01 Reflections On Entrepreneurship

“You cannot call yourself a true geisha until you can stop a man in his tracks with a single look.” – Mameha, in Memoirs of a Geisha

If most people who call themselves entrepreneurs were tightrope walkers, they’d be dead. You can’t call yourself an entrepreneur; it’s like calling yourself a saint. 1

Entrepreneurship is the last great adventure left in a society replete with the passive, predicated on consumption as a way to express belonging, status and generate meaning. The continents are explored; the mountains climbed. What can be thought has been thought: philosophy, music, visual arts are stuck in circular incrementalism. History is resolved; to be mainly political is to be silly. Only the perennially undergraduate sentimentalists think yet another book or painting or slight variation on a beat will make a difference to the human race.

To be an entrepreneur is the only of the creative endeavours not subject to some white-haired, claret-sipping nob jotting his disapproval in the elitist pages of some dead-tree journal consumed only by other sad middle-aged nobs bunched up in commuter trains on a grey London morning. They are the elite, but of what?

To be an entrepreneur is to make something people want. Preferably lots of people. Preferably lots of rich people. And then to take their money, which they earned through the labour of their own hands and heads, to make them pay as much as you are able to extract for the value you add to their lives.

This exchange in value is one of the most noble acts of civilization. In a sense, it is the pinnacle of humanity. It is value by creative endeavour, money earned, not extracted by tears or a pointed gun. It is a fundamentally moral act, diametrically opposed to charity or taxes.

And so of those of you who call yourself entrepreneurs in your Twitter by-lines, I ask: what have you made that people have wanted? What have you created today that they have lined up to pay you for? Whose yearnings have you addressed, whose cravings have you satisfied?

Until you can show me those people, don’t think of yourself as an entrepreneur, think of yourself as an adventurer reaching for the stars. And when you reach them, you don’t need to call yourself an entrepreneur.

They will call you one.

1. Paraphrased from Michael Longley, who said the same of poets.

About Max Niederhofer ()

Max Niederhofer runs Qwerly. Prior to Qwerly, he was a Principal at Atlas Venture, a venture capital firm, founded myblog.de, Germany's largest blogging community, and was a seed investor in Last.fm, a music site (acquired by CBS). Besides Qwerly, he currently has angel investments in Skimlinks, Boticca and OneFineStay.

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  • http://twitter.com/alickmighall alickmighall

    I love the ending of this. It’s so true. Self-styled entrepreneurs are not entrepreneurs. Enterprisers maybe. The book ‘Bear Hunt’ by Malcolm McClean makes a good distinction between the two.

    • http://www.recake.com Berry

      I agree.
      I don’t even like being called an entrepreneur by others. Despite the fact I have built and sold two businesses. To me the term means “loser”. Now I know it doesn’t, and when people call me that they are saying it in a positive tone, but it’s just what I feel.

  • http://twitter.com/peteburden Pete Burden

    Lovely.

    To me every great company, and every great entrepreneur creates value *outside* of themselves.

    Somehow we have come to understand business and entrepreneurship as ego-led activities – about personal enrichment. About creating value inside a company. This, in my opinion, is short-sighted and wrong.

    Create value outside yourself, and as you point out, others will inevitably give you their money in return.

    • http://twitter.com/maxniederhofer maxniederhofer

      I think you misunderstood me or I was unclear. What you mean by outside value is very much what I tried to say by “for the value you add to their lives.” However, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that entrepreneurs also add tons of value through the jobs they create and the taxes they pay.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve always found ‘wantrepeneur’ to be a handy term in this context.

  • http://twitter.com/ikostar Nick Taylor

    “This exchange in value is one of the most noble acts of civilization. In a sense, it is the pinnacle of humanity.”

    Really? So what % of this site is built upon stuff that people have given away? No exchange required?

    Now… I’m a long way from being a Christian, but even I can see that Jesus was right, and you are wrong on this one. I think you’ve gone a bit mad tbh.

    • http://twitter.com/maxniederhofer maxniederhofer

      I think open source is very much an exchange of value, albeit not monetary. Software given away because it makes things better, because you want it to be used or because you like the recognition. However, do you think that Torvalds et al. are entrepreneurs? I think the point I was trying to make is that there’s something very moral about an economic exchange that often doesn’t get recognized. That’s not to say that other exchanges are not moral.

  • http://twitter.com/MyFriendsHotel Peter Kindness

    “My son is now an ‘entrepreneur’. That’s what you’re called when you don’t have a job.”- Ted Turner, broadcasting entrepreneur ‘Entrepreneurs’ are problem solvers, dreamers and often non-conformists who don’t fit neatly into the modern workplace. So, maybe it’s the desire to create a workplace to fit the entreupreneur that drives the creativity rather than hunger for money. Hence the rise of the self-proclaimed entreupreneur for they find safe harbour in the label without the need to produce anything tangible. Obviously none of this applies to me :o) !

  • http://adactio.com/ Jeremy Keith

    Sorry Max, but my first reaction to reading this was to recall this image:

    http://ffffound.com/image/8b7af9e81142ce19d1fb2f09ecdf2209dff56920?c=2143094

    (but with the word “design” substituted with “entrepeneurship”).

    Actually, that was my second, third and every other subsequent reaction too.

    • http://twitter.com/maxniederhofer maxniederhofer

      Ha, I agree. I chose my words poorly by implying that charity is not a moral act. Point taken.

      That said, I would love to live in a society where soup kitchens weren’t necessary because everyone had enough. That failure is primarily an economic policy failure of redistribution/property laws. Failing such a world, I’d love a model for soup kitchens to be self-sustaining and not predicated on the highly seasonal pity that people take. I think microloans are a great example.

      I hope you don’t believe that my rant advocates letting people go hungry. My point in that paragraph was that the morality inherent in economic exchanges (value for value) doesn’t get enough recognition and that it can be a great motivator for entrepreneurs.

      • http://www.recake.com Berry

        nonetheless- you are right– “entrepreneurism” is diametrically opposed to charity or taxes. Your only grammar mistake was a comma instead of a period.

        When we walk down the streets of San Fransisco I never ever give to anyone begging for money. We always give to a girl playing the guitar, or the guy street dancing– they create value for us and we reward it.

        • Kevin

          I agree with your last point. In East London, we have this guy who lives on the streets and uses metal cord to make things. So within 5 – 10 seconds he makes any object or animal for you…
          He has been around for many years and I am always happy to give him some money in return for a metal kangaroo or whatever you ask him!

  • http://twitter.com/picturetheuk James Penman

    Oh Max, you entrepreneur, you. Make love, have some kids, the last and first great adventure :)

  • Graham

    Options for young people:
    1. Live on credit – go to University and learn from other people how things used to be
    2. Live on benefit – go to the Job Centre and learn from other people how to live on not very much
    3. Become an entrepreneur and learn how to learn about everything you want to learn and maybe earn a lot of money
    Options for old people:
    1. Live off your capital assets and avoid giving it all away to young people who will only spend it on themselves
    2. Live off benefit and learn how to live on not very much but more than young people get
    3. Become an entrepreneur and learn things that you coould have learned many years ago but it is not too late to start.

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  • http://www.recake.com Berry

    Forget all these bleeding hearts. Jesus may have fed the poor– but that’s sure not who he picked for his personal team. He chose to work with people who actually had jobs and skills.

    Jeremy– the image is right– Design can’t save the world. But entrepreneurism? Maybe it can. If we are all at the soup kitchen who is going to make the fricken’ soup? Too much charity or too many taxes both lead to greater hunger. Ask the people in Haiti– all that free stuff going down there actually caused some problems.

    We tend to think in terms of code and pixels– but think in terms of growing a better carrot or eradicating disease or better ways to transport food and water.

    Entrepreneurism moves the world forward. Charity and taxes are both necessary– but are on the other side of the equation. (When you add to charity or taxes, you must first subtract from production. For how can a guy plant more seed if he gives away all his corn?)

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  • http://twitter.com/joodoo9 Giles Palmer

    love it Max – very nicely written…. i feel your fire amigo

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