A dangerous narrative has arisen in the past few years that is pushing “entrepreneurship” – founding new companies – as the professional path of choice for Millennials.
On the one hand, this is understandable – while the economy has demonstrably recovered since the 2009 recession, truly good jobs remain scarce and competition for them is fierce.
Further, Baby Boomers are working longer, pushing retirement back as they, too, face economic realities that require additional work years.
The result? Few open executive level positions that many presumed would have already been passed on to members of Generation X, thus opening more mid-level management positions to Millennials.
Even this year’s contentious presidential campaign season has been dominated not by Generation X candidates (as many had predicted) but by baby boomers:
- Hillary Clinton will be 69 years old on Election Day
- Donald Trump will be 70
- Bernie Sanders will be 75
So among the reams that have been written about Millennials and how they are different from preceding generations is a distinct narrative about how they are far more likely to strike out on their own than their predecessors, either supplementing their income via part-time “side gigs” or attempting to found their own companies full-time.
Writer James Altucher, of whom I’m a huge fan, has staked his professional reputation on the necessity of embracing this type of entrepreneurship with his latest trio of books, Choose Yourself!, The Choose Yourself Guide To Wealth, and The Rich Employee.
The books are excellent, but the problems with this narrative are many.
To start, the narrative is patently false.
See last week’s story from The Atlantic: The Myth of the Millennial Entrepreneur. The opening paragraph is the mic drop:
“Millennials are on track to be the least entrepreneurial generation in recent history,” John Lettieri, the co-founder of the Economic Innovation Group,testified last week before the U.S. Senate. The share of people under 30 who own a business has fallen by 65 percent since the 1980s and is now at a quarter-century low, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Federal Reserve data.
Next, the odds continue to be stacked against success.
- 85% of businesses (of all types, including digital ones) fail within the first five years.
- 75 % of VC-backed companies fail.
- ~50% of companies fail to even receive recoup the amount invested.
Moreover, there is honor in the “old way” – joining a large corporation, climbing the ranks and learning your craft over a decade or more before taking the next leap – be it to another large corporation, or out on your own at that point.
Jony Ive is a perfect example – the head of design for Apple and brain trust behind the physical design of the Macbook Pro, iPhone, iPod and iPad has never been a founder.
Ive has achieved astounding success while never striking out on his own – he worked as an employee at two design firms before joining Apple.
Further, the precipitous rise of social media and the riches bestowed upon the young founders of platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram have created an obsession with the Silicon Valley Goldrush – The desire to found the company that designs the next great app for the sharing economy (a la AirBNB or Uber) or “the next Snapchat” is so strong that it puts the emphasis in the wrong place.
“Unicorns” (the short list of privately-owned companies valued at $1 bn. or more) are so named for a reason – they are incredibly rare.
Further, the reality is that for the vast majority of companies, VC funding should not be part of the equation.
The truth is, the vast majority of businesses are boring. And they are also not primarily digital.
More importantly, marketing maven Gary Vaynerchuk addressed exactly this entrepreneurship myth in a recent post on Quora. It was his post that inspired this one.
Read it here.
Vaynerchuk’s gist is this:
“Everyone believes that they can be a successful entrepreneur or business person, when the reality is that these people would be more successful as the number two, three, or four positions at a company.”
Founders (i.e., CEOs) have to wear many hats:
- They have to be practitioners, i.e., able to do the work and help deliver the product or service
- They have to be good at business development – winning and keeping new business as the company’s face
- They have to actively work on the administrative duties of taxes, HR, payroll, accounting, and billing
- They have to lead and inspire their team
I’ve witnessed this first-hand, as I’ve worked directly for two different founders. I currently work for one of them, Dale Curtis.
Dale Curtis Communications was built by Dale the hard way, one client at a time, over a period of seven years. He started on his own doing everything and gradually added staff and office space organically.
Today the business is real, it’s sustainable, and we boast a strong set of clients who have been happy to see us grow.
But too many employees, for example, love the practitioner side of their field but don’t have the make-up – the sheer fortitude and grit – for the type of hardcore negotiation, business development and client management that is required of a founder.
Vaynerchuk concludes that in our rush to idolize entrepreneurs, as a society, “we’ve inflated what it means to be successful in business and the media has disrespected how much time, money, and grit it actually takes to get there.”
He’s not wrong.
But what do you think?