Who are the UK’s serial entrepreneurs?

Coutts and the Centre for Entrepreneurs have joined together to examine serial entrepreneurship in the UK. To accompany the launch of our survey, this blog explains why this research is important and provides some background on the debate. 

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“There is a whopper of a myth that exists about so-called serial entrepreneurs. It is widely accepted that those who have built and sold a company once have a better chance of succeeding with their next venture. No doubt these second-time entrepreneurs have some smarts and some capital that they did not have the first time, but those smarts can actually get in the way of going for it and that capital can obscure the gnawing, clawing feeling of desperation that is the real driver of innovation”.
Cliff Oxford, New York Times, June 2014

“Please don’t call yourself a serial entrepreneur. If your vocation is setting up companies, it should not be particularly remarkable that you have set up more than one.”
Henry Mance, FT, February 2015 

What makes a serial entrepreneur and what proportion of business founders are, according to the accepted definition, serial entrepreneurs? Is it a term we should even be using if – as Henry Mance and others claim – there is nothing remarkable in itself about setting up several companies?

Does the experience of starting one business make success with subsequent businesses more likely, or rather as the first quote suggests are second and third time entrepreneurs simply less driven, less willing to put everything on the line? Do the factors underlying business success – e.g. funding, networks, confidence, attitudes to risk, knowledge and experience –  change throughout the serial entrepreneur’s career, and if so, how? What plays a bigger role in successful entrepreneurship: innate ability or learned experience?

While business failure is often seen as the baptism of fire that prepares novice entrepreneurs for their next venture, recent evidence suggests that entrepreneurs who encounter failure tend to bury such experiences instead of learning from them. Along similar lines, a recent study examining 8,400 entrepreneurial ventures in Germany found that previously failed founders were no more likely than novices to have success with their next business. That same study even concluded that previously successful entrepreneurs are no more likely to do well with their next venture, flying in the face of the established wisdom that success breeds success.

What all this shows is just how open the debate around serial entrepreneurship remains. Understanding once and for all the drivers behind a phenomenon as multifaceted as entrepreneurship, in all places and for all time, is a near impossible task. The ingredients for a successful entrepreneur will vary according to time, place, culture and level of economic development, the present day UK being just one incubator amongst many.

Unfortunately, knowledge and data on the extent of serial entrepreneurship in the UK is limited, with existing research tending toward a global or US bent. Specific aspects of serial entrepreneurship are concentrated on – such as the correlation between number of businesses and probability of success, the external factors underlying venture survival, or the personality traits associated with serial entrepreneurship – but are rarely brought together to provide the bigger picture.

That is why the Centre for Entrepreneurs and Coutts have joined together to produce research on serial entrepreneurship that is both specific to the UK and committed to the bigger picture. Our research will also unveil for the first time detailed figures on the prevalence and characteristics of serial entrepreneurs in the UK.

We want a diversity of viewpoints and experiences, so if you are an entrepreneur who has founded at least one business, we would really appreciate your taking the time to complete the survey linked to below by December 13. If that doesn’t describe you, you can still help us by sharing it with anyone who might fit the bill. The more entrepreneurs answering our survey, the better our results will be.

Complete the survey