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 Business. Other 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.
Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a post Your Words Should Match Your Actions. It was a generic rant that resulted from me watching a couple of VCs blow up their reputations with entrepreneurs I know because of how they treated them.
This morning I ended up on an email thread about this. I’m going to anonymize it, but you’ll get the point. The two people (who I’ll call “Entrepreneur” and “VC”) are both very successful, extremely smart, and very visible.
Entrepreneur: Thread below is 2+ years old, but resulted from VC asking me similar questions. Interestingly, when I (a year later) pinged VC about my new company, not even the courtesy of reply from him. Bad mojo. 🙂
Me: Welcome to the “assholeness-VC-factor.” Hey – I’m important – give me info. Oh – you are now raising money – fuck off.
Entrepreneur: I’m amazingly appreciative to short, polite “no thank you’s”. I don’t know whether VCs think that’s too much work, or whether they want to leave open the possibility of the “must have been caught in my spam filter” excuse when the startup becomes a rocket in 2 years?
I then went on a more serious rant explaining what I think is going on.
It’s worse that that.
In my book Startup Life (that I wrote with my wife Amy) I said that one of the key things that has made our relationship work is that I realized “my words had to match my actions.” After about decade of telling her she was the most important person in my life, and then being late to dinner, canceling things at the last minute because something else came up, or taking a phone call without even looking at who was calling when we were in the middle of a conversation, she’d had enough and our relationship almost ended.
My biggest behavior change 14 years ago was to focus hard on having my words match my actions, and my actions match my words. Simple to say, really hard to do.
Of course, it also works in a business context. I’ve learned, and deeply believe, that it’s the essence of being authentic. You can have any style you want – these two things just have to match up.
Sadly, many very successful people simply don’t understand or appreciate this. They put huge amounts of energy into developing a public persona. It could be PR, it could be speeches, or writing, or systematic campaigns over a period of time about themselves and their businesses.
But then their words and their actions don’t match up. Over and over again. It can be subtle or overt. It can be mild or jarring. It doesn’t matter – if they haven’t internalized the idea of their words and actions matching up, there is a long negative reputational effect.
And, as our email exchange demonstrates, it lingers. I have heard the same thing about that VC and I’ve experienced it personally. Yet his public persona is “entrepreneur friendly”, “very accessible”, “incredibly smart”, and “highly capable.” Yet, he completely blew you off, after asking you for something when you were a powerful and well-connected executive at a large company. Stupid behavior on his part.
Oh, and in addition, this VC missed a chance to invest in what is now a rocket ship. And the entrepreneur didn’t go back to him for the Series B because he got blown off the first time, so the VC missed two chances to invest.
Do your words match your actions? If you don’t know, ask yourself at the end of each day “did my words today match my actions.”
VCs love to say things like “we are entrepreneur friendly.” It’s trendy, catchy, and looks good on a blog post. But, as I’ve said in my post Your Words Should Match Your Actions, one can “damage their reputations by having their words not match up with their actions.”
Now – this post isn’t about responding to emails. Nor am I trying to be preachy. I’m not trying to explain a new behavior. Rather, I’m making an observation about something I’ve experienced – both as an entrepreneur and investor – since my first angel investment in 1994.
Here’s the situation, as reported this morning by an experienced CEO of a company we are investors in.
“We’re raising money. I have a good intro session. Prospective investor wants to meet in person, see a demo. We have a good 2nd meeting. We agree on action items. I go away and follow up.
Follow up again.
Radio silence still.
The first time it happened I was inclined to think it was the investor and that they just couldn’t find the time to send an email response saying, “sorry – no longer interested”. Then, it happened again this month.”
Now – initial non-responsiveness – whatever. Lots of people don’t respond to emails, intros, or requests for meetings. But after two in-person meetings, to be non-responsive is just plain rude.
How hard would be it be to say “Hey – great spending time with you – but this isn’t something I want to pursue.” Or maybe “Sorry for being slow – I’ve been swamped – I don’t have time for doing this right now.” Or – well – anything.
I’ve had this situation come up so many times that I’m immune to it. I assume that the VC isn’t interested. But I’m amazed at how the reputational damage follows the person around. And then – at some point in the future – that VC is looking for a response for something. Hmmm …
I’ve had this happen with LPs. When we went and raised our first fund in 2007, plenty of people wouldn’t meet with us. That’s fine. Lots said they weren’t interested after a first meeting. Totally cool. But some met with us but then were completely non-responsive after the meeting. Ok – whatever. But when those non-responsive LPs call me today asking for something – whether it’s to get together to “get to know me better”, or to get a reference on someone else they are looking at, or to learn more about what I think about the market for hardware investments, it’s really hard to get on the phone and spend time with them. I do – because that’s my nature – but I always remember their non-responsiveness.
I hear – and say – “No thank you” all the time. Every day. 50 times a day. That’s just part of the role I play in business. But I always try to say “No thank you.” It’s just not that hard. Especially when I know someone, or have engaged with them in some way.
Are you the guy the experienced CEO just encountered? How would you feel if your name – and your firm’s name – just went out via email to 60 CEOs attached to this story? Maybe you don’t care, but if your message is “we are entrepreneur-friendly VCs” you just undermined the reputation of your firm in a major way.
Over the past few months I’ve watched several powerful and successful VCs and entrepreneurs damage their reputations by having their words not match up with their actions. I think this is especially true in the context of a long term relationship.
This is a deeply held value of mine and of my partners at Foundry Group. I occasionally screw up and when I do I own it, apologize, and learn from it. But it stuns and amazes me when others assert strong style / values / culture and then consistently have their actions not line up with their words.
Here are a few VC examples:
VC asserts he’s “founder friendly”: This is currently in vogue across many VC firms. Very experienced VCs are talking about how they are focused entirely on supporting the entrepreneur. But then, when something goes wrong, they act randomly and capriciously. Or they simply disengage without warning. Or they try to retrade an earlier deal just because they think they can. Or they threaten to veto a deal unless they get something more than they are entitled to.
VC asserts certain followup behavior with every entrepreneur they meet with: In the vein of “we are holding ourselves to a high level of interaction”, the VC suggests a certain behavior pattern in their deal evaluation process or interaction with entrepreneurs. They do this sometimes, but are inconsistent.
VC suggests that the deal is firm and will happen: Then, two weeks into “due diligence” which, based on the previous evaluation, should be a proforma exercise, abruptly pull out of the deal because “some of my partners aren’t supportive.”
This, of course, isn’t limited to VC behavior. I see it all the time with entrepreneurs. For example:
Entrepreneur suggests he’s “radically transparent”: Nice, and popular, but do you tell your employees exactly how many months of cash you have left? Or do you keep the fact that you and your partner are having a major conflict from your investors? Or how about that your business isn’t doing very well and you are working every backchannel you know to try to have an acquihire happen for you that will have a negative impact on your investors.
Entrepreneur asserts he isn’t shopping the deal: And then he does. It’s ok to shop a deal, just don’t assert you aren’t!
Entrepreneur inflates his relationship with another entrepreneur or VC: It’s fine to be connected on LinkedIn or say you worked at the same company in the past, but don’t say you are best friends if you haven’t interacted with the other person in over a year.
I could keep going. It’s similar to what Amy and I wrote about in Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur when we talk about your words having to match your actions. When I tell Amy that she is the most important thing in my life, and then am 30 minutes late to dinner because “I’ve just got to get something done” my words aren’t matching up with my actions. Or, when we are together, the phone rings, and I automatically answer it rather than asking if it’s ok for me to take the call. Or, when she gets hurt if I don’t drop everything I’m doing and go help her out.
Words matter. And having them match your actions matters matters even more.
When I created Startup Revolution and began writing Startup Communities, I insisted with Wiley (my publisher) that the word be “startup” and not “start-up” or “start up” or even “StartUp”. It took a while to (a) get everyone to agree to that and (b) expunge the efforts of the copy-editor to reintroduce some gross variant of “startup” but I finally got it done.
Today I noticed a post from Andrew Hyde titled Washington Post Style Guide Now Includes “Startup” as A Word. Awesome.
We had a similar conversation when Startup America Partnership was formed in 2011. After some back and forth we all got it right.
I’m glad that “Startup” is making its way into the style guides of the old media world.
As Amy and I continue to crank away on Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur, I learned a funny, perplexing, and strange thing. There apparently is an editorial standard, at least at Wiley, for the words “fuck” and “fucking”.
Fuck = F%^$
Fucking = F*&^%$#
Crazy. Hilarious. Fun. Bizarre.
I discovered this yesterday as I was going through and making all the changes to the feedback from our “publisher draft” submission which we got back on Friday. We’ve got plenty of dialogue with the words “fuck” and “shit” in them because (a) that’s how a lot of humans, including us, talk and (b) when there’s conflict, which we cover a lot in the book, the words “fuck” and “shit” tend to fly.
For some reason “shit” is ok. It made it through this particular edit pass. But “fuck” did not, except in a particular phrase, “fuck you money.” Let’s see if that one survives the next edit pass. And, when the final book comes out, we’ll see if shit did as well.
Back to working on the book. The final deadline is 10/22 so if you see me in the next nine days and you want to torture me, just ask “how’s the book going.” I expect you’ll hear some variant of f%^$ in my response.