Manager Or Entrepreneur?
I was asked last week if I regarded myself as an entrepreneur. It’s a good question. A few months ago, I received an anonymous email from someone suggesting that I was deceiving people by writing a blog post on entrepreneurship. So am I an entrepreneur, or am I kidding myself? Does it really matter what I regard myself as? In one sense, I started as a classic entrepreneur, leaving corporate life, putting up a good chunk of my savings and launching a startup. If you have read this earlier post, you will know that the road from idealised startup to today was a winding one.
I now look like a more traditional manager of a small to medium-sized business. Sure, I have a decent financial stake in the business, and I have a lot of autonomy to get on and grow the business. But on the other hand, you can also argue I’m an employee in the traditional sense. I started off as the entrepreneur but was diluted quite early, and instead of folding my cards and going and starting again, I stayed with the same business vehicle. Over time the vehicle has morphed into a 225 employee, international, increasingly e-commerce led enterprise with a very strong roster of investors. On the one hand, I’m a manager; inside my head, the entrepreneur in me lives on.
What’s The Definition?
What’s the definition of an entrepreneur? I looked to Harvard Business Review to give me a steer; see this link. It’s a short and interesting read. This caught my eye –
“Entrepreneurs have a sense of urgency that is seldom seen in established companies, where any opportunity is part of a portfolio and resources are more readily available.”Entrepreneurship: A Working Definition by Tom Eisenmann, HBR.org January 10, 2013
This I agree with. Eisenmann posits that entrepreneurs have to be urgent as cash depletes over time, and progress is needed to attract more resource. Again, I agree. I have lived through that phase earlier in my journey. Today, I still believe urgency is a key differentiator. Many earlier stage businesses are also sub-scale when compared to their established competitive set. You can’t outspend them, and you can’t bring as much resource to bear. But you can be quicker. Urgency can be a positive part of the culture. A well thought out strategy, executed urgently, is a competitive weapon. Am I urgent?
Ask someone who works for me. Or ask someone who has rolled into the business, imagining they want to work for a dynamic business, only to leave a short time later when they realise things move a lot more quickly than they imagined. Not quite the challenge they were looking for. Am I an entrepreneur? On this front, yes.
Beyond Resources Controlled
“Beyond resources controlled” is the other characteristic of entrepreneurship that Eismann highlights. To pursue the opportunity most often needs resource beyond that currently at hand for an entrepreneur. That’s not the case for large and established organisations. Our business was constrained by cash for an extended period. It was constrained by the absence of appropriate partners and demand in an earlier iteration of the venture. The current constraint is production capacity, and this is being addressed now the cash constraint is no longer present. The other constraint is the commercial and technical talent to execute the strategy.
I’ve heard a lot of people tell me they have a great business idea. So what? It’s all about the execution, and the execution needs cash, sometimes technology. And always, always good people, because it’s all about execution. Competent people are limited in supply; you compete with others for them, they will have their own ambition, and they cost money.
Again, on the Eismann list, I sneak under the door. For as long as I can remember, the operation has been operating beyond resources controlled. It’s just that the category of resource has moved. Am I an entrepreneur? I’m adept at living with constrained resources, so yes, I am an entrepreneur.
An Appetite For Risk
Risk is a key differentiator when you’re looking to identify entrepreneurs. I don’t buy into this notion that big organisations are somehow negative forces. Dull, stodgy and risk-averse. In contrast, entrepreneurs are dynamic, exciting and successful. Big organisations do some things very well indeed, such as using scale to maximise commercial opportunities. Or managing risk. A big company can make big moves and manage risk very well. That’s not any of dull, stodgy, or risk-averse.
Entrepreneurs take risks a lot more often. Business is risk ultimately, and one takes a risk to generate a return on the resource put at risk. When you’re in the early stage, or relatively early and on a growth tear, the risk is higher. It’s higher because the return is still uncertain and the resources are limited. Two key dimensions weigh on the entrepreneur’s mind a lot.
I’ve played on both sides of the game. I’ve been in big companies, and while there was a need to deliver and the stress and success related to that, the resource was never really a consideration. Being outside budget might not end well, but that’s an execution issue and not a resource issue. For many years, from starting my first small venture through to the present day, risk has always been close to hand. Big companies can do things very well. Entrepreneurs can do other things very well. The latter happens to live with near to hand risk much more, and quite often daily.
Does It Really Matter?
Why does it matter to me whether I’m an entrepreneur or not? It speaks to a mindset and a philosophy. A mindset where you aim high, even if it sounds impossible. Because if you don’t aim high, you will end up as a small venture and possibly sub-scale to the point it threatens survival. It requires one to be urgent because you have less resource and, therefore, fewer competitive weapons. One weapon an entrepreneurial venture has is speed, and it can move faster than the large, resource-heavy organisation. It can deliver while the big competitor is going through its risk management process. Heck, sometimes it can make a mistake, correct it and still get something executed while the larger competitor is grinding through its process.
Entrepreneurship is misunderstood in any case. There is this idealised view that entrepreneurs are successful and live a life very different. A life of perfection on Instagram. Humble bragging on LinkedIn about their success. Pretending they had some esoteric pre-dawn ritual involving ice tubs, yoga and meditation for the whole of their career. But it’s not like that. Thousands and thousands of entrepreneurs labour away in the background, quietly getting on with it. Their businesses can seem unremarkable. They may not be charismatic individuals.
Grind, Not Vision
A business professor I very much admire said to me, “entrepreneurs quite often even aren’t that visionary; they have a simple idea, sometimes only one idea, and they execute it very well.” Exactly. It’s not about the idea. It’s about having a strategy, having a plan and executing it well. Executing it year after year. Tweaking and changing strategies and tactics to deal with external and internal forces, wins and losses. Most entrepreneurs spend their days, weeks and years grinding out the execution.
We all love a success story. I mean, I’ve read every decent entrepreneur’s biography I can lay my hands on. More than forty, as I flick through my Kindle and Audible apps. But that’s forty people with businesses that have, in many cases, been around a long time. There have been tens of thousands of successful entrepreneurs during that period, including some highly admirable and successful people. Plus, tens of thousands of failed entrepreneurs, of which many will have been excellent, but they couldn’t secure the resources needed to succeed.
Intensity And Urgency
Am I an entrepreneur? Yes, I am. I don’t look like an entrepreneur. I don’t own my company, neither have a made a fortune. But I have been very good at securing resources through all iterations of the business. The last few years have seen that happen, again and again, investment secured and directed towards creating revenue, developing a supply chain, attracting good talent. And I have been very urgent. Every day. My people are bored of hearing me say, “speed is one of the few real advantages we have.”
I enjoyed my corporate career, working for several medium-sized and global businesses. I worked my way upwards to senior positions and was fortunate to enjoy working in a broad range of functions from the supply chain, innovation, strategy, and more. The entrepreneurial route suited me because I’m naturally an urgent type. Intense and urgent. And I’m comfortable with risk. Some corporate colleagues portrayed that characteristic as reckless. Given their own aversion to risk and the understanding that made them safe in an organisation that valued the minimum risk route many more times than not. Projection of their aversions onto me.
Money Not The Catalyst
That urgency and intensity led to my career choice. It’s strange to say, but it was never about money. There was never a notion I was doing this to make a lot of money. I was doing it as I felt it would suit my personal style more and hopefully move me up Maslow’s Hierarchy. After a lot of years of stress, I finally did move up Maslow’s time-honoured pyramid. The older I get, the more I like getting out of bed every day and looking forward to my day’s work.
I didn’t feel defensive when I was asked if I see myself as an entrepreneur. I was curious as to why it stuck with me. As mentioned, money wasn’t on my mind. The ‘entrepreneur lifestyle’ was never on my mind. You know the lifestyle. In the end, I selected the path which I felt would make me feel I was giving my own instincts their head.
I’m not in any way an expert in any field. I’m not a salesperson, or inventor, or brand builder. I can stubbornly get after a goal and persuade other people to come with me on that journey. I can be relentlessly urgent year after year; in fact, one of my biggest concerns is what I will do when I have to slow down. I never give up. Are those are the characteristics of an entrepreneur? Or am I a manager who happens to be relentless?
Having read this, I ask myself, “am I an entrepreneur?” My answer is I don’t really care. If I had wisdom, I might say I select from both the corporate body of management and some entrepreneurial traits and execute my own hybrid version. But really, the only two things that matter to me are: I believe the intense and resource-aware approach works in any business, and I get immense satisfaction from my work. Call me whatever you wish.
I received a very good email from a person who runs a decent-sized City business, with his thoughts –
“For the record, I don’t think you are an entrepreneur – sorry. I think though, with a blank piece of paper – like so many CEOs I know, you would go through the roof and re-write the book on being an entrepreneur, i.e. you are an entrepreneur trying to make something work (in your case, being the restrictions of the public markets). What would SiS be with a £50m blank cash injection? However, you are a steward of capital (shareholders, employees and customers). And that is just as important as being an entrepreneur. You don’t get the same thanks perhaps, but I have learned over the past 2 years how important that is. And rewarding.“
It’s always good to engage with others, to draw more from a discussion, and I really appreciated the note above. It took a look at things from a completely different dimension. And drew an alternative conclusion on the nature and value of the small to medium company CEO.
Also published on Medium.