural-born leaders, creative geniuses, or captains of industry. Some entrepreneurs are fueled by passion, others by market realities. You can start with a dream, a goal, or a feeling in your gut. For every “must” move a successful entrepreneur makes, there’s an exception to that rule. Martha Stewart once laughed at me when I suggested every entrepreneur needs to develop a business plan before they venture out on their own, since she didn’t start out with one. (Though my bet is her mega-successful company has one now.)
There are many paths to entrepreneurial success. You can get there by leading people, creating products, inventing new methods of distribution, or just being in the right place at the right time. You can get there by being a good leader, one who invests in your employees and rewards them for their achievements. But there are plenty of successful entrepreneurs who are greedy SOBs and believe they get to keep all the bounty.
The real genius of entrepreneurship is that there is no mold. But I do believe there are some common characteristics. Vision is one, but it’s not what you see that propels you forward, but rather what you imagine. (And then, of course, you need to be able to communicate your vision to others.) Purpose is another. Vision and purpose are sometimes confused, but they are not the same. Vision is what you want to achieve, purpose is why you’re trying to attain it. And it should all be tied together with a plan of how you’re going to pull the whole thing off.
There’s more, of course — as they say, the devil is in the details. Can you delegate? Can you communicate? Can you compete? Is your business sustainable, or are you a one-product wonder? And let’s not forget luck. Sometimes lucky breaks are bestowed upon us; other times we need to make our own luck.
We’ve been hearing from the presidential candidates about small business and America’s entrepreneurial legacy. And it is that spirit that defines us. True entrepreneurs are competitive. We don’t fear the entrenched, whether big or small. We’re eager to take them on with our better, improved version of what exists in the marketplace. We don’t fear the void, we fill it. But you can’t rest on your laurels. Just as many of you targeted the status quo, there will always be newer companies who have you in their sights, since to them you have become the new status quo. Successful entrepreneurs continually reinvent themselves. As Joni Mitchell wrote in her song, “The Circle Game”:
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur
There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through.
So, are you an entrepreneur? If you chart your course, give it all you got, hang tough, fight fair, and stay nimble, then you can proudly call yourself an entrepreneur. But if you do all those things, then you probably don’t care about labels. You are what you create and no one can take that away from you.
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