Monday, June 4, 2012

That entrepreneurial flair.

We are all capable of entrepreneurship. It’s a question of attitude.

One of the things they say that I am very, very good at, is to play the role of devil’s advocate. So much so, that an acquaintance once remarked that when I die I would have a secure job at the real thing. It’s not an admirable quality, especially in routine social interaction and it has unfortunately earned me a reputation of being mostly belligerent, argumentative and contrary. While age has tempered it somewhat, old habits die hard and Old Nick’s little prosecutor is always ready for action, to be triggered at inopportune moments.

So when Jan Oprins, the Belgian owner of the land on which I have rented an isolated farmhouse, asked me to play this role in assessing a venture he was planning, I jumped at the chance with great relish. He and a small entourage outlined the venture to me one morning. I flayed in with great gusto and at the end of it had genuinely and thoroughly convinced myself that it was not a good idea.

But Jan did not listen and a few months down the line, I am surrounded by the signs of large effort and capital investment in getting the scheme going.

Jan, you see, is an entrepreneur possessing the most important attribute by far of entrepreneurship – an ability to go beyond what he knows with certainty he is going to get out of it. He has some of the other qualities too: passion for his subject, which is horticulture, patience beyond the norm, and a “code writer understanding his code”. The quote is from a Time Magazine article of many years ago, that examined successful entrepreneurs in an attempt to determine the “formula” for their success. They concluded that economic laws simply could not explain this success and that entrepreneurs “stood outside the system to which they are so crucial”.

Jan’s entrepreneurial flair is evident in many other ventures which his website confirms. He has a particular passion for bamboo and his interest in South Africa goes back many years when he intended to launch a bamboo project with the backing of a government agency. This backing fell through, but Jan kept the land, spent quite a bit of money on its upkeep and recently, so many years later started cultivating bamboo. He has now added another venture, which was the subject of my scepticism.

My behaviour reflected the other side of the coin, one which so often nips entrepreneurship in the bud. If I had dealt with anyone else but Jan, there would have been a good chance that the venture would have stalled. But strangely, and inexplicably even to me, now that he has gone ahead, I am convinced that indeed it will be a success.

I am reminded of a statement by the flamboyant Richard Branson which reflects this “incalculable risk” approach often displayed by entrepreneurs: “I never get the accountants in before I start up a business. It’s done on gut feeling, especially if I can see that they are taking the mickey out of the consumer.”

Many of us have experienced those moments when we are prepared to go beyond the calculable “what’s in it for me” and when we are driven by something close to impulse that puts us on a different path and often changes our destiny.

Many books and articles have been written on entrepreneurship. If you add the volumes written about starting your own business, books on personal success, and the auto/biographies of great entrepreneurs, you have a large chunk of non-fiction publications today, ranging from Stephen Covey’s 7 habits, to Collins and Porras’s

“Built to Last”. Yet a clear formula or DIY kit for entrepreneurship remains elusive. The latest Global enterprise Monitor report shows that corporate businesses are also not very good at unleashing entrepreneurial behaviour internally.

Some may be good at product improvement and development but the corporate and big business emphasis on short term maximum returns means that for the most part they will be constrained by concepts such as risk management, calculated risk and cost/benefit calculations, all of which tend to numb entrepreneurial flair. So, as in the past, the great entrepreneurs of the future will tend to come from self-employed individuals and the smaller enterprise.

But there is an important condition that has to create a fertile environment for entrepreneurship to flourish. It is one of attitude – a Jan or a Jerry as in my opening illustration; someone prepared to look beyond immediate self-interest benefit, or another that constantly tries to find guarantees of benefits. Having created a generation that for the most part is driven by “what’s-in-it-for-me”, and will not move before getting a firm answer, we have also created a rather barren environment for risk taking and entrepreneurship.

The “what’s-in-it-for-me” culture has to be remedied from the earliest age possible. The need for promoting entrepreneurship at teen level has been recognised by the SA Teen Entrepreneur Foundation, whose founder Lydia Zingoni writes: “South Africa is not promoting very well a culture of entrepreneurship among the very young. We have to empower these young people into realizing that there are no jobs out there and they have to start thinking right now while they are still young and protected by family. Instead, most government programs are promoting a dependency syndrome rather than self-empowerment and creativity.”

For most people, the concept of “being an entrepreneur” may appear daunting. I’ve always believed that entrepreneurship itself is less important than entrepreneurial behaviour. This behaviour means simply turning down the self-absorbed, self-interest volume and exploring rather what we can contribute, or what difference we can make to others’ lives. We are daily confronted with many of such opportunities. Multiplied over a whole population and inculcated from the earliest age, the difference in national behaviour could be as significant as producing another great global invention.

At the very least, it makes us receptive to opportunities, one of which could launch us into being the next great entrepreneur.

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