Forget the talkers and be a doer

First published in the Financial Times on 25th September 2012. 

‘Experts’ talking about start-ups is like virgins giving sex education lessons

Perhaps it is time to take back the word “entrepreneur”. In the past few years, an army of academics, politicians, think-tanks and consultants have created a frantic merry-go-round of conferences, summits, workshops and festivals devoted to entrepreneurship. There they all hold incessant debates, panels and talks about what can be done to create more entrepreneurs – and hence more jobs. We all know this is the way for the private sector to revive, generate taxes to pay down debt, and get our economies growing again.

The answers to these challenges are straightforward and well known. We need less red tape stifling business, more early-stage funding, and more mentors. Above all, more people need to start a business. That is really it.

Unfortunately, such a simple message would not provide the same level of publicity and fees for the various participants as the current circuit does. After all, attending symposiums is somewhat easier than working.

For example, I was last week invited to the grandly named fifth World Entrepreneurship Forum, to be held over four days next month in Lyon. Apparently, those attending would “hear the opinions of the world’s leading entrepreneurial figures”. I checked who was speaking at this amazing-sounding event – and almost all those listed were politicians or academics – none of them a leading figure in their field.

The problem with such “experts” talking about start-ups is that it is a little like virgins giving sex education lessons: they have never actually done it. And at heart, business is not about theory, or white papers, or even blunt articles such as this one. It is about getting out there in the marketplace and selling your idea – to backers, partners, recruits, suppliers and, most importantly, customers. It is about putting your savings on the line for a dream, sacrificing your personal life to keep that dream alive, and picking yourself up and trying again if it all goes wrong. Almost all the rest is hot air.

Of course, I would rather that intellectuals discuss, celebrate and support entrepreneurs than devote all their time to complaining about public sector spending cuts. But I worry that they are not credible figures who can inspire someone to take the plunge, and that they over-complicate matters – and incessantly involve the government in everything. Entrepreneurship is fashionable right now – until the bandwagon moves on to the next cultural concept.

Moreover, many of these new commentators are uncomfortable with raw capitalism, which is what entrepreneurs undertake for a living. So they tack on politically correct stuff such as “social justice” at the Lyon event, or insist the agenda includes social enterprises when they get too squeamish about the profit motive and free markets.

We probably do not need any more well-intentioned initiatives or non-profit organisations to help enterprise. Without doubt, current state policies could be communicated better, and promised reductions in regulation and taxes need to be carried out. But from that point on, the issue is about the start-ups working harder and smarter than everyone else, innovating and generating value one tough step at a time. The most important ingredients in business success are not great advice or public sector sympathy: they are hard work and a sense of purpose from the founder. Self-help is the best answer.

Just as corporate lifers do not understand the loneliness and the independence that self-employment and business creation can bring, so public servants and educators should step aside from the circuit because they do not possess first-hand experience. Probably the best lesson any would-be entrepreneur gets from a start-up event is sheer inspiration from a role-model founder who initially failed but then went on to make it. Or perhaps the event provides an opportunity for a fledgling founder to meet a like-minded partner, and agree to charge forth as a team.

In essence, I think the events worth hosting are those full of principals rather than hangers-on. Unfortunately, many of the best entrepreneurs are very busy running their companies. That is always the way. So we should probably follow their example, leave most of the abstract stuff to one side, and get back to what entrepreneurs do best: strive.