MT Special: The trouble with celebrity entrepreneurs

In this guest column, Milo Yiannopoulos argues that young entrepreneurs need better role models than self-promoting TV celebs...

by Milo Yiannopoulos
Last Updated: 14 Mar 2011
We live in the age of the celebrity entrepreneur: a dangerous time in which good role models are exceedingly difficult to locate, particularly for young founders who can’t rely on a big network of contacts for recommendations. Finding people of substance who can add value to your business while steering clear of fame-hungry TV celebrities is getting harder all the time: there’s a vast network of websites springing up advertising the services of parasitic and ill-qualified 'business mentors' and 'coaches'. Most of these sites read like a game of Dragons’ Den bullsh*t bingo, their proprietors apparently having the credentials – and morals – to match.

To the trained eye, they’re easy to spot. But what if you’re just starting out? What if you don’t know your Alan Sugar from your sugar pills? Because it is young entrepreneurs who are most endangered by the hordes of television celebrities masquerading as businesspeople.

I was criticised recently for a column I wrote about entrepreneurs who aggressively promote themselves. But while I accept that some of my jokes were a little mean-spirited, there was a serious point behind them: the damage being done to the prospects of young people who come to believe that self-promotion is the best way for your business to get ahead. Like feng shui consultants, life coaches and social media gurus, the new 'business mentors', inspired by insipid TV shows, are hoovering up time and money in exchange for worthless platitudes.

To demonstrate what I mean, take the example of 18-year-old Jamie Dunn. Dunn is a self-styled entrepreneur who claims to have been 'in business' since he was twelve. He used to have a countdown clock on his website measuring the time remaining before his twentieth birthday, by which time he was (and presumably still is) determined to have become a millionaire.

'I'm now a mentor, coach and speaker,' wrote Dunn recently in a guest blog post for business advice site Smarta, 'And have recently set up The Jamie Dunn Academy that acts as an umbrella company for everything that I do within my business life.'

Um, OK. Have you ever heard of an 18-year-old – one, let us remember, who has never actually started a business – launching his own 'Academy'? The idea of it is ridiculous, and yet, spurred on by the bragging of his television heroes, Dunn has lost any sense of the implausible and started presenting himself – despite the lack of any quantifiable achievements – as a role model to others.

But it isn't Dunn's fault. He's a victim of the celebritisation of business, which turns also-rans into mini-celebrities while doing next to nothing to educate brilliant young minds about the realities of business. (Perhaps Dunn is finally getting some advice from somewhere: since I first noticed him, his website has been taken offline. Good: something tells me he'll come to regret the vacuous taglines like ‘Believe it. Achieve it.’ and the various other execrable attempts to ape his heroes.).

While it’s true that we need to do more to celebrate business success stories, it does not follow that we should celebritise entrepreneurs - trivialising the hard work that goes into building a business, and reducing entrepreneurs to a one-dimensional entertainment stereotype.

It's a good thing that The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den encourage young people to consider starting their own company (if they actually do: we have only anecdotal evidence to go on). But it's risky if, at the same time, they are painting a rosy view of what running a business will actually be like.

This is an exciting time for small business. We have a Government supposedly eager to emphasise its enterprise credentials and cut the suffocating layers of bureaucracy. And, particularly in the technology sector, Europe is experiencing an extraordinary flood of media attention and investor confidence. So entrepreneurs should be feeling positive - within reason.

'I have found that a lot of people say that I am boastful,' writes Jamie Dunn. 'But I believe the things I have done so far have not touched upon what I can achieve in the future.'

With hard work and a bit more humility, he might be right. Because it is only with a heavy dose of reality and proper – often grubby, often frustrating, often deeply unpleasant – experience, unencumbered by the demands of relentless self-promotion, that budding young entrepreneurs can achieve their ambitions.

Milo Yiannopoulos is technology columnist for The Telegraph and commissioning editor of The Telegraph Tech Start-Up 100.

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