Work hard in school and get good grades (whilst making sure you fit in) and you’ll do well in life. Marry early, land a job in a large organisation, get a cubicle, free dental care and, perhaps, even a company car. Keep your head down and after 10-15 years, you’ll have a comfortable middle-management job, be a frequent visitor to the local golf club and, perhaps, a senior figure in the local Rotary club.
There are many versions of the above. Some will choose a practical career with little academic training. Others will stay in university as a researcher. But on some level this narrative will be familiar to many of you. It could be a description of how you want your life to look, a version of what you tell your kids, or for some of you, a nightmare scenario.
It may not be that exciting but what is the alternative, you may ask. I’m not advocating jumping from one job to the other for the sake of it. Neither am I encouraging you to live a life depending on benefits. I am talking about becoming an entrepreneur.
Not following the norm
In the UK, the Bank of England restricts banks from offering mortgages over a certain multiple of regular income. This makes it very difficult for entrepreneurs who would rather reinvest their business earnings than take out a large salary. When you sign up with a new electricity provider, apply for a gym membership or subscribe to an Internet forum, there is rarely an option under ‘occupation’ that says entrepreneur. Everyday life is full of examples where we don’t accommodate entrepreneurs.
Walking down a well-trodden path is a safe play. Perhaps, that is why it is encouraged by societal norms and the way our economic system is built. We lead a life with a stable and predictable (but capped) income at the facile cost of working 40 to 60 hours per week for someone else.
Despite this, we are depending on entrepreneurs for our so-called normal lives. The jobs you apply for are likely created by an entrepreneur. The accountants need entrepreneurs to use their services, the builders need entrepreneurs to hire them for the construction sites and the government needs entrepreneurs to generate tax to run the country.
In the UK, SMEs employ over 15 million people, or close to 50% of private sector employment. The European Commission report on European SMEs for 2013/2014 found that two out of every three private sector employee work for SMEs, and that SMEs generate 58 cents on every Euro of value added in the economy. This is not just a European phenomenon. SMEs are estimated to employ over 40% of India’s workforce, and 52% of Brazil’s.
My firm, which is also an SME, focuses on easing one of the perennial top three worries for SME business leaders – access to finance – by advising UK SMEs on debt financing. As such, I am highly aware that the value of SMEs is indeed acknowledged by politicians. In the UK, we have government policies such as the funding for lending scheme, entrepreneurs tax relief and the enterprise investment scheme. This text, however, is not about the issues of supporting existing businesses, but about the attitudes that prevent people from becoming entrepreneurs.
Pros and cons – not a life for everyone
The life of an entrepreneur makes you a master of your own destiny. You can decide whether it is worth coming into the office on any given day. You can set the office policies however you like them. You have the potential to achieve financial independence in a way that no other career can match. And best of all, you can design your own job to make sure you spend all day doing something you are passionate about – work can be a valued part of life rather than something you put up with in order to live.
The flipside is that you probably won’t go on holiday with your friends as planned if that week turns out to be busy. In fact, as an entrepreneur you are likely to take very few extended holidays. You may be able to spend a Monday morning outside in a park on the first day of spring, but overall you are likely to make up for that threefold by the late nights and weekends (It’s 11:30 pm as I’m writing this and I’ve got some more work to finish before I go home). You can’t rely on a regular paycheck. And perhaps most of all, you are responsible; people will ultimately depend on you, if something goes wrong, you are to blame. You need to make sure you follow all the rules and regulations in whatever industry you operate and pay all your taxes and bills on time. If you don’t succeed,you will be judged harshly by the people who stayed on the safe path, it is easy to be labeled a failure.
A lot of people will read this text and be more convinced than ever that entrepreneurship sounds terrible. That is perhaps as it should be;not everyone can be an entrepreneur.
What is a problem though, is the anti-entrepreneurial structure and attitude in our society that prevents people who want to be entrepreneurs from following their dreams.
What defines an entrepreneur?
I’ve talked about entrepreneurs in the traditional sense, but an entrepreneur is a wide concept. It includes anyone who takes risks and dares to try something new in life. Vincent Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime and was labeled a terrible painter. John Grisham’s first book was rejected 28 times. The Beatles were rejected and told “guitar groups are on their way out”. Charles Darwin gave up on having a medical career despite his father’s wishes.
All entrepreneurs in my mind.
I have two coworkers who both elected against lucrative careers in large institutions to work with us in a young and unproven company. They are both entrepreneurs whether they know it or not.
We all need to recognise the importance of entrepreneurs. It isn’t easy to take a plunge into the unknown, which is exactly what entrepreneurship is. People who are on the edge should be given a push rather than being dragged back to ‘safety’. So next time you are having a discussion with someone about a major life decision, remember that Bill Gates was a disappointing college dropout and that Elvis Presley was told after one of his first performances he “should go back to driving trucks”.
Charles Thorburn is the co-founder of CreditSquare Limited