The Myth Of The Natural Entrepreneur

05 JUL 2010

The Sunday edition of the Times contained a thoughtful piece by Rachel Bridges on whether entrepreneurs are born or made: whether they alight naturally in this world or whether the influences around them as they are raised are principally responsible for their entrepreneurial talent.

You may think this is just a self-indulgent debate. But it is not. The importance of entrepreneurial effort to the recovery of the nation cannot be overstated. The successful exploitation of innovation and thus the rise in productivity upon which the wealth of the world rests, depends on entrepreneurship.

If it is a natural talent, and thus inherently in short supply then we should be scouting for talent at an early age and streaming that talent into an educational programme that develops that talent. Like the sports farm systems, great football players would grow up being trained to exploit rare natural talents. We have an exemplar of that sort of system in Peter Jones’ National Enterprise Academies that seek to isolate young budding entrepreneurs at 16 and teach them in special hothouse schools.

If it is not an inborn talent and is an outcome of how we raise our children, what we teach them to aspire to, how much we teach them to aspire at all, how we teach them to see the world around them and what they might do about it; then of course the ghetto-ization approach of Peter’s Academies becomes a misguided activity at best and an opportunity lottery for the few winners whilst actively denying any opportunity to the rest.

Even worse, if one believes that entrepreneurship is born and it turns out to be the opposite then we forestall looking into and trying to understand what elements of “nurturing” have played the greatest role. If the dogma is, that the Sun circles the Earth then there is no role for understanding gravity.

The current score, if the popular media are to be believed and the general mythos appreciated, is that entrepreneurs are a special breed, and implicitly born not made. We highlight how they are mis-fits and never fitted in and we regale ourselves with tales of their learning difficulties and poor performance in school as though an education and an entrepreneur were paradoxical.

Yet, after two years and training over 7,000 people on the principles of starting a new business and trying to make them believe they can; I fundamentally believe that entrepreneurship can be taught.

The argument that not everyone has the temperament to be an entrepreneur does not wash with me. Denying people the understanding of the principles of self-employment and how the core economic system works and how they can leverage it to their own advantage seems a harsh consequence and further forgets that teaching someone is not the act of propagandizing. To teach them the principles of business mean giving them the clear headed understanding of risk and reward. Thus it diminishes the likelihood that they will take a stupid risk, it doesn’t increase it.

More to the point, teaching entrepreneurship means empowering people at a young age with ambition, desire, and self-belief. These can be expressed in a myriad of ways. You need aspiration to be a great artist, scientist or entrepreneur. And nothing stops someone from combining them all.

The signal failure of this debate is what it forestalls: it keeps us from enquiring into what the most effective means of teaching entrepreneurship are, it means we don’t ask what the predicate capabilities are that we would want to encourage, it neglects the practical support that people need on a long and varied journey.

It leaves the most important driver of the success of our nation and the world to accident, speculation and idle articles on the back pages of the Sunday Times. Just like the UK began to achieve Olympic gold medals when it put in place the coaches and infrastructure to support our athletes between Olympics and finally put to rest the myth of the gentleman amateur; so too we must put to rest the invidious notion that we cannot create great entrepreneurs. Our future rests upon it.

  1. A great synopis Doug. The key point is well made that the coaching or mentoring of an entreprenuer has to be the foundation of the UKs recovery.
    In our company we devote one FOC day per month for each member of staff towards this objective. We ask that the people we help do the same.
    Well done for making this key point , always happy to refer people to your S4S programme.


    Jacqui Taylor

    • Nancy Fulton Mazur

      Doug has stated in his Entrepreneur’s Manifesto that economic recovery will only come from development of new business in the UK. New economic solutions, new innovations that save time, money and resources, the creation of new wealth.

      Entrepreneurs, like engineers and doctors are critical to a society . . .

  2. Interesting article and the last sentence is spot on.

    I think that you can teach people the ‘Science’ of the mechanics of how to run a business and that will give them the confidence to have a go.

    To a lesser extent you can teach the ‘Art’ of managing people as well.

    But when it comes to the ‘Art’ of choosing the right business to be in at the right time, that is so much harder to evaluate and the Holy Grail.

    • Nancy Fulton Mazur

      I think you’ve hit on one of the most important skills entrepreneurs need to develop, and the one that takes the longest to master in some sense . . . Entrepreneurs need to understand _how_ to vet a business before they start it. Doug uses 20 questions to evaluate business opportunities. The questions are the same ones he uses to evaluate businesses he’s considering investing in . . . Entrepreneurs need to understand that every business venture is an investment of time, effort, care, concern and social capital.

      Its worth figuring out, prior to diving in, if a business has the legs it needs to stand on.

  3. I agree – you can teach people to be entrepreneurial. In fact the one most overriding characteristic of any leader is a Learning Disposition I believe. No one can know everything when they start out in business – I certainly didn’t and by most measures I have been a moderately successful entrepreneur. We do need to believe that we can create and support new entrepreneurs, just as we have for centuries – attitude and belief matters.

  4. Er, I do believe they need to be self-taught, supporting that effort can be done but it can’t be ‘taught’ in the traditional style of American education, perhaps particularly in the style of an American MBA.

    • Nancy Fulton Mazur

      It comes down to what the word “taught” means. If you go to UCLA and get a degree in engineering, you’re taught a set of skills and methodologies that will help you do the work of engineering which is problem solving. It is not that you can’t solve problems without that training . . . it just takes much longer. It is not that the training hands you a solution to all problems you encounter. It just arms you to solve them more efficiently.

      School for Startups is a kind of “entrepreneuring” school. We arm men and women with the skills they need to create business solutions more quickly, more cost effectively.

      Doug and I would say, Entrepreneurship can be taught . . . You, I and he all agree it must be learned.

  5. I believe that any avenue taken to help our young people want to achive more, is valuable and so incredibly important in helping lift the UK out of apathy and a better economic future.

    Empowering children to find their voice and their own ability to create positive change. Is so very important today, in a time when youngsters seem to be nannied through life without having to use their own imagination or find their own way out of a problem, whether it be finding a job, skill or better lifestyle.

    I for one may well have not been picked out for entry to a entrepreneur school such as Peter Jones’ due to a nature that doesnt like to stand out or be noticed. I was brought up to speak when spoken to or keep quiet. Even today I struggle with this but as a business woman entrepreneur have to work to get past this if I am to achieve what another side of me knows I can.

    I dont know what the criteria for Entrepreneur school or similar courses is, but I do hope that young people with a similar nature to myself manage to be spotted. Even if they are not the ones striving to trample over their friends to get to the front of the queue.

    • Nancy Fulton Mazur

      Rest assured that School for Startups is passionate about supporting entrepreneurs of every temperment and from every walk of life. One of the things that’s interesting about the School is that Doug has hired or apprenticed almost exclusively those who have previous experience starting their own enterprises both large and small. More than half of us are women . . .

      Thank you for taking the time to post such a thoughtful reply to Doug’s article . . . We appreciate your contribution to our site.

  6. I couldn’t agree more Doug – learning is key – otherwise the world would be full of adults who go around grabbing food when they can and filling their nappies at any time they choose – indeed even choosing the wear a nappy. Babies learn – so do entrepreneurs. There is evidence that inheritence sets a few parameters, but not enough for people to poo poo (couldn’t resist the pun) the nurture debate.

    The key for me, and usually missing in just about every entrepreneurship development programme is continuity. I know so many programmes and initiatives that get poeople excited, fill them with short-term self belief and then move onto the next group. Dealing with the longer-term issues is the hard part and moves beyond animation into delivery and sustainability. This is grounded in the minds and hearts of those who set up businesses – and this can also be taught.


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