What Is An Entrepreneur? Says Who? Why Do You Care?

I used to start a university class on entrepreneurship by asking the class to define the word entrepreneur.

It’s a reasonable question. News and discussion is full of pat phrases about entrepreneurs, most of which we take for granted. Politicians talk about entrepreneurs along with job creation, small business, motherhood, and apple pie. Challenge: find a politician who isn’t in favor of entrepreneurship.

But is everybody who claims the title really an entrepreneur? Or, for that matter, do we care? If your annoying neighbor becomes an entrepreneur by having sold one piece of furniture on eBay, do you care?

I liked Robert Jones suggestion: Let’s just change the word entrepreneur. His post 5 reasons we need a new word for entrepreneurs, from last July, has at least four good reasons. He and I and others followed up, but we didn’t come up with anything that great.

His post, however, also inspired Startup and small business expert Rieva Lesonsky to follow up with her post asking what does it really mean to be an entrepreneur? She pulls a lot of different definitions together, offers a menu ranging from the heroic, dreamy, crazy-creative definitions to the way-less-glamorous project manager and social definitions, but concludes with tongue in cheek:

My favorite definition of an entrepreneur comes from Doug Mellinger, the co-founder of Foundation Source, who once told me, “An entrepreneur is someone who will do anything to keep from getting a job.

All of that discussion, however, came jsut a bit after Steve King posted Comparison Small Business Owners to High-tech Entrepreneurs on his blog Small Biz Labs. Steve dives into available research to highlight the huge differences between these two groups. We all talk and think like they’re the same thing. It turns out that they aren’t. Compared to overall small business owners, the techies are way more likely to be well educated, motivated by money, and (unfortunately) male. Steve concludes:

we think policy makers need a better understanding of not just high-growth firms and their founders, but also the less glamorous businesses and business owners that make up the vast majority of small businesses in the U.S. economy.

My favorite definition, in the real world, is from Chris Dixon’s simple milestone post, there are two kinds of people in the world. It’s in this first sentence:

You’ve either started a company or you haven’t.  ”Started” doesn’t mean joining as an early employee, or investing or advising or helping out.  It means starting with no money, no help, no one who believes in you (except perhaps your closest friends and family), and building an organization from a borrowed cubicle with credit card debt and nowhere to sleep except the office.

Chris exaggerates. Sleeping in the office isn’t necessary. And the ones who develop a plan and raise money are still entrepreneurs. But I’m shocked, by the way, at the level of anger and angst in some of the 263 comments. It’s a simple two-paragraph post, a simple statement, overwhelmed by comments. It shouldn’t be that controversial: You’ve either started a company or you haven’t.

Amen to that.

(image: istockphoto.com)


  • Are You a Trep? says:

    […] this post last October I joined Robert Jones and Rieva Lesonsky and a few others in a quest for a better word for […]

  • Grant says:

    Hi Tim,
    Thanks for the post. this is my first time to your site.

    As you and the other commenters have described, it is always difficult to put everybody in one box, there will always be a few that crawl out. 🙂 I like the simplicity of Chris Dixon’s rule, but appreciate the discussion of the exceptions to the rule.

  • Rieva Lesonsky says:

    That’s the problems with labels–there are always exceptions.
    To me entrepreneurs are the people who start with something (or nothing) and make it a bigger, better thing.

    Entrepreneurs are never content (and I mean this in a good way). They are never where they want to be–they’re always striving for more.

  • Sandy Cutler says:

    Thanks for your comments about entrepreneurs. Here are some of my observations about entrepreneurs (also found on my Blog, http://bizcoachinc.com/).

    The Four E’s of Entrepreneurship:

    What makes an entrepreneur? There is no perfect description or list of personal qualities that adequately describes entrepreneurs. However, having worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs over the years, here are some common characteristics entrepreneurs seem to possess:
    1. Entrepreneurs have energy. Successful entrepreneurs seem to have boundless energy. When the rest of us get tired late in the day and just want to go home and relax, entrepreneurs are still in the office working.
    2. Entrepreneurs are enlightened. What do I mean by enlightened? Entrepreneurs are modern day pioneers. They are the folks who constantly “push the envelope” to initiate new ways of doing business.
    3. Entrepreneurs are experts. Entrepreneurs are usually experts at what they do. This is one reason they are so successful. Most entrepreneurs start businesses where they can use their talents and expertise.
    4. Entrepreneurs are enthusiastic! Once they have latched onto a new product or idea, entrepreneurs are like a dog with a bone. They won’t let go for anything. They become fanatics and try to convince everyone they know that their new product or idea is the best thing ever invented.

    Entrepreneurs come in all sizes, shapes, sexes, ages, ethnic heritage, and socio-economic backgrounds. There is no test or accurate predictor that can predict who will be a successful entrepreneur. Fortunately for us, there are gifted people, who have energy, are enlightened, have expertise, and the enthusiasm to pursue their dreams.

    • Tim Berry says:

      Thanks Sandy, I’m happy to see you here, with some nice additions … including your additional thoughts on leadership in comments over the weekend. As Rieva’s comment points out, I think we can talk about most, or some, but not all entrepreneurs with any set of characteristics. We’re a pretty heterogeneous bunch, on the whole, most of us having chosen not to take the more traveled paths. Tim

  • Rieva Lesonsky says:

    Ah Tim, does that mean that Ray Kroc or Howard Schultz aren’t entrepreneurs?

    • Tim Berry says:

      @Rieva, hmmm … people who didn’t start a company, technically, but took something small and made it into something very different, and, in both these two cases, very big? I think these counter examples are considered proof that no absolute definition works that well, because there are always exceptions. I could twist the point a bit and say that they created new big things from old small things, but they both challenge my ‘if you haven’t started a company’ preference.

      Oh well, that’s why I’m fascinated by these topic areas. We have lots of paradox, and exceptions to every rule.

      Thanks for the addition! Tim

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