Has the Word 'Entrepreneur' Lost Its Meaning?
The badge of entrepreneurialism has been hijacked by people who are diluting its importance.
Since starting my own company last year and becoming a business owner for the first time, I’ve come to the realization that there are many people in the world who call themselves an entrepreneur. And yet, strangely, not many of them are actually entrepreneurs.
The Cambridge Dictionary is very simple in its explanation of an entrepreneur: "Someone who starts their own business." While I think there is a bit more to it, I agree this is the definition most people think of when they hear the word. However, a quick LinkedIn search reveals more than 380,000 people with the term "entrepreneur" in their job title. You don't even have to look beyond the first page before you are finding people who, in fact, don't own or even run a business.
The romanticizing of entrepreneurs over the last two decades in media, television and film has caused the word to be hijacked by people who really want to be entrepreneurs, but probably don’t have the courage, ideas, capital or perseverance to do it.
Impact through sacrifice
Entrepreneurs are essential to a successful economy. Often through significant risk-taking and sacrifice, they create innovation, employment and revenue for the country they inhabit. We should salute the great entrepreneurs around the globe because, without them, many jobs wouldn’t exist, we wouldn’t have some of the best technologies we enjoy today, and frankly, the world would be a worse place. Through their impact, small and large, entrepreneurs drive change.
While validating that entrepreneurs must have started a business, Merriam-Webster’s definition adds they must also “be willing to risk loss in order to make money." This, in my view, is crucial. An entrepreneur is not a freelancer, a consultant or somebody with a side hustle. All of these people could become entrepreneurs, but what’s missing is that vital element of risk.
True entrepreneurship is not for the faint-hearted, and few people are really cut out for the responsibility and insecurity that comes with owning a business. Entrepreneurs not only rely on their business to support their own livelihood, but they are often responsible for other people’s livelihoods too.
And yet, being an entrepreneur is even more than creating a sustainable, scalable business — that business must also, I believe, solve a real-world problem or do something in a better way. This typically requires passion and grit to dive headfirst into a problem, possibly even doing things other people don’t want you to do.
Entrepreneurship may be a mindset that non-entrepreneurs can possess or at least aspire to, but it’s not a subject you can teach. The ability to evolve as a leader from shaping every detail of a new startup from vision to fruition, to then forming a holistic, long-term view as the business scales into something much larger, requires incredible fortitude, discipline and skill.
The intentions of a business founder also inform the extent to which they are an entrepreneur. In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson quoted the late Apple founder as saying, "I hate it when people call themselves 'entrepreneurs' when what they're really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public so they can cash in and move on. They're unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business. That's how you really make a contribution and add to the legacy of those who went before. You build a company that will still stand for something a generation or two from now.”
Not every entrepreneur has to build an Apple, of course, but they should be driven by something much bigger than a five-year exit plan. A more modern definition of entrepreneurship involves bringing about some kind of societal change in addition to making money. The best entrepreneurs can do both at the same time. At the very least, entrepreneurs should have a razor-sharp focus on making life better for their customers, employees and wider community.
At the heart of it, entrepreneurship is not just about coming up with an idea and forming a new business to execute it in a way that creates value for lots of different people. On a personal level, it also means taking ownership of your aspirations and building a life on your own terms. Society may forget the real definition of entrepreneurship, but I hope it never forgets the value of real entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor