We pay too much attention to tech entrepreneurs

Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have done incredible things, but do they set unrealistic expectations?

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 26 Jan 2017

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine an entrepreneur. Picture the lines of their face, the contours and colours of their clothes, perhaps the context – a product launch, heading a meeting, doing a television interview. Get the image really clear in your head.

Does it look like this?

Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley (l), not wearing a black turtleneck. Image credit: johnvedwards/Wikipedia 

No? Were you picturing something a bit flashier, perhaps, I don’t know, a glazed-eyed Californian college drop-out genius with terrible fashion sense and a grand plan to change the future? Something like that?

Over the last 40 years, Silicon Valley has stamped its stereotype all over our idea of an entrepreneur, creating a kind of fetish for laid back yet strangely intense visionaries with the Midas touch, working exclusively in the tech sector. The likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have in the process assumed the status of business demi-gods, the heroic role models of budding entrepreneurs everywhere*.

But they clearly aren’t the norm. Spectacular though Google or Apple are, they’re not exactly ten a penny. In fact, if you look at this country’s most successful founders, far more often than not they’re not working in tech, they didn’t start their business in their mum’s garage at the age of 19, making their first billion four years later, and they most certainly don’t prattle around in a succession of identical black turtlenecks.

In the last iteration of Britain’s Top 100 Entrepreneurs in 2015, MT ranked the UK’s start-up kings and queens on their personal wealth and on their 5-year turnover and head count growth. There were 26 ‘tech entrepreneurs’ of some complexion on the list, not 100. They were distributed fairly evenly, side by side with entrepreneurs in more prosaic sectors like retail, housebuilding, manufacturing, wealth management, pubs and plant hire. 

(They weren’t that young either: the median age was 56, not 26. Research by the Kauffman Foundation in the US puts the average age for high-growth tech founders somewhat younger at 40, hardly college drop-out territory.)

Yet if you talk to a wannabe entrepreneur just starting their adult life, you can bet your bottom dollar they won’t aspire to owning a utilities services business or a chain of pet food stores. And they certainly won’t want to wait twenty or thirty years before they make their first million.

This is, of course, one of the reasons Zuckerberg et al get so much attention. It’s not just that they changed the world and made a fortune doing it, it’s that they did it all so fast, at an age most people are barely starting to think about applying for a mortgage. Crucially, they didn’t have to spend years learning the ropes as a wage slave either, scrimping together the money to start his business and then spending years growing it patiently.

The lure of the tech entrepreneur is in that sense somewhat like that of the pop star or professional footballer, a highly improbable, fast-track route to fame and fortune.

The problems with that hardly need mentioning. As acclaimed psychologist and MT columnist Tomas Chamorro-Prezumic says in his upcoming book The Talent Delusion, ‘there’s no point in aspiring to be the next Elon Musk or Steve Jobs if the chances of success are less than 0.000000001% and, on top of that, such aspirations lead you to reject available –and objectively better – job opportunities’. It’s like pinning your hopes for the future on winning the lottery.

This is not to say that having big dreams is bad. It’s not to say that the tech sector and its stupendous entrepreneurs are somehow unworthy of our attention. But it does mean that theirs aren’t the only stories we should read.

There are founders out there in less glamorous fields whose businesses may not have had millions in VC funding before exploding in overhyped IPOs, but do create jobs, create value and keep the economy from stagnating. They are good role models too, and they’re certainly more realistic ones.

(They aren't exactly boring either. Here's exporter Rami Ranger talking about starting life as a refugee, oath-loving martial arts expert and Leon founder John Vincent on expanding to the USA and Wendy Hallett on building a fashion start-up while battling cancer.)

Then there’s the tech entrepreneurs who don’t conform to cliché, bootstrapping their firms over many years of sustainable growth. Most of all though, we should seek out those brave enough to start their own businesses, only ultimately to fail – of which there are a great many, in tech and elsewhere.

If nothing else, if you only see the greatest of successes, achieved against the toughest of odds, you’ll never appreciate how rare that is, and never realise the opportunities to do something more meaningful that may be right in front of your nose. 

Can you start your own business without quitting your day job?

*Along with Richard Branson, who doesn't fit any kind of norm.

Main image credit: Matthew Yohe/Wikipedia


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