Are entrepreneurs the grumpy gits of business?

Since becoming deputy chairman of the Centre for Entrepreneurs I’ve marveled at the ingenuity of those I’ve come across in this zone. Nearly always, successful entrepreneurs have thrived on innovation. Yet this isn’t always obvious: in many cases it’s what renowned entrepreneurial author Daniel Isenberg (in his book Worthless, Impossible and Stupid) calls minnovation: small changes to existing offerings or business models that are, nonetheless, incremental.

Yet there’s something else I’m starting to realize. That much of this innovation is negative. It’s based on dealing with things people don’t like – or have found annoying – rather than offering something they like. Sure, technology and food are two sectors bringing the world positive and novel sensations as a way of building market share: Mindcraft and Russian Fudge come to mind (at least while regarding the post-supper detritus on my kitchen table). But, just as often, innovation – especially in areas such as services and hospitality – comes from dealing with what we dislike or even hate: from what angers or irritates us. And it also comes from areas where we feel previously excluded.

In fact, I’d wager that the majority of minnovation (to adopt Isenberg’s term) comes from a cantankerous dislike of the existing offerings. From people irritated to the point of action by the old way or the big company offering. Certainly, this is true in my own case. Moorgate counts itself as an innovative public relations agency. Why? Because, at the outset, we looked upon the existing offerings in our space and found them wanting.

From my own experience as a banker and financial journalist I’d been annoyed by every agency I’d encountered: for knowing too little of the technicalities of the sector they were representing (something that became painfully apparent in the 2008-09 crash); for being unable to write good copy (something I considered vital for good PR); and for being, frankly, lazy and expensive (which made them dependent on churning rather than retaining clients).

I put this grumpiness to good use when creating my own agency: getting to the bottom of the financial instruments on offer, excelling in strong copy and in working hard and offering value. Of course, I had no experience of the PR sector. But that, I now realize, is another near-prerequisite for entrepreneurialism. The reason entrepreneurs have spotted the flaws is often due to them being outsiders, looking in. Those immersed in their trade may spot numerous new ways of increasing their margins: often by charging more for less. But they’re less adept at spotting the pitfalls – or even the gaping holes – in their industries.

Outsiders are also more able to break the rules – sometimes because we weren’t aware of them in the first place (though this could be willful ignorance). Meanwhile, insiders are acutely concerned by their status within their peer group – so are more attuned to their own fraternity, and are certainly unlikely to break any rules (including those of business etiquette). Most insiders see their advancement as something likely to occur within existing structures – usually via a smooth ascent of a greasy-pole. This makes them conformist and conservative. Those not invited to climb the pole, meanwhile, are more likely to be radicals – and love nothing more than applying a revving chainsaw to that greasy pole.

Good for them!

Yet the innate grumpiness of the entrepreneur has a downside: public irritability. Of course, TV programmes such as Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice tap into this to create tension-laden TV programmes that sacrifice “timewasters” or those not on top of the numbers like Christians at the Roman circus. Indeed, who doesn’t enjoy watching Alan Sugar, Peter Jones or Deborah Meaden dismantling some hapless candidate/pitch? It’s impressive stuff – even if hammed up for the cameras.

Just as often, however, the grumpiness is genuine and highly damaging. Anyone squirming along to Richard Branson’s recent Channel 4 News interview with Jon Snow (days after the Virgin Galactic crash) would have hardly warmed to Branson, a man that trades on his chirpy outsider popularity. That said, they may have felt better disposed towards Bob Geldof (very much an entrepreneur, however you look at him) after his Sky News interview this week. He answered awkward questions with the simple phrase “bollocks” – to the point where the poor interviewer had to cut him off.

More concerning has been the public grumpiness of top executives at innovative/disruptive car-hire app Uber. One executive, Emil Michael, was reported to have told a private dinner that, such is Uber’s anger with its media coverage, it was considering spending a million dollars hiring private investigators to “probe the personal lives of critical journalists” (as reported in the FT).

This forced a denial from the “combative” CEO Travis Kalanick, calling the remarks “terrible” and a “departure from our values”. But the damage was done, just ahead of a new round of funding. In other words, one-more grumpy entrepreneur had said what he thinks rather than thought about what he said. My guess is he won’t be the last.