While at college, one of my professors had a notice on his door, directed at students who wanted to take his entrepreneurship course. The notice said that the entrepreneur course involved a lot of work, and that if they were not prepared to do a lot of work, they should not sign up for it. Being an entrepreneur involves a lot of hard work, and apparently many of the students thought that taking a course in entrepreneurship was a lot like the entrepreneurs that they read about; how just a few years, or even less, of being an entrepreneur would lead to a huge bidding war for their company and they would sell out, becoming billionaires almost overnight.
I know three entrepreneurs, one who is filthy rich that I rarely see, because I don’t run in the circles of the filthy rich (sorry to disappoint you) and two who make a comfortable living doing something that they enjoy. The richest of the three did what could be described as popular wisdom, and that was to start a computer business and then sell it to a bigger corporation. Like any job you acquire, nice work if you can get it. Remember, luck is where preparation meets opportunity. If you aren’t prepared, all the opportunities in the world will mean nothing.
Like so many of my essays, we’re going to leave fantasyland behind, consider some cases and numbers that don’t fit the popular, jovial descriptions that are tossed about in the media. Come to think of it, that’s probably why the popular media isn’t swamping my email; I’m too real for them. That’s another one of those “gee, we can’t tell you that” explanations that are withheld, because, for the most part, telling people what you know tells them what you don’t know. So much for the explanation of backward reasoning, where what is not there reveals what is there in stark verisimilitude. (I always liked that word.)
The entrepreneurs that I know had experience in the industry before they became entrepreneurs, probably because people with no experience in industries rarely make it in the entrepreneur world. The youthful, energetic twenty-four year old billionaire is the quintessential entrepreneur, idealized by the media, not often represented in reality. Of course, the exhausted looking, shop-worn business owner who runs a business day to day with customers who embitter him by the hour is not what the media, or, more importantly, the colleges, want you to see. I say colleges here because they know where the bread is buttered. The colleges want someone like Mark Zuckerberg to come along, and hopefully, generously donate to their alma mater. What’s a few million to a billionaire?
The facts from The Wall Street Journal: “Americans who are 35 or older are 50% more likely to start a business than are their younger counterparts. The average entrepreneur is 39 when starting a company. Midcareer entrepreneurs are five times more likely to have a going concern five years later than those starting a business right out of college…It takes some time for people to recognize that their destiny is to start a company. Their inspiration usually comes not from a college program teaching them generic entrepreneurship skills but from what they’ve learned in previous jobs…A more strategic approach to encouraging entrepreneurship would recognize the demographic reality of who really starts businesses in the U.S. We shouldn’t be carried away by glamorous (and inevitably rare) tales of youthful success in Silicon Valley.” My favorites: “Local business incubators should be restyled from hip communal working spaces for young people to office arrangements more suited to midcareer entrepreneurs…Most managers just don’t see the entrepreneurship right under their noses. One reason is they think that only young people can start businesses.” (Excerpted from Carl Schramm, WSJ February 10, 2018.) More evidence that the popular wisdom isn’t wisdom at all.
Perhaps the colleges do not see midlife or mid-career entrepreneurs as potential students, especially when they already have captive audiences of enrolled young people. Unfortunately, the facts do not support the premise of young people as remaining in business after a few years, as noted in the previous paragraph. The academic perspective, as in so many cases, is not reality. As an older student, I occasionally raised my hand and offered a dose of reality to some of the more idealistic notions taught in my college classes. I can’t say that they were always appreciated, but then, reality and college are different things, now aren’t they?
The prof mentioned at the beginning of this essay was right in at least one way, in that informing the students that entrepreneurship is no easy task; but doing what you love isn’t work. I had a client who blamed his failure on my not giving him my work on credit, but then, I found giving credit means not making money, and they all seem to make the same promises, never paying for my efforts. Entrepreneurship has some hard lessons that I don’t think college can teach under any circumstances. We live in a youth-oriented society, as evidenced by the media, who rarely offer profiles of older entrepreneurs; Mark Zuckerberg is far more interesting, or at least they think so. The evidence is there, but again, a mid-life entrepreneur is nowhere near as entertaining as a boisterous twenty-something Silicon Valley computer nerd. More’s the pity that reality again escapes both the media and academia.