UK: TECHKNOW - Ask Bill Gates.

UK: TECHKNOW - Ask Bill Gates. - Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an entrepreneur?

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an entrepreneur?

A: First we have to define 'entrepreneur'. The word has become almost meaningless. Somebody at XYZ Company will say, 'This is an example of how entrepreneurial XYZ is.' Or announce, 'Here's one of XYZ's great entrepreneurs - Joe!' Being an entrepreneur has come to mean little more than having innovative ideas and being willing to take risks. Fine qualities, but the term is so general now that it begs the question: 'What's the opposite of an entrepreneur? A dud?' The word entrepreneur used to mean somebody who started their own company. These classic entrepreneurs are often innovative risk-takers, but that doesn't mean that every innovative risk-taker is an entrepreneur.

While entrepreneurship is frequently glamorised, there are huge disadvantages to starting your own company. For one thing, over 90% of start-ups fail.

For another, most people don't like the job once they have it. When you start a company, there's a huge range of activities you have to perform and you have to spread yourself pretty thin. This is quite a contrast to life inside a company, where a talented person can specialise in what they do well, which suits most people better. The lure of self-employment draws a lot of people into trying to be entrepreneurs who really aren't cut out for it. I've stressed the disadvantages of being a classic entrepreneur because I think they are often overlooked. There are, of course, obvious rewards to starting a company that thrives. Successful entrepreneurs are said to be some of the happiest people around and I believe it. It's just that they're pretty scarce.

Q: If you found a magic lamp, rubbed it and a genie came out and offered you three wishes, what would they be?

A: One, additional time. Two, that everybody could have the same opportunities and luck I've had. Three, more wishes.

Q: What kind of people attract you?

A: Individuals who achieve something inspirational or possess extraordinary character. Nelson Mandela has both and may be the most inspiring person I've met. While listening to him talk about the course he charted upon his release, I realised he was totally thoughtful and rational about the importance of putting the past behind him. Mandela said he followed his head, because he knew his heart wasn't the way forward. What strength!

His political tactics were brilliant. In approaching the white government, he first chose a clear-cut issue: the imprisoning of black children as young as 10. He asked for decency and got it.

The golfer Tiger Woods, whom I haven't met, is an inspiration for different reasons. It's impressive that a young person can define a new level of excellence in what wasn't thought of as a young person's game. Richard Feynman, the Nobel physicist, was inspirational. He was an independent thinker and a gifted teacher who pushed himself to understand new things.

I admired him deeply and was hoping to meet him when he died in 1988.

Ask Bill Gates questions: askbill@microsoft.com.

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