Don’t call me an entrepreneur!

By Bertie Stephens on November 6th, 2012

I really don’t like calling myself an entrepreneur. It doesn’t mean anything any more.

Maybe it once used to, but now it’s a catch-all people tag themselves with when they’re busy thinking and talking, rather than doing or building. It’s a bit like being a “celebrity”.

Anyone who aspires to the tag is missing the point.

Wanting to be an entrepreneur is like wanting to be Paris Hilton, rather than getting on with becoming Emma Thompson. Or something like that.

Entrepreneurs are just people in the business of doing. I’d call myself a “doer”, if I could get away without the insinuation about midnight antics.

You see, the problem with “entrepreneur’ is that too many people award themselves that moniker, seeing it as some sort of easy-money ride: a ticket to cool.

They seem to think that if they’ve got a half-original idea they can just wait around for the handout from people with money, that they deserve that handout for some reason, and they’ve a right to whinge if they don’t get one.

I see it all the time. Especially in London’s internet industry.

But being a doer? That’s more like what being an entrepreneur means. Or what being a successful one means, anyway.

I’ve never really had what most people would describe as a proper job.

I did voiceovers for cash when I was at school, and I worked on the Harry Potter movies through uni, and when that was done I started a video and marketing company with two friends, and it made money.

I’ve always found that people who make their lives being doers ultimately work more hours than anyone with a proper job would consider normal. Or reasonable.

I’m normally in the door before 7 in the morning, and rarely out before 11 at night, but I’m a morning person, and I still get to bed before midnight, so it’s not all bad.

I don’t say that to sound like some sort of martyr. It’s just how it is, and from what I’ve learnt from those who’ve made big things, things that we take for granted as an essential part of our everyday lives, it’s not that uncommon.

Just like prioritising work over well-being, or eating irregularly and poorly. A midnight tan and a slight paunch might not go with the Sean Parker image, but they’re certainly part of the lived reality.

Like the threat of lawsuits, really. They’re not nearly as dramatic as the one in that movie, and they’re not much fun.

They’re also very much part of the territory. If you’ve got a great idea, and you leave your successful first company to go off and create the next, there is almost no doubt someone else will think – or at least say – they came up with part of it.

They won’t have, of course, but they’ll probably be someone who up until that moment was a friend, someone who was there when you first talked about your next big idea, who was part of the context when it first bubbled out of your mouth.

When you bounce a great idea around it can create ambiguity about what the support and comments from others are worth.

It is entirely possible – maybe even probable – that when you head out and create something from an idea that that you’ll leave someone close to you with the feeling that you took something of value from them.

Having that person try to sue you makes for a tough time, but aside from your family and co-founders, no-one really needs to know. Fundamentally, legal proceedings are stressful, but they’re not a very interesting problem to people who aren’t involved.

When you’re an entrepreneur (and you have to fall back on calling yourself that, because there’s not really another word that works), there are always plenty of people who’ll tell you you don’t have problems, only challenges.

Those are always people with no skin in the game. They’re normally American – and entirely wrong.

The business I co-founded straight out of university was profitable, but I left it to start something new. I wanted to start an online venture that wasn’t built on gaming, or on fun, or on social networking.

I don’t believe in hoarding users for their own sake, or in advertising as a primary revenue stream.

I believe in businesses that generate revenue directly by offering something of value to users, and that generate revenue from day one. Not profit, necessarily, but at least revenue. I want to offer something that people want to give me money for.

So I set out to build it – a group-buying platform that would group what users wanted to buy, so that we could go and get bulk discounts for them. Savings for users, sales for merchants, revenue for us.

The model didn’t work.

Everyone knows that you never get the model right first time, but at that moment when you realise that yours isn’t scaleable, isn’t interesting to consumers, isn’t seen by merchants as a viable channel for sales and that it will never be any of those things, no matter how many hours the team puts into it – at that moment, you know there is such a thing as problems. And that you have one.

It’s what you do at that point, when your idea bubble gets burst for the first time, that you get to find out whether you’re really a doer, and not just someone who talks a big game when the going is easy.

And that’s why I object to the word entrepreneur being bandied about so readily.

Anyway, you’ll be hearing more from me on this site in the coming days and weeks about my entrepreneurial journey. In the meantime, can someone please find us all a better word?