Denise Kingsmill: Could you be an entrepreneur?

Starting a business has never been more fashionable, but how many of us have what it takes?

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 28 Oct 2014

Who wants to be an entrepreneur? The answer is everyone. It has become a very fashionable thing for business people to describe themselves as entrepreneurs. Whether they are buying yet another chain of themed restaurants, breathing new life into a moribund financial service industry or creating the killer app, it is axiomatic that they must be among that special breed of people who eschew conventional employment and do it their way. However, the word can cover a multitude of not so glamorous situations.

The government points to the burgeoning numbers of the self-employed as evidence of an 'entrepreneurial culture', when in fact many of them are simply doing alone in their bedrooms the jobs they used to do in a workplace before austerity-induced redundancy. Is the self-employed manicurist hauling her kit around her clients' homes an entrepreneur? Well, maybe...

if she has a idea that can be transformed into a business, the stamina to see it through and the self-belief to keep trying. However, while we are familiar with the successes of the famous entrepreneurs, there is a dark side too. There are many untold stories of those who have sacrificed careers, family and even their health in pursuit of the romantic ideal of doing their own thing.

The characteristics of the entrepreneur are as many and various as the businesses they create, but there are some common traits. I would argue that tenacity is the most important. A single-minded determination to succeed and a stubborn refusal to give up in the face of setbacks are essential attributes. This needs to be combined with an ability to learn from mistakes but, above all, with a big helping of good luck.

James Dyson was a brilliant designer and inventor before he created the hugely successful business he leads today. He talks frankly of all the prototypes that 'failed' before his revolutionary vacuum cleaner came onto the market. It took many years of dedication in the face of financial adversity to make it work, but he saw each failure as bringing him closer to a solution. This kind of relentless drive in the face of hardship and failure marks him out as a great entrepreneur.

Certainly, the capacity to absorb the lessons of failure is important. As Thomas Edison said: 'I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.'

True entrepreneurs are not those who see a financial opportunity and know how to exploit it. Buying a business, cutting costs, applying a lick of paint, rebranding and selling on are skills not to be underestimated. I admire the kind of private equity investor who has an instinct for the underperforming company that can be financially re-engineered and turned into a successful business, but it's not entrepreneurialism.

There are many very successful entrepreneurs who choose to sell their companies early on. They may wish to finance another business idea or they may recognise they need more resources to be really successful. Often they enjoy the excitement of the start-up phase but lack the patience to manage steady growth, and so sell on to larger companies. They usually find corporate life somewhat limiting and move on as soon as they have achieved their earn-out. Unfortunately, the individualism and flair that made their business so attractive to the big corporates often vanishes when the founders exit. Examples abound: Ben and Jerry's ice creams just weren't the same once they were subsumed into the Unilever portfolio of brands, and whatever happened to the innovative Seattle Coffee Company after Starbucks bought it?

An entrepreneur must have the instinct for the disruptive idea but also needs the capacity to create a successful, transformative business. Tim Berners-Lee may have invented the world wide web, but it was the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who were able to turn this brilliant innovation into huge, global corporations.

The exceptional design talent of Yves Saint Laurent was quickly recognised. He went on to take over as chief designer for the House of Dior. However, it was the business skills of his partner, Pierre Berge, who transformed the brilliant young fashion designer into a world-famous brand. Each had skills the other lacked. Their lifelong business and personal relationship enabled them to create a globally successful enterprise together that was greater than either could have achieved alone.

Often women set up successful businesses because they are thwarted in conventional careers or because they have a uniquely different way of looking at a market. Their personal style and taste, unsatisfied in the marketplace, can lead them to create innovative enterprises. Victoria Beckham is one such. She has leveraged her celebrity to segue from music to fashion to create an increasingly successful business that's underpinned by a real and acknowledged talent as a designer. Her clothes are distinctive, desirable and clearly personal. But perhaps it took Simon Fuller to release her inner entrepreneur in the same way as Berge did for YSL.

Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director of various British, European and US boards. She can be contacted on editorial@managementtoday.com.

Follow her on Twitter: @denisekingsmill

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