Screw conformity: why British entrepreneurs need to learn to be mavericks

Us Brits are taught to play by the rules - but that's hurting our chances on the world stage, says founder Alex Depledge.

by Alex Depledge
Last Updated: 08 Dec 2015

People compare starting a business to charging headfirst into the unknown, the shock of becoming a parent for the very first time or riding a knuckle-biting rollercoaster without being strapped in. Us entrepreneurs all know about the ongoing struggles, the risks and challenges and the ‘what the f*** am I doing?’ moments.

But the world needs entrepreneurs. They’re key to global economic recovery. In the UK, David Cameron emphasised earlier this year that we need to be a country that ‘celebrates enterprise and backs risk takers’.

But in Britain we’re failing to produce a nation of globally successful business owners. We aren’t in the top 10 countries for generating billionaire entrepreneurs. We disappointingly lag behind the US, Canada, Ireland and Australia. We only produce a measly one billionaire entrepreneur for every two million people, while in comparison Hong Kong produces three for every million.

Any fool can see we’re going wrong somewhere.

The British attitude problem

We can complain about unfavourable taxes and red tape and I’m not disputing that this plays a part, but it isn’t the root cause of what’s screwing things up.

Here in Britain we have a very rigid definition of the route to success. Right from when we first enter into education at the age of five, we’re taught to obey the rules and fit into a system. We’re forced to specialise early in our schooling (who knows what on earth they want to do at the age of 14?) and learn how to succeed in every exam by following a precise and prescriptive formula. We’re deemed successful if we achieve good GCSEs, A-Levels and degrees. Then hip hip hooray, chin chin, three cheers all around if we’re chosen for a graduate scheme with a reputable and established company.

At home, we’re brought up to believe security and stability are the keys to success. Do what others do, fit into the mould and for God’s sake don’t rock the boat: we Brits despise rule breakers.

In British society, failure is something to be ashamed of, hidden or forgotten and the stigma and embarrassment can stick around for life.

But the educational and therefore cultural norms people are supposed to live up to are diametrically opposed to what makes a good entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs have to be willing to take risks and embrace the unknown. They need to get things done without any structure and thrive in an environment where there are no rules. They need courage to innovate and the nerve to forge their own path – even armed with the knowledge there’s a chance they might be pouring their and other people’s money down the plughole.

Learning from our peers across the pond

We all can learn a lot from America. A report published last year by Global Entrepreneurship Monitor revealed the US had a clear advantage over every other region in the world when measuring the extent to which social and cultural norms encourage activities to find new ways of conducting business. It found risk taking and high levels of innovation were greatly encouraged and not frowned upon in US society.

As a British entrepreneur who’s studied and worked in the States I’ve witnessed how business failure is worn as a badge of honour and seen how people aren’t afraid to trumpet their successes. Investors consider failing an experience, rather than a shameful indicator of incompetence. They prefer to invest in second- and third-time entrepreneurs; people who may have cocked up and learnt from their mistakes.

I’ve experienced living in that culture where alternative thinking is valued, a self-starting attitude encouraged and where the ethos that hard work pays off no matter where you’re from and what you do is ingrained in the mindset of its people. I’ve studied in an education system which taught me this by being far more flexible than the one we have here. American universities try to minimise institutional barriers to multi-disciplinary learning to provide a creative and innovative learning process: students are encouraged to take courses and engage in projects with those from other disciplines so they can draw upon expertise from across departments.

And the proof is in the pudding. Another report out last year revealed 13% of US adults were involved in start-ups, and the vast majority started businesses to pursue opportunity rather than out of necessity.

Throw out the rule book

So how do us Brits get our acts together for the greater good of the global economy?  

Let’s abolish the inflexible National Curriculum - the Government’s stuffy rigid agenda for teaching and learning in schools. Get rid of this preconception of how we should behave; this notion of sticking to the rules, specialising early and one size fits all.

We need to emphasise the importance of critical thinking, problem solving and ingenuity. Give teachers the freedom and flexibility to treat each student as an individual and do what they think is right. We should teach our children to be resourceful and creative and give them the courage to throw off the herd mentality. We have to foster an attitude that anything is possible and that failure and cock ups are all part of a learning curve. If we get this right in education – it’ll carry through into the home and furthermore into British society.

And entrepreneurs can do their bit to pave the way for others. In our organisations, we can empower staff to make decisions, champion ideas and create a culture of questioning the norm.

We should celebrate, rather than play down, our successes, and pass our knowledge on so a new generation can see what’s possible if they carve their own path.

We need to inspire others to get on that terrifying, exhilarating rollercoaster ride. The global economy needs people willing to take risks and face their fears. To the British education system: stuff your rules and rigidity and let the mavericks do their bit for the world.

- Alex Depledge is CEO and co-founder of

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