Have we reached peak entrepreneur? Not entrepreneur in the sense of hugely successful people with business acumen and creativity who innovate and disrupt.
In fact all the evidence shows we’ve no shortage, the number of new companies being formed each year grows ever further past the 500,000 milestone it broke through two years ago.
As a term for this type of person, “entrepreneur” is generally accepted to have been coined in 1803 by the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, an admirer of Scottish economist Adam Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations.
But the term had been around longer, and certainly so has the general concept of a businessperson who takes risks, looks for opportunity and disrupts markets.
It is now particularly associated with the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, who focused on entrepreneurs and their role in the “creative destruction” of markets, in his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.
But you don’t care a fig about all that, do you? I’m talking about “entrepreneur” in the sense of laughable self-delusion.
In this context, the term seems to have become the most tediously overused epithet in business, ever, with the explosion of digital-based enterprise, especially in Silicon Valley, around the late 1990s.
Gradually, in the 1990s, “entrepreneur” crept into wider usage, specifically in the tech sector. Leading up to the dotcom crash at turn of this century, an entrepreneur was the thing to be.
A tech entrepreneur! The very term conjures up trendy semi-geek millionaires furnishing company offices with indoor basketball hoops and slides between the floors, and throwing company events at which charting rock bands provide the music while adults play in grown-up sized bouncy castles and drive motorised beer kegs.
Based on those now self-identifying as “entrepreneurs”, we are truly in the midst of an entrepreneurial epidemic. We are engulfed in a tumbling tsunami of entrepreneurs. They rain down upon us, the last sheltering few who have put off adding “entrepreneur” to our business card.
I mean, who isn’t an “entrepreneur” these days? Start any business and you are an “entrepreneur”. Work from home as a self-employed envelope addresser, and you are an “entrepreneur”. In particular, offer your services as a business adviser or innovation expert or start-up guru and, but of course, you will self-define as an “entrepreneur”.
On the positive side, I’ve found this encroaching flood of self-appointed “entrepreneurs” to be a handy way of knowing who is not, actually, an entrepreneur. A little delving and typically one finds the person has never set up an innovative, market-disrupting company, but instead just runs what might be a perfectly nice little business.
But not an “entrepreneurial” business, in any meaningful sense of this word. Or they have a little tech start-up and, simply because it is a tech startup, they are apparently “entrepreneurs”. And even in some cases where the people actually have been successful in business – including a tech business – then they go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like “I’m an entrepreneur”.
It is people like this who have leached the word of all meaning. Self-appointed entrepreneurship is no entrepreneurship. None of the great entrepreneurs I can think of describes themselves as an entrepreneur. If you really are an entrepreneur, if you have actually earned that sobriquet, others will call you that, with respect, over time. If you title yourself an entrepreneur you essentially won’t be one.