There is a difference between an entrepreneur and small-business owner.
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We have gotten a bit carried away with the “entrepreneur” label. Stop it. So many business people are now considered entrepreneurs that it is now easier to figure out who’s who if we just have the non-entrepreneurs raise their hands.
Too often, I see people confusing entrepreneurs with small-business owners. A lot more people are qualified to run a Jamba Juice than take companies from inception, through market traction, funding, growth and eventual IPO or exit.
As someone who has founded a number of startups and had successful acquisitions, I am an entrepreneur. Our characteristics have been documented, analyzed, listed endlessly, and mostly, it’s all missed the point. We need to understand the differences between the two.
These fundamental definitions and an understanding of their roles will shape the future economy with more force than we may realize.
The entrepreneurs I know…
The fruit of an entrepreneur's labor is the insatiable need for more, more and more. We can’t stop, and we’re not being hyperbolic when we say that.
Despite the purveying assumption, entrepreneurs are far from fearless. In fact, entrepreneurs are less driven by some moral authority or economic reward and more by the paralyzing fear of failure and the fear of missed opportunity. The true fear is not living up to what the entrepreneur truly believes is the maximized opportunity. This fear of perceived failure is worse than failure itself. Silicon Valley types don’t celebrate failure, because they’re full of themselves; they celebrate it because it’s too hard to look at themselves in the mirror when they fail.
The concept of “failing forward” or “you aren’t pushing hard enough if you aren’t failing” are all mantras that make some entrepreneurs too happy to just continue to rinse and repeat the venture life-cycle.
Nonetheless, VC funding pours in, and the population of “entrepreneurs” continues to grow. There’s no shortage of incubators accelerators and free infrastructure (increasing at an average of 50% each year between 2008 and 2014) to support our efforts and feed our endeavors.
X (previously Google X) says that “instead of a mere 10 percent gain, a moonshot aims for a 10x improvement over what currently exists. The combination of a huge problem, a radical solution to that problem, and the breakthrough technology that just might make that solution possible, is the essence of a moonshot.” What’s missing here is the fact that it takes an entrepreneur’s Draconian thirst to add 10x the ambition with no predefined path, a healthy amount of someone else’s money, and the ability to convince others to join them on the crazy journey.
Those are the entrepreneurs I know. And if nothing else, that description is more accurate than what we’ve been hearing for the past decade. Entrepreneurs don’t dare to be different, they are different.
You might be a small-business owner if…
Small-business owners, on the contrary, build businesses incrementally, bit by bit. They often solve smaller, localized problems with their business and are not looking to radically move the needle. They’re the broad base of employment in America for this reason -- they cover a lot of surface area, but aren’t disrupting the status quo, creating entire new fields, or accelerating an entire market forward.
Small-business owners seek lower risk -- if it’s a moonshot, it’s by accident. It all tracks back to a timeline that maps far beyond that of entrepreneurs. Small businesses are created with the goal of sustaining a living for the owners and their employees. There’s nothing special or serial about them.
These are the people you should ask about work-life balance in an interview.
Furthermore, their products and services often live in the realm of known and established offerings. They live and operate in their local community first and foremost. The local automotive store down the street who’s been there for 50 years? The one who just opened up who will be there for another 50? Those are both small-business owners, tokens of their community who’s definition of winning comes down to how confident they’ll be opening their doors tomorrow. Their broken definition of winning is really about surviving and relative thriving but not truly winning.
The VCs aren’t there to back them or their 15 percent growth models, their march to profitability is a steady cadence of tactical steps in a defined direction with low risk with even lower return. While that direction may change, it’s not at the whim of the market or investor pressure. There is also little pivoting or course correction because small-business owners aren’t looking to discover a new world, but instead just happy with walking the well-established path.
Interestingly, bigger isn’t always better for them. It’s the one facet of their business that has held lasting value with customers through the years. Thinking and branding small and local has helped small businesses weather an onslaught of competition from big box stores and franchises for decade. In fact, according to the US Small Business Administration, small businesses currently make up 48 percent of US employees. They also make up 99.7 percent of US businesses.
If entrepreneurs are our economy’s moonshots, small business owners are the gravity that keeps our system grounded.
Decoupling is the only way
While both entrepreneurs and small-business owners may have some similar entrepreneurial genes at their core, we can’t ignore the differences between the two that ultimately define their role in our economy. We shouldn’t be angry that everyone isn’t an entrepreneur, but celebrate it. The world and economy needs balance.
Entrepreneurs, at their core, are rare, transformative and risky. They are going to propel the society forward with big leaps of creative disruption. Small-business owners give us a stable base that de-risks the moonshots and protects us from the fallout of failures.
I’m not asking you to make a value judgement of one over the other, but consider this: we’ve been encouraging people to become entrepreneurs for decades and the startup failure rate has reached 90 percen.
We shouldn’t want everyone to be an entrepreneur. It’s not about separating the professionals from the amateurs, either. It’s about responsible approaches to economic growth and societal change.
Let the change agents do the change -- real entrepreneurs are well-suited to shape the future. We need small-business owners to anchor our present, and too many of them are being lured away from that important work by an inauthentic, woefully misguided perception of what it means to be an entrepreneur.
We need to strike the right balance of the two, and that starts with vocabulary and perceptions. Imagine if all businesses had a 90 percent failure rate? What if no businesses made giant breakthroughs? When the balance between small business people and entrepreneurs gets out of whack, we can do remarkable harm.
The best way to prevent that is to stop pretending you’re something you’re not.