Why NOT to be an Entrepreneur

I have about nineteen cousins in my family that have their roots in Himachal Pradesh. Only two are even in a corporate job. Zero are entrepreneurs.

But about twenty-eight years ago I registered my first company—while still about nineteen—and started an unlikely entrepreneurial journey.

Since then, I’ve distilled a few lessons. The most important belief of which is: Not everyone should be an Entrepreneur.

Praise the Heavens I’m not on Twitter because I see trolls baring their fangs and charging my way. Because my belief is heretical in an age when ‘Entrepreneurship’ is religion.

Today, the government, business associations, colleges…everyone seems to have decided to infuse millions with the desire to become entrepreneurs.

Which is wonderful. And may their tribe increase.

…hoping that ‘Many more People in India should be Entrepreneurs’ is NOT the same as wanting that ‘EVERYONE should be an Entrepreneur’ …

‘Entrepreneurship’ can have an adjective sense. To be ‘Entrepreneurial’ is often a proxy for being self-managed or ambitious. Such qualities are indeed (almost) a universal prescription. But to be an ‘Entrepreneur’ in the sense of ‘Starting Your Own Business’ is NOT something that is right for everyone. Or for our World.

Consider this. Most children participate in sports, and schools and parents encourage the rest who don’t like to. But how many children want to or should participate in competitive, professional sport? How many of those who play cricket would you advise to compete even at the Ranji-level, given the singular focus, monastic self-denial, and hours of daily practice it requires?

The overwhelming percentage of gully cricketers are destined never to compete professionally. Most are ruled out to due insurmountable shortcomings since hand-eye coordination is largely a gift of genetics. Others stumble due to inadequate talent. Perhaps many give up because they lack the willpower required. And most do not even consider it as an option, realizing they’ve more ability in other fields.

Why should such cascading filters—and a pragmatic judgment based on them—not be applied to entrepreneurship? Why should we incessantly drum the message ‘Everyone can and should be an Entrepreneur’?

I became an entrepreneur in India when it was neither fashionable nor easy. So I delight in the funding, knowledge resources, mentoring, tools and platforms that are now enabling more people to become successful entrepreneurs.

But should we fuel a cult of entrepreneurship? And paint an entrepreneur as a noble, heroic figure as compared to the gutless ‘employee’ who seeks security?

I rolled my eyes when I once read a starry-eyed blog post from an engineering student who cited an entrepreneur thundering in a speech at their college: “Do you want to start your own company, or do you just want to remain a bloody employee?”

Let’s stop and take a deep breath. There is nothing intrinsically noble about entrepreneurship. Yes, we can float homilies about ‘Job Creators’.  But which entrepreneur starts a business because he is beset with anxiety about India’s unemployment rate?

Four generations of my family have served with honor and distinction in India’s armed forces, and my father’s brother was killed in action during the war with Pakistan in 1965. But I know that none of them including my father, chose the armed services as a career because they wanted to die for—or even particularly ‘serve’—their country.

Human choices are self-centered. Like ‘This is the only job I can get, or ‘I’m better at this than other professions’ or ‘I did not work hard enough to get into Medicine so maybe Law will work’. While many in the armed forces do end up doing heroic deeds, most of them live lives not much different from Sales Managers in Unilever.

The same is true for entrepreneurs. Yes, entrepreneurs are indeed some of the smartest people you meet. But many are also the most idiotic. And narcissistic.

You do not have to read the six hundred-odd pages of Walter Isaacson’s magisterial biography of Steve Jobs. If you know even a few entrepreneurs, you know they’re not necessarily modeled as friends, as a family, or even as leaders. An obnoxious entrepreneur who ends up with twenty million dollars often undergoes a chrysalis in the media and turns into an icon. But in reality, he remains an obnoxious person with twenty million.

Entrepreneurs are not noble in any incidence rate greater than other human beings. No surprise, just like IAS officers or Doctors or Marketing Managers.

An argument that is advanced for promoting the inevitability of universal entrepreneurship is that soon macro-trends (the rise of independent contracting, global freelance platforms, the trend of ‘acqui-hiring’, robotics…) will compel everyone to embrace entrepreneurship.

Such logic is kooky. Let me list only four of the reasons why.

First, freelancing being equated with entrepreneurship is ludicrous. Sitting in your underpants at home as a freelancer and creating code (or copy, or illustrations, or 3D models…) for a remote client is NOT really being an entrepreneur. Single people flying their own flag and reveling in ‘autonomy’ is amusing. Your autonomy usually extends to how few hours you work and how little money you make. And of course, the state of your underpants.

Second, working in a lauded entrepreneurial venture does not automatically make you an entrepreneur. Even if you were issued stock options. Because entrepreneurial companies often need one thing more than any other: Employees. A typical unicorn today intends to hire thousands of people in the next few quarters. How many of them do you guess they want to chart their own course as ‘Entrepreneurs’?

Third, many of the most important things in the world rely on ‘organization’. No country’s Police or Army is in danger of being replaced by freelance ‘Law Enforcers’. And most of those in coffee shops typing a clarion call for a world composed entirely of entrepreneurs, do not realize that their beloved MacBooks and iPhones would not exist without the tightly-knit organizations that make up the factories of the Pearl River Delta.

Fourth, and most critically, people are different. Some people are content, others are restless. A few want stability, others thrive in churn.  A few want to step up and tell others what to do, others want nothing better than to be the people who’re told what to do.

So why make people itch for something they’re not interested in scratching for? Possibly one reason could be an inverse interpretation of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The primary hypothesis of these two psychologists from Cornell University was that those with inadequate competence additionally suffer from illusory superiority, rating their abilities much higher than what they are. In simpler terms, dumb people are too dumb to know how dumb they are.

Conversely, exceptional people often don’t understand how advantaged (genetically, socially, educationally, financially, geographically…) they are compared to more ordinary folks. This is why well-meaning entrepreneurs who’ve blazed a fiery trail of achievement, pound the pulpits at entrepreneurial conferences and exhort everyone with an “If I can do it, so can you”

Yes, you did it. But No, sometimes we can’t. And happily enough, often we don’t want to.

A few dream of being the Conductor of the Philharmonic. But most don’t. And if every society, every company, and every team has to be like an orchestra, should we not thank our stars that many people want to be only the third bassoon?

So relax. Nothing’s wrong with you if you don’t even want to be an entrepreneur. Dive inside yourself, reflect and discover which rhythm naturally harmonizes with the cadence of your heart.