While discussing entrepreneurial training for students at a recent start-up event, someone commented that not everyone can be an entrepreneur. My inner consultant countered with “well it depends on what you mean by entrepreneur”.
The current popular image of an entrepreneur may be the super-geek tech-kids working in garages and dimly lit basements, dreaming of being the next “Master of the Universe”, but they represent only a small slice of entrepreneurial activity. Anyone who freelances or opens any type of business is being entrepreneurial. Changing jobs or career paths can be an entrepreneurial step. Artists searching for an audience, citizens creatively solving social and community problems, and everyday folk making significant personal life changes may all be using entrepreneurial tools and approaches without even realising it.
Traditional career paths are disappearing and up to 50% of today's students entering "surviving" professions are expected to have to freelance for significant parts of their careers. Indeed, most future economic and job growth is expected to come from innovation and entrepreneurship, so we all may have no choice but to become entrepreneurs in one form or another. Our kids seem to be on to this, with anywhere from 40-80% of students wanting or expecting to start their own businesses when they leave school.
The "democratisation" of entrepreneurial mindsets and approaches is perhaps best illustrated by the skill-sets traditionally associated with entrepreneurs - creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, flexibility and adaptability, initiative and resourcefulness, collaboration and communication - now dominating lists of the general skills employers are looking for in all candidates.
In many ways an entrepreneurial mindset is an extension or sharpening of a growth mindset - learning new skills and developing new capabilities with the purpose of creating value for oneself and others. We can apply these mindsets and toolsets effectively in all sorts of situations, whether we are working for ourselves or others, in for and not-for profit organisations, and in community and private/personal endeavors. Ultimately, these types of creative and open-ended skills will be critical in solving some of the world's most persistent and pernicious "wicked problems".
These are skills that need to be developed and refined in practice rather than the classroom, so students shouldn't wait until they leave school to start gaining them. School-days are a low-risk time to experiment with entrepreneurial endeavors. Failure is a great teacher, and even if students aren't the CEO of a thriving enterprise by the time they leave school, they will leave with the confidence that they have the skills employers are looking for and the capability to create their own job if necessary.
And it's not too late for those of us who already have jobs (and families and mortgages etc.) to get entrepreneurial as well. Every organisation and every job has problems that need fixing or processes that can be improved. Getting together with likeminded colleagues to prioritise and envision solutions is a good start. Involving customers throughout the process to quickly test and refine potential solutions helps speed up the process and increases the likelihood of success.
The future has always been uncertain, but with the accelerating pace of change, uncertainty is now on steroids. It's true that not everyone will become an out-and-out entrepreneur, but we can all adopt some of their mindsets and tools to help us prepare for whatever the future holds.
Take ownership of risk.
A common perception is that entrepreneurs take big risks, but in reality they are managing them. Most entrepreneurs start with the proposition that life itself is already risky. Rather than deny this or rely on someone else to shield them, they face these risks head on. They assess their own level of risk-tolerance and then defend against risks they perceive as too great, and work like crazy to optimise their chances of success on the risks they elect to take.
As business guru Steven Seagal points out in Under Siege 2, "chance favors the prepared mind". (With apologies to Louis Pasteur).
Leverage uniqueness to drive innovation.
A key element of entrepreneurial innovation is uniqueness, whether that be a new totally new solution or product, or a tweak that breathes new life into an existing one. Each of us has our own unique combination of interests, insights and experiences and these can serve as a great starting point for generating innovative ideas. We can think deeply about areas we are interested in to identify possible new approaches and solutions. Alternatively, we can explore if our own area of expertise can unlock new opportunities and approaches in a field we have limited experience in.
Focus on value.
Many new businesses fail because the owner gets lost in the excitement of their vision and forgets to test and assess the value of their offering to the market. Whether you are inspired by an interest, a passion or a purpose, the entrepreneurial key to success is to keep testing, refining and pivoting with customers until you find a point where your motivation and enthusiasm overlaps with value for and enthusiasm from your customers. The result may not be what you initially envisioned, but should remain true to your original inspiration.
At the start-up event, the panel of angel investors, coaches and mentors all emphasised that a key attribute they look for in entrepreneurs and businesses is an authentic commitment and passion for the problem they are solving, industry they are serving and/or products they are creating. Consumers too, are moving towards “authentic” products and services where they can sense a broader connection beyond just the transaction itself.
Personal authenticity is closely tied to our unique skills, interests and experiences, and in an increasingly uncertain and competitive marketplace, those of us who can maximise the value and uniqueness of what we offer and create, increase our chances of standing out from the crowd.
As the former Latvian Minister of Economics Daniels Pavluts points out, times of high uncertainty have been and will continue to be associated with remarkably powerful investment returns. Being smart (and entrepreneurial) about investing in ourselves, through a unique and personalised program of life-long learning and capability development may prove to be a low-risk approach for preparing for the future.