Do We Need A New Word For Entrepreneur?

Has the word entrepreneur become too trendy as to have lost its meaning? I’m hearing it and the word entrepreneurship being used in so many conversations incorrectly.

Here’s a simple example. On a daily basis, I have an email exchange with someone who says they are an entrepreneur. I respond “What company did you start?” They respond, “Oh, I didn’t start a company, I was the fifth employee of Company X.”

Another example is the email that I get from someone in a large company who says “I want to create more entrepreneurship within BigCo.”

Now, these are well-intentioned people so I’m not critical of them. But I’m critical of the use of the word entrepreneur in these contexts.

I like Wikipedia’s definition.

“Entrepreneurship is the process of starting a business, a startup company or other organization. The entrepreneur develops a business plan, acquires the human and other required resources, and is fully responsible for its success or failure.”

Merriam Webster’s is also solid.

“a person who starts a business and is willing to risk loss in order to make money”

This morning I read an article in the New York Times titled With Start-Ups, Greeks Make Recovery Their Own BusinessOther than the fact that the New York Times hasn’t yet figured out that It’s Startup, Not Start-up or Start Up it was a good article that got me thinking about this rant.

In 2010, the Startup America Partnership finally got the US government to separate the notion of small businesses with high growth businesses. The word startup was firmly introduced into our lexicon as shorthand for high growth business and now is a comfortable one. While we are still stuck with one government organization – the Small Business Administration – that tries to help both small businesses and startups, the language around this continues to evolve.

For example, I think we are finally starting to differentiate between local businesses (your local restaurant, coffee shop, bookstore, gas station, movie theater, clothing store, art store, or anything else that sells to your local community) from a startup business (a company that might be small, but is selling to anyone anywhere in the world). The language isn’t quite right, as local businesses can evolve into startups (The Kitchen, run by Kimball Musk, is a good example). But we are getting there.

And then there are a several words trying to characterize different stages of startups. A scaleup is a startup that is scaling quickly. A gazelle, a word that has been around for a while and is becoming popular again, is a startup that has achieved critical mass and is a rapidly growing company, kind of like a scaleup, but falling comfortably into the animal taxonomy that seems to include unicorns and dragons.

And that takes us back to the word entrepreneur. Theoretically, the entrepreneur is a person who creates any one of these companies (local business, high growth business, startup, scaleup, gazelle, unicorn, but not a peppercorn.) And entrepreneurship is the act of creating and operating the business. Note the and clause – you need to be the creator and the operator to be an entrepreneur, not just the operator.

As I type this, I realize I’ve buried the lead. I’ve always loved the word founder to describe the person the word entrepreneur refers to. When I started Feld Technologies, I referred to myself and my partner Dave as the founders of Feld Technologies. This was well before anyone used the word entrepreneur (the 1980s) and for many years I used the word founder. Somehow my brain shifted to entrepreneur and entrepreneurship and that’s taken over for me. But it’s now uncomfortable, awkward, and tiresome.

I think I’m going back to founder. It’ll be interesting to see how hard it is to rewire my brain. We’ll see if it lasts. While it’s not clear to me that it matters, given my pedantic obsession with eliminating the hyphen in words like startup and email, it’ll be fun – at least for me – to see where it goes.

  • Ben Ravilious

    Entrepreneurialism is such a mouthful. A bit like saying you’re an antidisestablishmentarianist but without the kudos for saying it right.

    • I have ALWAYS hated the word “entrepreneurialism.” It really is a mouthful as you say.

      • Ben Ravilious

        My dictionary says it’s derived from a French word that means undertaker! We’ve been directing funerals all this time – who knew?

        • There are definitely times when the founder buries the company …

          • josh

            yes although pivoting sounds better 🙂

        • Brandon Smits

          As funny as this “undertaker” idea is, prendre means to take. Entre, means between or into, specifically in this case, in one’s hands. So an entrepreneur is someone who takes something into their own hands.

          The translation is partially accurate for undertaker, but not in all senses.

  • #truth

  • Yoav Schwartz

    I’m with you and I vote for founder. A) because it’s shorter and I don’t have to google how to spell it each time, and B) it actually means you founded something (I hope) – I hate hearing people say they’re entrepreneurs because they like the idea of startups and are currently unemployed.

  • Montrell Williams

    I like founder also, it’s like creating something new. Entrepreneurial seems to cast a wide net, seems less focused.

  • Russell Davies

    “Entrepreneur” isn’t a title awarded to someone when they start a business. I know lots of business owners who I would never describe as an entrepreneur.

    Entrepreneur is a state of mind. It describes a creative approach to business that anyone can exhibit not just the business founder.

    Entrepreneurial spirit exists in many people – not only those who go on to start companies.

  • Charlie Jacobson

    Hope this also eliminates the term “serial entrepreneur”

    • Ohhhh – it’s “serial entrepreneur.” I always thought it was “cereal” entrepreneur …

      • Good point, Mr Jacobson! I personally like the word “so real entrepreneur” instead!

      • Your post also seems to allude to some “surreal entrepreneurs.”

  • Rick

    The word Entrepreneur has been used before the 80s. Innovation and Entrepreneurship by Peter Drucker gives a very good explanation of who is and who is not an entrepreneur.
    For example he explains that a person who buys a franchise is NOT an entrepreneur because he is just following a plan set out by someone who has done it before. The person buying the franchise is a business person but not an entrepreneur.
    Also an organization can be entrepreneurial.
    I have listened to many people who think they are entrepreneurs when they are just business people. Which is not bad for them to do except an entrepreneur is more of an explorer or creator than a business person. An entrepreneur doesn’t have a map to follow. They are creating that map for others to follow later.

  • josh

    in many startups Employee #5 is likely some kind of entrepreneur. to me it’s more of a jeff foxworthy style test…. can you can wear every hat in an emergency and also bringing in new business? then you might be an entrepreneur. Incidentally I know people who refer to themselves as founders even though they were actually employee #5. And then there’s the companies who refer to themselves as having SV culture, but nobody has ever worked in a SV company much less super high growth rate one… they just want to attract locals who want to play ping pong while working long hours:). I think regardless of your stated profession… if you can skew your definitions in your favor, that’s not necessarily entrepreneurship but it is good marketing. 🙂

  • Brad,

    I like your point of view on this issue. I also like the term “founder” although recently when updating my resume I decided to start calling myself “co-founder” out of respect to the other people who were early with me at various companies. Although they wouldn’t accept the title “founder” and they wouldn’t technically count as an entrepreneur, I think using the “co-founder” title subtly acknowledges that nobody builds a company alone.

    Either way, I think we should form a club and come up with a cool founder handshake.


    • Paige

      I’m surprised so many people are acting as if the term “founder” is new to them. I’ve referred to myself as the “founder” of my venture since day one.

  • Mjb

    Two seed investors come up with an idea and put in $300k of seed funding. They then go out and find a CEO to build the business. Is that CEO a founder or are the seed investors the “founders?” In my view, the CEO is the founder in that scenario, but I have come to realize my seed investors think they are the founders…

    Who gets the title?

    • Paige

      The investors are the founders because they came up with the idea. The CEO is simply the CEO of the corporate business model, leading the business to financial success (hopefully).

  • Thanks, Brad. This is great. I think what’s interesting is the hunger for so many people to be identified as “entrepreneurs”, even though we/they know they really aren’t. So, in some ways, I think it’s not so much a need for a new word for “entrepreneur”, but perhaps a new word for non-entrepreneurs who identify themselves as entrepreneurs. A word that captures the fact they are creative, and bringing some fresh insight/perspective to the world. So many have a hunger to be a part of creating the future, that I think they have latched onto “entrepreneur” even though it’s a bad descriptor for most.

    • Paige

      I suggest that non-entrepreneurs be INNOVATORS, defined as “a person who introduces new methods, ideas, or products,” or “to introduce something new; make changes in anything established.” And Wikipedia defines an Innovator as “a person or an organization who is one of the first to introduce into reality something better than before.”

      Heck, for that matter, why not call entrepreneurs “Innovators?”

  • Cynthia Rennolds

    To David’s point below, entrepreneurial is the act of taking on risk in the hopes of reward. Entrepreneurial action can be found in all areas of activities and all sizes of companies. Some one can be entrepreneurial without being an entrepreneur as the definitions currently stand. A founder is a founder is a founder. There is no founderial. You either are or you are not. Very interesting post.

    • Paige

      Wouldn’t it be better to say “Innovator” if you’ve actually created something that didn’t exist before? And I agree, that saying you have an “entrepreneurial spirit” is different from calling yourself an “entrepreneur.”

  • i like that. founder

  • Tabitha Farrar

    So what about those of us who have founded 501(c)3 organizations? No monetary motivation. No entrepreneurship?

    • Sorry, no. A person solving humanitarian or environmental problems through business yes. A person solving problems through handouts? I see resourcefulness but certainly not entrepreneurship.

    • conorop

      I used ‘founder’ when I started a 501(c)(3). To me, a founder is the person(s) with the original vision and the gumption to take the steps to make it happen.

      That being said, I certainly lost money in the pursuit of greater gains. 🙂

  • Sue

    Speaking of words, I hope the spelling of “lede” fares better than traditional journalism. I like this phrase spelled as it was.

  • People use the title entrepreneur like Starbucks baristas in LA use the word actor – prematurely, before it’s earned.

    Entrepreneurs are not small business owners, consultants, freelancers even founders. Entrepreneurs are people who took an idea, turned it into a business and then turned that business into a major enterprise. Until you get there, you haven’t earned the right to use the title in my humble opinion.

    I’ve been a small business owner. I’ve been a consultant in between gigs. I’ve been a founder and an entrepreneur. I’ve been a director and control shareholder.

    I’m a founder again right now because I’m in startup mode and looking forward to the time when I have a successful and substantial venture. I’m not sure I’ll use the entrepreneur title even when I’ve earned it because I just don’t like the way it’s used.

    I can’t help but roll my eyes every time I see or hear the word entrepreneur being used by a restaurant owner, or a yoga studio owner or freelance graphics designer. How in the world do these people have the elk of Jobs, Gates, Ford, Vanderbilt etc.?

    Most people have no clue what goes into becoming an entrepreneur just the same that baristas have no clue what goes into becoming George Clooney or Halle Berry.

    Now, shall we discuss the title “CEO”?

    • Ted Barbeau

      Your closing line resonates with me more than the actual topic of Brad’s post. If a wide-eyed dreamer wants to consider him or herself an entrepreneur, so be it. Though annoying, I don’t find it overly damaging (except to their own reputation and legitimacy). One look at their body of work quickly tells you whether or not they are, or are not, an entrepreneur.

      On the other hand, I found title-inflation a truly maddening aspect of startup life in the Bay Area. It made identifying key players in the industry difficult, greatly slowed down business development deals, and generally devalued the actual title.

      If I meet one more “CEO” of a 2-person startup my head might explode.

    • Paige

      It’s “ilk” not “elk.”

  • I actually don’t like founder as a replacement. I think Founder is suited well to tech startups, but many of the entrepreneurs I know and grew up with are small business and restaurant owners. All of them entrepreneurs taking on major risks, often more risk than VC-funded startup founders… but I wouldn’t consider any of them “founders”.. that just sounds weird.

    So I am find with Founders being for startups, and entrepreneurs going back to what it used to mean… anyone starting a business.

    • Rick

      “going back to what it used to mean… anyone starting a business”
      Can you point us toward some evidence of that? I’ve seen entrepreneur used more strictly the older the reference. Just curious.

      • No evidence. Just anecdotal. Being an entrepreneur didn’t use to have the cultural cache it does now.

  • Or… not. Brad, the problem you are having is your narrow focus on high growth startups, ignoring the half million other startups founded by entrepreneurs in the U.S. each year. They have just as much right to English as the small cadre of VCs.

    The analogy is Tesla saying “car” should be limited to automobiles with electric motors and storage under the hood. That everything produced in Detroit, Munich, Yokohama needs to use a different word, despite 100 years of history.

    If you want to talk about “high growth startups” then be specific and say “high growth startups”. If you want to talk about “founders”, then say “founders”. To that point, note how often Musk is called the “founder of Tesla” and an entrepreneur, despite taking over that comoany after being its first big investor.

    • Ron Gura

      It’s french. Just sayin’.

  • williamhertling

    We also have a perfectly good word for people who start new businesses inside a large company: intrapreneur, and the associated intrapreneuring and intrapreneurship. Coined back in the 70s, and in the dictionary since the 90s.

  • Terena Bell

    Could not be more on point. I suppose as an actual entrepreneur I should take it as a compliment when someone not like me wants to describe themselves in the same terms as me. But if I hear one more employee call themselves an entrepreneur, or see one more never-a-founder get an entrepreneur-in-residence job (to help others do it, shouldn’t you have DONE it?) I’m going to barf up pocket dictionaries. Of course, the meaning of words change over time and perhaps I should get used to the fact that the word “entrepreneur” has now evolved to mean anyone with gumption. But it’s one thing to call yourself an entrepreneur and it’s entirely another to be who figured out where the heck to find a payroll company and a lawyer and a bank and an idea so everything could be set up to hire that person now calling himself an entrepreneur because it sounds cool.

    I have started saying founder as well. Now let’s see how long it takes non-founders to start calling themselves founders because the work they did was “foundational” to the company.

  • I agree, Brad. I have been a member of EO, the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, for many years and I know you know some EO members as well. EO has simple criteria for membership, the most important of which is that one must be the founder or co-founder of their business. When people apply for membership this claim gets verified. EO requires this for the simple reason that being a company founder involves a unique set of experiences that only other founders can fully appreciate. Since the goal of the organization is for entrepreneurs to help one another to learn and grow by sharing experiences, this is a critical filter. I’m glad entrepreneurship is becoming more “trendy” — it means that more people are taking control of their own destiny! — but yes wearing the badge involves taking real risks in hopes of achieving real rewards. Thanks!

  • It’s simple to my mind. An entrepreneur is someone who takes responsibility for their own earnings and some financial risk and the responsibility associated with being paid. e.g. a Shop owner of an independent store is an entrepreneur. They are involved in an entrepreneurial endeavour.

    The word Founder has become synonymous in modern times with “startups” and a startup is defined by it being a business which tries to achieve an unusually high rate of growth, via investment capital, disruption -especially using digital- or both. A corner shop ergo, is not a “startup” in the modern sense to my mind.

    Founders are entrepreneurs, and independent shop owners are entrepreneurs. In conclusion then, Founder as a term is probably today understood to mean that of a high growth high risk business startup, so is a safe alternative to my mind.

  • I know a few one-hit-wonders that refer to themselves as serial entrepreneurs. Running a single business and selling a used car does not make one a serial entrepreneur!

  • My understanding of the word entrepreneur is about taking on risk in pursuing a business (as opposed to being an employee) “a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so” – I see this as a different question than whether or not the entrepreneur is a founder. I was not the founder of SugarSync but certainly consider myself as an entrepreneur joining the company when it had no capital or revenue and led that turnaround. It was gratifying when that entrepreneurship was recognized by GothamGal and others. And someone can be a founder of any kind of organization – startup business, local business non-profit etc.

    • Tosin Otitoju

      you worked in a small business, as opposed to a large-enough established organization. that’s what happened. The additional name is pretty of course, but not my thing.

  • I think Merriam Webster’s definition does not do the entrepreneur justice. Entrepreneurs are more than salesmen “looking to make money”.

    In history, entrepreneurs have also been “inventors”: printing press, photography, film, such as Kodak and Xerox, as examples from the turn of the century. Perhaps it is more apt to say “entrepreneurs” are more similar to “philanthropists” and “humanists” in contemporary times, solving many social problems that governments are too cumbersome to fix.

    • Provocative but that doesn’t feel right to me.

    • Tosin Otitoju

      that’s one (idealistic) way of putting it. “solving many social problems”
      but something tells me that’s a minority of “entre…[too tired to finish]”

  • buzzbruggeman

    And what do you call a “founder” who bailed out when things got hard? Ex-founder, former founder? Part of the founding team?

    • All of those work. If the founder bailed out when things got hard (and they bailed out, not got kicked out) we should called them a “founder-bailer.”

      • Steven Webster

        May I submit “flounder”.

        • Paige

          That’s brilliant.

  • Great post–wrote about this for Fast Company last year, I completely agree that the word is losing its meaning, with major ramifications:

  • Interesting discussion.

    We should get back to Drucker basics. “Innovation is the specific instrument of Entrepreneurship. The act that endows resources with new capacity to create wealth.” The key here is “new capacity.” This eliminates most small businesses which are delivering similar products and services as many others. By this definition only the early stage founders are entrepreneurs because everyone else joins after the new capacity has been identified and is in process. Early employees are joining a vision already defined.

    Your next post should be on the overuse of the term “Startup.” When is a company no longer a startup? When their growth has slowed, when they are revenue positive, when they prove out they don’t have high growth potential?

    • The nuance of the word startup is super complex. I’ve wrestled with it even more than the word entrepreneur (which doesn’t feel particularly nuanced to me – just over used.) There’s a part of me that wants to dissect it deeply and figure out a taxonomy around the different cases. There’s another part of me that cringes when I think of how badly I’d likely fail at that effort.

      • I refer to them as proto-businesses but in light of recent spacefaring achievements, I will include the term ‘dwarf businesses’.

  • Best reason to flee the term “entrepreneur” (although I serve as an Entrepreneur in Residence): its meaning is being stripped with time, as here:

    Alternate headline: “A Narrow Circle of Rich People Like to be called Entrepreneurs.”

    • Egads.

    • That’s a silly article. Sure, anyone born with relative advantages has a head start in any activity — whether it’s starting a company or finding a good job. But many of the most famous entrepreneurs started with nothing and no family advantages. And many entrepreneurs could have done a lot better in terms of earnings, stability and peace of mind if they had just gone and taken a job somewhere. Many entrepreneurs risk everything for the statistically slim likelihood of disproportionate rewards. It is not something people do because they want to feel comfortable.

  • Ross Dakin

    Hey Brad! What do you think of Wikipedia differentiating between a “business” and a “startup company”?

    • What’s the link?

      • Ross Dakin

        Just referencing the quotation you included near the top of your post.

  • Jon Eckhardt

    I’ve always liked Howard Stevenson’s definition of entrepreneurship as “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently
    controlled.” It’s a definition that focuses on the people doing what needs to be done, instead of doing what can be done. To me that captures the essence of entrepreneurship.

    Much of what modern entrepreneurship is about is finding ways to reduce the risks of starting companies so that we get more startups. Hence I’m somewhat skeptical of definitions that include risk bearing as an essential attribute.

    I doubt we will be able to sort this out until entrepreneurship becomes less popular. Right now everyone wants to be able to classify themselves as being an entrepreneur.

  • Dr. Janice Presser

    The company I started 14 years ago is not small. It is pre-huge. Sorry to have to use a hyphen, Brad, but there’s just no equivalent.

    • I LOVE the phrase “pre-huge.” I expect I will use it in the future – thanks for the gift of a fun new word.

      • Dr. Janice Presser

        So do our investors… 🙂

        • Tosin Otitoju

          pre-huge is very funny.

          • Dr. Janice Presser

            If you have no sense of humor, you’ll have a much harder time as an entrepreneur when times are hard. And, always remember that investors (or most of them, anyway) are human. Nothing brings people together better than a shared smile.

  • Hmmm I’ve just rethought a tagline I was going to use… so let me jump on board with this change.. — I agree heavily with what you’ve posted

  • I agree. Also, while we’re getting specific, there’s also the difference between “founder” and “co-founder.” Justin Segall, my co-founder at Simple Energy, and I have always held the formal title (on business cards, etc.) as “[Job/Role Title] & Founder.” People who get both of our cards sometimes remark on getting two cards bearing the singular term “founder.”

    We justify calling each of us “founder” in that we were both active in the original founding of the company; while another other early team member who joined a little later, but, still very early on (before Techstars) is a “co-founder.”

    Writing this out, now, I feel like it’s in the weeds and a bit pedantic.

  • I like the distinctions you are making. Entrepreneur has become the catchall term for anyone trying anything these days, and has lost some clarity as a result.

    I’ve always felt that true entrepreneurs were people who’ve mastered their own fears and have the capacity for taking strategic risks. Real, learn-how-to-swim or you’ll lose-your-ass, risk taking.

    Founder resonates because it begs the question ‘…of what?’ What have you done / built / created? What did you start with, and and what did you turn it into?

    I have just as much respect for the bootstrappers like myself that turn 5 grand into 5 million as I do the VC-backed founders building the next Unicorn.

    People use the title ‘entrepreneur’ to earn admiration and respect. We should afford others the benefit of the doubt, but the real world results of Founders – always speak for themselves.

  • Dave Linhardt

    That’s exactly why our new group format is called The Founder’s Workshop. Entrepreneur has lost its meaning and is too often used by those who are not.

  • Nice post. We use the name “Songpreneur” for our group of songwriting and music biz entrepreneurs – instilling the entrepreneurial spirit into the songwriting community. Out of curiosity – you use the word “dragon” up there as one of your terms along with unicorn. What’s a dragon? I’ve heard of a unicorn in this context before, but am not really sure what that is either. Please elaborate if you don’t mind. Thanks in advance.

  • I’ve been chewing on this a bit myself lately. I’ve always said I was an entrepreneur and not a small business. I’ve differentiated the two as one that scales and one that doesn’t. A small business that becomes a franchise then makes them an entrepreneur.

    However, lately I’ve wondered if the term entrepreneur fits. I’ve found that I’ve created a bunch of assets, but not necessarily a business. The assets make money and so it is a business, but it’s not a business in the sense that I’ve scaled people. Scaling bits and bytes is preferred by me. I almost feel more like an inventor or creator than an entrepreneur. Although, like you mentioned, I use the word Founder whenever asked. I think it covers both nicely.

  • Len Eichler

    I am a business consultant. I’m very innovative. I’m a very good manager and good at strategic planning and growth. BUT! I am not an entrepreneur. I don’t have the guts to take risk -I’m risk averse. Thus, I contend you are on the right track trying to find better terms. We need to keep unicorn out of the common language – it is being used too much.

  • DaveJ

    Except that “founder” has become a title that people are now negotiating for, long after the company has started.

    I have a strict definition of “founder.” If you were present at the first conversation about the business, and participate in the creation of it as a business, then you are the/a founder. Otherwise, you are a member of the management team. I know, I’m old school and behind the times.

    • I agree with you.

  • Tosin Otitoju

    I even think the word is a scam.

    1. Factors of production (the historical econ concept) has land (reward=rent), labour (reward=wages), capital (reward=interest), and entrepreneurship or organization (reward = profit). In 20th or 21st century reality, entrepreneurship is one or both of labour and capital, where labour can be mental (not necessarily physical) .
    I think the folks closer to the money got the privilege of making two categories of profit for themselves lol, so ‘entrepreneurs’ are those cool workers who get paid for working and get to sit at the table with capital too.

    2. yes, like you said, the word is TOOOO long. entrepreneurship is 5 syllables. any doing impetus is gone by time you’re done pronouncing that.

    That’s all, folks.