Entrepreneurs need advocates

Matt Smith, Director of the Centre for Entrepreneurs outlines the need for a new kind of think tank.

Entrepreneurs are struggling with an image problem. While popular commentary has labelled entrepreneurs “the new rock-stars” – and politicians are keen to align themselves with a group of people generating growth and employment – there is a danger that the media perception of entrepreneurs (and therefore with the population as a whole) is at odds with reality. This is disconcerting, as misconceptions that are communicated and reinforced through the media have potential to hold back wider cultural acceptance, which could negatively impact the uptake of entrepreneurship.

A small sub-set of “celebrity” entrepreneurs (the “Dragons” of Dragons’ Den, Lord Sugar, Richard Branson) dominate British media and popular culture – a celebrity obsession that perpetuates a narrow stereotype that is wholly unrepresentative of entrepreneurs at large. The result is an image that many find off-putting, limiting their potential as role-models for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Our survey findings back this up. In a recent YouGov survey carried out for the Centre of entrepreneurs, 61% of small business leaders thought The Apprentice “off-putting” for aspiring entrepreneurs, and 88% thought that contestants were chosen to appear because they would make good television, rather than because they offer credible investment opportunities. Dragon’s Den was also criticised with the Dragon’s behaviour described as ‘condescending’, ‘arrogant’ and ‘rude’. The portrayal of those seeking investment was also criticised with one respondent commenting: “[The programme] is so highly edited: the portrayal is cynically designed to show them as either idiots or cases worthy of sympathy/admiration according to what makes the best television”.

While these programmes may entertain viewers, they leave would-be entrepreneurs with a sense of foreboding.

In the newsrooms there is a real scarcity of entrepreneurs. Given large firms make up just 0.1% of UK companies, they receive a wholly disproportionate amount of coverage in press and broadcast media – with their needs subsequently dominating the business agenda. Big businesses even take ownership of small business news stories – perhaps with billionaire business mogul Richard Branson asked to comment about the conditions prevalent for start-ups in the UK. You are also more likely to hear commentary on the health of the high street from an analyst in a big four consultancy than you are from an independent retail entrepreneur who owns a chain of stores.

Such a bias poses a fundamental challenge: that entrepreneurs are viewed in a particular way – perhaps as a swashbuckling risk taker or abrasive go-getter, which masks their true value as a provider of economic growth that brings wider social and cultural benefits. Indeed, the media is often criticised for its consistently negative coverage of news. Yet here we see negativity of a different stripe: focusing on traits that generate an unfavourable view – whether it’s the arrogance of successful entrepreneurs or the naivety of the nascent entrepreneurs. Yet I meet entrepreneurs – new and seasoned – all the time, and the stereo-type is a long way from the truth. Seasoned entrepreneurs are rarely arrogant or abrasive, while their newer brethren are usually pretty clued up “on the numbers”.

So why show them in such a poor light on TV?

Politicians are also at fault here. They rightly encourage entrepreneurship for its crucial role in economic growth and job creation but fail to acknowledge and celebrate entrepreneurs’ resulting impact on their communities and wider society. And still they hinder their progress through unhelpful legislation and poorly-perceived and executed regulation.

Far more needs to be done to highlight the true value of entrepreneurs to this country: the value of disrupting or breaking monopolies, the transformational innovations that help us change the way we live and work, the creation of sustainable employment for local workers, not to mention the philanthropic donations that successful endeavour allows.

Such social impact is created by all entrepreneurs as a by-product of their direct business activities, and this is without even exploring the value of social enterprises that blend sustainable business activity with a wider social mission including the Eden Project and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant.

Entrepreneurs need their advocates if they are to continue to create economic, social and cultural value to the UK. In launching the Centre for Entrepreneurs, I hope it can be such an advocate.