By Jim Beach, co-author of School for Startups.
Ask the average person on street, “What two words most describe entrepreneurs?” and the answer is “creative” and “risk-taker.” Most formal definitions go something like this: “one who starts, organizes, and assumes the risk of an enterprise.” Both this connotation and denotation perpetuate inaction and are part of the problem in today’s economy – it stifles entrepreneurship. Instead of starting businesses, fantastic would-be entrepreneurs are waiting for a creativity lightning bolt and an interest-free loan for startup capital.
Both the perceived and formal definitions are enough to create inertia amongst millions of managers who are rightfully afraid to risk their health insurance and bi-weekly check. The famed garage-to-riches story starts with the entrepreneur-to-be-billionaire getting some divine inspiration from a fortune cookie or random graffiti, casting away all doubt, quitting his job and taking on the “man,” saving the world and capitalism. You know; you saw the movie. But pull back the curtain, and you’ll see it is not that way in the world of true entrepreneurs.
In reality, true entrepreneurs are usually not very creative, and they are generally risk-averse. “How can that be?” you ask. Because entrepreneurship has nothing to do with creativity or risk-taking.
The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, published by Babson College and the London School of Economics, reports that over 90% of the businesses around the world are copies of other businesses. This copy-cat phenomenon is not just happening overseas. It happens here in the U.S. too, and that’s good! There is nothing wrong with finding an idea you like (try Googling “top 100 new business ideas”) and implementing it better than anyone else. Does your bank account care if your revenue is from an unoriginal idea? Does the IRS? Do your happy customers? Do you lose “street cred” as an entrepreneur if your friends find out someone else is doing something similar across the country? No. All that matters is excellent execution – and paying the government its share, of course. So instead of waiting around for creativity lightning to strike, research an industry you are knowledgeable about and interested in, give yourself six months, and look for an idea to borrow. Not steal. Borrow. Adapt. Improve. Because that is innovation, too.
Many business people do in fact take risks, sometimes huge risks, when starting a business. We have two words to describe these people: crazy and bankrupt. Entrepreneurs are the people that reduce risk until the chance of failing is so small that you would be foolish not to act. Entrepreneurs use other people’s money, research industries until they know it better than anyone else, create barriers to entry (partnerships, patents, exclusive deals) that discourage other entrants, sell their products and services before paying for them, and frequently keep their day job and insurance while working late into the night on their new, super-small business.
A great way to reduce risk is to spend very little money to start your business, say less than US$10,000. That may not sound sexy, and in year one when the business makes US$15,000, it may not feel sexy. But, in year three when the business produces $50,000 in profit and you still have a job that pays the mortgage, now that is sexy. Sexy businesses are not necessarily relegated to high-tech industries (thought they may be) – they are businesses that make you money. And sometimes lots of it. Just because a particular idea doesn’t seem cool doesn’t mean it isn’t. What is “cool,” anyway? Cool is multiple streams of income, each started with very little capital. Having multiple revenue streams is the best risk reducer.
And what about risk? Who assumes more risk in today’s world: the landscaper with 100 clients or the mid-level manager making US$100,000 a year in corporate America? The independent landscaper is safer. Don’t think so? Consider this: With outsourcing, downsizing, rightsizing, constant C-level turnover and the uncertainty of health expenses, all employees are at constant risk of job interruptions. The landscaper would have to lose 100 separate accounts to be in the same position as the fired mid-level manager.
Likewise, the entrepreneur with two or three businesses that each make US$50,000 or so is in great shape. Diversification will protect him. Successfully growing a business, no matter how small, in today’s economy lays the groundwork for explosive growth during the recovery.
So, as you can see, entrepreneurship has nothing to do with creativity or risk-taking. The implications of this revelation are profound. If the reasons you have not started your small business involve idea-waiting or risk-aversion, you no longer have an excuse. Starting now in a bad economy will test your business and force you to hone your value proposition to perfection. Start now.