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Back to Index 12 December 2016

Being an Entrepreneur is easy?

By Prof Margaret Cullen, Marketing and Entrepreneurship Professor, NMMU Business School

SOUTH AFRICA is selling a new wonder drug. Its called entrepreneurship. Its effectiveness is being touted as a cure-all for an ailing economy. Is it the answer we are looking for?

There is no doubt that developing existing businesses and building a culture of entrepreneurship are important ingredients for a healthy economy. The debate lies in how we approach both the problem and the solution.

Even wonder drugs must be administered with wisdom and care. The one size fits all approach has, in my opinion, done more harm than good.

Entrepreneurship has become the magic word. Unlocking funding is not the problem. It is misdirection of funding which leads to ineffective results and waste. Instead of being set up in business, many have been set up for failure. The reasons are many. Lack of skills, no access to market and often simply the wrong personality types to drive the rough road of entrepreneurship. The wonder drug simply won’t work without careful diagnostics. There is no quick fix. Short courses and inclusion in an incubator are simply paying lip-service to the idea of running a business and the failure which results is harmful.

The debate lies in how Entrepreneurship is approached and managed. Both public and private leadership are critical. There must be a willingness to learn from others and to participate actively at all levels. By learning from others, I don’t mean doing what they did, but learning from the process and the thinking they followed.

I have worked in this field for a long time and I continue to be amazed by the number of people who are duped into believing that anyone can be an entrepreneur. The other notion is that being an entrepreneur is easy.

If you can’t get work, it is not as simple as making the decision to be an entrepreneur. I see people working in incubators with no idea of how to take a product or concept to market- or whether a market actually exists. They spend many hours working on something that nobody wants or ever will!

Thinking- or the lack of it- is evident at all levels. Millions have been poured into initiatives that haven’t and will never work. There has to be accountability. Accountability is a fundamental in any business. We also need metrics in terms of learning to fail fast and re-group. The initiatives must be relevant. People chase things that aren’t new or relevant to the market and environment because they don’t think about them. The fact that something works somewhere else does not mean it will work where you are.

And when there are no results and the venture collapses, we are left with a would-be entrepreneur who has failed, is still jobless and very unhappy.

I don’t use the word unhappy lightly. There is a direct correlation between happiness and entrepreneurship. The links are obvious. Developing a business or pursuing an opportunity that is successful is a direct link to happiness. In addition, providing the right goods or services for people impacts on their happiness. Happiness is a highly valued commodity in the entrepreneurial world.

Apart from the prospect of happiness, entrepreneurship offers equal opportunity - but not equal income. Those who are likely to be successful see an opportunity and think about it in a unique way. This critical thinking is often the key to their success.

I have spent many years lecturing thinking- be it in design, strategy or creativity the list goes on. I have also been able to observe how a lack of thinking skill becomes severely limiting. I firmly believe that it is the size and scope of an entrepreneur’s thinking in the face of an opportunity that will determine where he or she might end. Entrepreneurship is hard work. It combines creativity with a great deal of discipline.

So what is the answer?

Here’s one idea.

What does the City think about growth opportunities and what kind of enabling environments are they creating for whom? Is the City thinking about its opportunity?

How about building carefully thought out ecosystems that enable diverse entrepreneurs at all stages to solve real problems in their community, taking the cities assets into account?

These assets include support in the form of ‘being customers’ to offering professional help and leadership. Cities need to chase the big companies but not at the expense of the small – remember that all big companies started somewhere.

Small business contribute to job creation. Let’s help them grow in the right way. With the right kind of support. They will then be able to alleviate unemployment and stimulate economic development.

Let’s help them to be sustainable. That means asking the hard questions before they start.

Let’s encourage thinking about what is relevant for an entrepreneurial ecosystem for the Metro the entrepreneur resides in. Mazzarol (2014) advocates a number of prescriptions in his work, the first being to stop emulating Silicon Valley: `it was formed by a unique set of circumstances and any attempt to replicate it in other places is unlikely to succeed.’

There are, however, lessons to be learnt from Silicon Valley. We need to look at our own environment and develop an entrepreneurial ecosystem built on local conditions.

It is time to think about Entrepreneurship differently. With wisdom. With knowledge. With the right kind of support. We need to be actively involved in creating success stories. We need to let the Big Businesses help grow the small ones. We need to think cohesively.

There is no wonder drug or quick fix. Now is the time for critical thinking, creative solutions and old fashioned hard work.

And then we need to be happy.