ENTREPRENEUR OR INTREPRENEUR
October 8, 2012 21 Comments
The dictionary defines an entrepreneur as “A person who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation”.
It then defines an intrepreneur as “”A person within a large corporation who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation”.
But it’s not that simple.
Firstly, I do not believe that all entrepreneurs are necessarily “assertive risk takers” as the dictionary definition suggests. I accept that some are, and they will risk everything on the throw of a single die, but I believe that these are actually in the minority. Most entrepreneurs I have met are really quite risk averse, in that they will only take the risks that are necessary to create and maintain their business, but only to an acceptable level, and they will also understand when to call it quits. Some of the highly successful business people of our time such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs actually risked little in starting Microsoft and Apple respectively, both starting with minimal personal investment and both creating their companies initially with some existing external and family support.
I do accept that successful entrepreneurs do generally earn the right to the mantle of innovation, whether it is through new and/or different products, services or creative go-to-market strategies such as an early Avon or the more recent e-commerce companies such as eBay and Amazon, and that this badge of innovation also holds true for intrepreneurs.
However, having lived in both camps, I feel that there are greater differences between en- and intrepreneurs than just whether they choose to conduct their activities within or without the surrounds of a large corporation.
In the mid 1980s I had an opportunity to buy into a small, fledgling software company which had a great early 4GL (4th Generation Language) with a serious market opportunity, but without a real go-to-market strategy or capability. The two founders were both US-residents, from an accounting background, and wanted a third partner to help build the global presence as well as to directly set up the Asia Pacific business. I had always wondered about whether I actually had any serious entrepreneurial bent, as in my previous roles in large global companies, I had been regularly described as business innovative and as being prepared to take calculated risks, and this seemed a reasonable opportunity to find out whether these descriptions had any truth, and at an investment level I could handle, though with some stretch.
Despite our success, (we grew from a standing start to USD $8M in 4 years), I didn’t really enjoy it, as I realised fairly quickly that I wasn’t a small company person and that financial success alone was not enough to compensate for all the elements of a working lifestyle that I loved, and needed, from a large company environment, and I started to understand that I was probably more of an intrepreneur than an entrepreneur.
The first thing that I realised is that I preferred the ability to focus on just one role at a time, which a large company enables one to do, rather than needing to be a jack-of-all-trades as is needed in a start-up. I found it more satisfying to be just a Programmer or a CIO or a Salesman or in a specific management role rather than having to fill all these roles at once. In my own small business I had to not only worry about running the business with its inherent early funding issues, but also be involved in the software code, in customer support queries, in demo systems, in sales and presales, as well as having to come in with my wife one weekend to give the office a new coat of paint.
The second issue for me was that I missed the energy that successful large companies exude. A small company can be fast moving and exciting but it just does not have the explosion of energy and momentum that a large company can generate, in the same way that that the QE II liner under full steam compares to a small dinghy. I have friends who love nothing more than controlling their own small yacht, but I would rather spend my leisure time on a luxury ocean liner in a well-appointed cabin any time.
The third challenge was that I had been fortunate in my large company working life that in general when I had been given a role to perform I had then then been left alone to do it. My bosses would have monthly management and reporting meetings, annual strategy sessions and would occasionally talk to me on a needs-only basis. In sharp contrast, I found it hard to cope with “the family” nature of a small company, my own small team seeming to have a need to interact continuously on nearly every issue. My two American partners also seemed to find some excuse to “chat” to me every day, which to my surprise and ultimate frustration, didn’t diminish with our growing success and financial stability, and I found this all somewhat invasive, as I have always believed that a lucky person has a large family but all living in another city. My illness in 1989 gave me the opportunity and excuse to divest myself of this small company co-owner holding back to my partners and, after my health returned, the opportunity to go back into a large company role.
However, what I missed most by being in a small company was the interaction with my peers and those around me who would stimulate, challenge and even oppose me, and I believe that this is one of the key differentiators between en- and in-individuals. True entrepreneurs are self-sufficient and tend to measure themselves mainly on personal success, whereas I have tended to measure my career success mostly by how many successful managers and leaders I have helped to build.
True entrepreneurs can go it alone, which is something I readily choose not to do, so I am obviously not one myself. I have always needed to be able to mix with smart, energetic, capable, enthusiastic, slightly cynical, optimistic, success-driven, non-political, life- loving, eccentric and ambitious peers in large numbers in day to day, equal to equal relationships. This is one of the reasons why in my retirement now I choose to be involved mainly in non-exec board roles so that I can keep satisfying this need of not doing it on my own.
Bill Rancic, winner of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” had it right when he said “If it really was a no-brainer to make it on your own in business there’d be millions of no-brained, hare-brained, and otherwise dubiously brained individuals quitting their day jobs and hanging out their own shingles.”