It’s understandable, when the media lavishes so much praise on technology entrepreneurs, telling them that their enterprises hold the key to economic recovery and the health, wealth and personal happiness of every fellow human being on the planet, and it’s easy, when movies like The Social Network portray the founding of social networking websites as tense, romantic dramas, to imagine that the life of a start-up chief executive is a lot sexier than it really is.
Anyone who has built a profitable, sustainable business will tell you that the swanky invitation-only conferences, newspaper profiles and television appearances hardly make up for the many long hours of painstaking toil it takes to conceive, build and market a product that people want to use – and, more crucially, pay for.
When founders forget that the primary purpose of the chief executive is to build a company, rather than promote themselves, things start to go horribly wrong: money is wasted, business is trivialised and the language is debased. Let me explain what I mean.
Traditionally, Europeans have been more sanguine about glorifying the business of enterprise. But, over the past few years, something odd has been happening to Europe’s entrepreneurial landscape: just like their peers in Silicon Valley have been doing for some time, European start-up founders are suddenly starting to think about themselves – and to behave – like rock stars. In internet-speak, they’re “drinking their own Kool-Aid”.
Media organisations and publishing houses have responded quickly, offering these wannabe titans platforms from which to issue packages of banal self-help platitudes and books brimming with self-aggrandising waffle. Previously, it was investors and moguls, none of whose credentials ever really checked out, stealing the show – but now the young guns themselves are hoping a dash of the limelight might lend a halo effect to their marketing strategies.
It never does.
As a consequence of this new celebration of the entrepreneur, it can seem these days as though entrepreneurship is just another branch of the entertainment industry: take Bravo’s new reality television show Start-Ups: Silicon Valley; or Simon Cowell’s rumoured X Factor for tech, said to already be in the planning stages and coming to UK television audiences some time in the next few years.
Entrepreneurs who take themselves more seriously whinge endlessly about these shows: they say such programmes trivialise the hard work, intelligence and determination it takes to build a profitable, sustainable business, and that the people who appear on them bear no resemblance to successful founders in the technology industry.
I suppose the question is: do these shows do any harm? And the answer is probably not. Commentators – myself included – have been snobbish about this so-called celebritisation of entrepreneurship in the past, but now the technology industry is becoming fodder for national newspapers it’s only natural that the public should want a bit of insight into the people behind Facebook, Twitter and whatever’s coming tomorrow.
After all, in some cases technology start-up CEOs wield as much influence over people’s lives as national governments. Think about it: does another €500 in your back pocket over the space of a year make as much difference to your daily life as the pictures, jokes, plans and messages you share on Facebook with loved ones? Small wonder then that the power is going to their heads.
There are of course some dangers to the commodification of entrepreneurship. For one, most of the people on these shows and in the cloying, gushing articles in the mainstream press are being celebrated before they have really achieved anything. Consequently, entrepreneurship is seen as an easy path to riches.
And there’s a strong argument against encouraging people into a line of work that eats up so much time and so many clock cycles that it becomes impossible for some founders to hold down meaningful relationships and healthy hobbies. Not to mention the fact that the vast majority of people simply aren’t cut out for running their own business.
Many governments in Europe are deploying wrong-headed strategies, flattering marketing consultants and graphic designers into thinking of themselves as “start-up entrepreneurs” when what they really ought to be doing is cutting back regulations and lowering taxes for the unsexy high-growth businesses that actually stimulate the economy.
Needless to say, the chief executives of those high-growth companies are rarely found on the front cover of Forbes or in bookstores or on the television.
Success in business doesn’t come easy – but you wouldn’t know that from the glut of business how-to guides on the shelves at the moment, which read like nothing so much as dreary self-help books. As with that latter genre, open a business bible and you’ll see that language has been drained of all meaning, such that reading these platitude-strewn volumes is now just an elaborate way to feel good about yourself.
The pomposity and self-regard of the internet industry is cause for amusement in other parts of the technology world. And things are about to come home to roost: the internet has run out of ideas, and now the smart money is turning toward hardware. (Consumers are now demanding the hoverboards they were promised by Hollywood in the eighties.)
But most people agree that even if these books and shows focus only on the internet, and even if they’re a bit bonkers, the net effect can be positive. “The concept of risk-taking and entrepreneurship is still alien to most people in [countries like] Italy [, for example], and actively discouraged by most families,” says Ivan Farneti, an investor at Doughty Hanson Technology Partners.
“Programs like Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice have been inspirational for young entrepreneurs and educative for their families, who may stop thinking their son who dropped out of school to code an app in the basement will end up doing drugs and working at the post office.”
The latter of those two options is surely horrifying enough to support the new wave of celebrity entrepreneurs on our screens and in our Kindles.
This column originally appeared in Corriere della Sera’s literary supplement La Lettura. Reprinted by kind permission.