Entrepreneurship is one of those things which are generally felt to be axiomatically ‘good’, and young people in universities and even in schools are encouraged to think about establishing their own businesses. Whilst it’s true that successful businesses are an asset to the community and provide jobs, I’ve often wondered whether it’s really such a good idea to encourage everyone to think that they can be entrepreneurs. Part of the problem is that we tend to read and hear only about the successes, but many, many entrepreneurs fail; and even some of the most successful have been through multiple failures before hitting the jackpot.
There is also a tendency to understate the element of luck involved in the process; conventional thinking praises the acumen of the successful and assumes that failure is down to the lack thereof in others, but in reality, that ‘acumen’ thing is far from being the only factor – and may not even be the most important. We find it hard to cope with that though in a paradigm which is based on an assumption that individuals have a great deal more control than is actually the case.
Another aspect which concerns me is that the line between ‘entrepreneurship’ and crime is sometimes a fine one. Some entrepreneurs sail very close to the wind when it comes to obeying regulations and laws; and some even seem to think that they have no moral obligation other than to obey the letter of the law. If the law doesn’t specifically forbid something, that makes it acceptable.
There are plenty of examples of ‘successful’ entrepreneurs whose business practices have later been revealed to be, shall we say, ‘dodgy’? One obvious name which springs to mind is Sir Philip Green - wasn’t he praised for years as a successful entrepreneur?
But a report in the Business section of yesterday’s Sunday Times took the biscuit in this regard (sadly it’s behind a paywall). It referred to a plan by Arron Banks, who bankrolled Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign, to float his business on the stock market for £250million. One paragraph read as follows:
“Banks has claimed that his first dabblings with entrepreneurship came during his school days; he was expelled after being caught selling lead stolen from the roofs of school buildings.”Perhaps I’m just a bit old-fashioned, but the term I use for selling stolen goods isn’t ‘entrepreneurship’, it’s ‘crime’. Still, as a “close ally of Farage” and a man who “has forged ties with Donald Trump” (a man whose own business dealings have come under a degree of 'scrutiny', to say the least), and was pictured with the president-elect the day after his election victory, his “early dabblings” don’t seem to have done him any harm. Such is the power of the word ‘entrepreneur’.