Gregg Fairbrothers is an adjunct professor of Business Administration at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business and founding director of the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network.
My co-author in another opinion column, Catalina Gorla, wrote me in an E-mail Wednesday:
I was reading today about this angel fund that purports to focus on mentoring, so they basically exchange equity for "advice." I think the larger lack is in knowledge—we see it in this really weird race to just start a business. This may just be the skeptic in me talking, but people encouraging others to start companies for the sake of starting companies seems wrong to me. Can you really distill the entrepreneurial process into something so well-defined? It's like those people who've distilled the person of Steve Jobs into a manual anyone can pick up and learn—oh bother!
I think you can see why anyone would want a co-author like Catalina.
There's a lot in this short collection of opinions. Take one: "this really weird race to just start a business." It's so interesting. If you were to randomly survey a statistically significant number of Americans today, you would find that between 60 and 80 percent of them would say they have at least once in their lives had an idea for a business and thought about starting it. Actually this has been done a number of times, and the results are remarkably consistent. Yet in a given year well under half a percent of Americans actually start a business. There is no good data on how many more people work on an idea but never start a business that can be counted by government counters. If our experience is any guide, the number is many times that fraction of a percent. There's no shortage of ideas and it's not clear there's been a recent surge.
Today there's a lot of fluff around the thrill and importance of coming up with ideas for businesses. Much of it is little more than that—fluff. Most first-time entrepreneurs need money to start up, sure. But even more, they need to know what to do and why they are doing it. Supply and demand being what they are, advice abounds: accelerators, incubators, boot camps, or whatever else. The idea is to give knowledge, access to networks, exposure to investors, all in X number of easy steps and intense weeks, and then…good luck.
The intention is well meaning, I suppose. It's well understood among longtime entrepreneurs that ideas don't create success. Execution creates success. As Howard Stevenson wrote, "There are innovative thinkers who never get anything done; it is necessary to move beyond the identification of opportunity to its pursuit. " The more important question is: What does execution look like?
So the question Catalina raises is important to think about: Do we really need more people having ideas to start businesses? Maybe. But we definitely need more execution: more people deciding today to be more entrepreneurial. How can we help with that? That is, how do we help ideas turn into successes?
The key ingredient in turning ideas into successes is learning first how to be more entrepreneurial. This is no scientific opinion, but here's what Catalina and I think a lot about these days: We think the word entrepreneur diverts you away from the most important focus. We should be thinking about entrepreneurial—because adjectives describe traits, things people can have more or less of, attributes we can apply in varying degrees in many different situations. Even if you aren't the start-in-the-garage (or the accelerator), full-time, Raman-eating entrepreneur, you can still add value by being entrepreneurial in all sorts of situations and companies—by being opportunity-driven, creative, execution-focused, getting things done with resources you don't control. Think how valuable that is in any context, especially the ones all around you every day, wherever you are.
Entrepreneurial people see solutions where most people see only problems. They don't wait for someone else to tell them what to do; they just take an idea that could be valuable and get things done. And you'd be surprised where you can find them. How do you learn to do that? Well, that's another story, for another column maybe. Catalina has some ideas about that. And it does start with ideas.