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What is an entrepreneur? Why are you one?

ENTREPRENEUR – What the hell does it really mean and what right do you have to call yourself one… and how is the blatant promotion of ‘go-it-aloneship’ affecting the SA digital industry?

Entrepreneur. It’s a word we see and hear bandied about everywhere at the moment, everyone is one, or is being told they should be one. If you do a quick search on Twitter as to the number of people who include the title of ‘entrepreneur’ in their profile, it’s a wonder how the global economy is in such a precarious position given how many of these ‘entrepreneurs’ are broadcasting their self-proclaimed brilliant existence.

Let’s be honest, there are some important but fundamental criteria for being identified by society (not by yourself and your mum) as an entrepreneur.


You are someone who has put their financial neck on the line, be it your house, savings or little Timmy’s university fund. You have put your existing career or family stability at risk by tirelessly pursuing an idea, opportunity or vision and in turn, more than likely also creating opportunities for others. Prominent American political economist Robert B Reich also defined an entrepreneur as someone who also possess strong qualities in the areas of leadership, management, team building and has the ability to succeed, albeit success is never guaranteed…

Entrepreneur in even its most basic definition is therefore a rather big compliment to give yourself, as you are essentially saying as your career description ‘I am an all round brilliant human being who was clever enough to have (or taken) a great idea and build it through my exemplary vision, skills in people and structural management. Did I also mention my strong leadership and mentoring skills?’


Entrepreneur (a good or bad one– as surely there has to be varying types but that is another article) is not a title you have any right to bestow upon yourself, instead it should be a term that someone might refer to you as, in recognition of your efforts, achievements and the multiple human qualities described above. I personally believe that Richard Branson is of course a great entrepreneur, I also believe that Kylie Minogue has a wonderful bottom, neither of which I’m guessing they choose to throw into their Twitter profiles or introductory conversations about themselves.

The very fact that we can ask the question ‘Do you think ‘so-and-so’ is a true entrepreneur’ and get different responses from many underlines the fact that it is subjective and only open to outside opinion and not your own. Is Jordan a model? Yes, no doubt. Is she an entrepreneur? Some say yes, some say no.

There are of course people like Branson who genuinely are referred to by all as an entrepreneur, who could be excused in justifiably using that label to describe themselves should they wish. But let’s be honest we’re in minority territory here and even those that truly are – thankfully modesty prevails and don’t.


The term Entrepreneur must not be confused with a business starter, business owner, having an idea, freelancing, or anything else that may fall outside traditional 9-5 employment. Likewise the word ‘serial entrepreneur’ is also increasingly making the rounds of business lexicon in a thoroughly meaningless way. You cannot be a serial doctor, serial accountant or a serial entrepreneur without some kind of re-incarnation going on.

This just underlines people’s confusion of the term entrepreneur and starting a business, they are not the same. You can start many businesses good or bad, but you are either deemed to be an entrepreneur (singular) or not.


Also, don’t confuse being entrepreneurial with being an entrepreneur. The way most people refer to themselves as an ‘entrepreneur’ would define my housekeeper as an ‘entrepreneur’ and a pretty good one at that. Whenever we need more help (extra cleaning, gardening, etc) she pulls in her friends and family and takes a cut of their wages.

She may not fit all of the qualities defined here for being a true entrepreneur but it certainly ticks a lot of boxes and she is surely more worthy of being labeled an entrepreneur than most who use that label in SA Digital so easily. Instead I would view her business acumen and practice as being quite entrepreneurial.


So, given that entrepreneur is such a widely abused term in SA which has been so diluted to actually mean anyone ‘going at it alone in some way’, I would like to highlight the danger within industry sectors where ‘entrepreneurship’ (from now on: going-it-aloneship) is widely promoted and glamourised. This buzz and promotion is flippantly given and seen by many as the answer to the country’s economic challenges, which in under privileged areas it may well be, but in over privileged areas such as digital, tech and advertising I strongly disagree.


Firstly, this glamourising of ‘go-it-aloneship’ is irresponsible and should be promoted with caution, not unlike gambling. At least gambling comes with an up-front warning (responsible gambling) as should the promotion of ‘go-at-it-aloneship’ as it is just as, if not more dangerous, not as easy as it looks, and frequently produces more losers than winners.

Responsibly promoting this ‘go-it-aloneship’ should at the very least be to those who pre-tick the big boxes of potential entrepreneurial flair, have a lower risk of failure and crucially understand all of the risks both financial and personal. It should certainly not be promoted to everyone.

At least gamblers have support structures and help lines for when things start to go wrong, ‘go-at-it-aloners’ do not! We have warnings all over any financial and investment adverts as well as the aforementioned highly regulated gambling industry. But what gives us the right to glamourise and oversimplify the fine art of business success with so much financial and personal collateral at risk? So, for those people who constantly promote the virtues of ‘go-it-alone-ship’ perhaps think about adding the caveat ‘You could lose everything!’


My next point is that the promotion of this ‘go-at-it-aloneship’ creates huge talent dilution, not least in industries with an already starving talent pool. There is no doubt that when many great minds and visionaries get together, amazing things can and do happen but when these people are split up, what happens then? You get the South Africa Digital industry.

In Digital, where we already have a huge talent shortage, the very best people that you would really want in your team are already ‘going-it-aloners’ with varying degrees of success, and to be fair in a very few exceptional cases, actually worthy of being labeled tech and digital entrepreneurs (I can think of less than 10).

What this ‘go-it-aloneship’ in Digital has created is something that continues to dilute our depth and quality versus world class digital standards.


It does that by fragmenting great brains and talents through the creation of hundreds of small digital companies or talent silos, headed up by the ‘going-it-aloner’, each of which is consumed with the 50% wastage of running that business. Less time for digital brilliance and break-throughs when you have to invoice, pay salaries, PR, HR and keep the VAT man happy and so on.

More often than not our gifted but creatively lonely ‘go-at-it- aloner’ is the sole driver without the benefit of true collaborative and strategic business and creative thinking, resulting in offerings that can quite often only be extremely niche, spread too thin or competing in an overcrowded and competitive market fighting for the same small slice of pie and in more recent times being at the mercy of the power of the ever growing network agencies.

Don’t underestimate the time, money and the collective brains required to be truly digitally innovative and deliver world class products and campaigns on a global scale. With very few exceptions, these silos headed by singular talent will never unlock the true potential of the visionary spearheading them and the true opportunities the world presents to us.


What we should and could be as an industry is a great team such as an FC Barcelona, World Cup winners Spain, Manchester United or the entire Premier League in football terms. In essence a team or collection of the very best talent made up of the cream of the digital crop, collaborating and working together to create the magic enjoyed by millions.

Instead we have a culture of ‘go-at- it-aloneship’ that tells each of these players that they can easily ‘go-it-alone’ and setup their own teams, make lots of money, all run their own stadiums and cleaning staff and then perhaps a Russian billionaire will come and buy them for squillons of dollars. In most cases, this may spawn the odd (but rare) good team, many mediocre ones but lots of minnows, struggling to attract fans and financial returns and of course really missing that World Class team talent they could have had.

The reality is that the greatness of those original famous teams lie in the collaborative teamwork of all those combined great talents which unite to create something truly world class.

Of course FC Barcelona and Manchester United wouldn’t exist if someone hadn’t of originally started the team, but you get my point.


Instead of blindly promoting the ‘go-it-alone it will be great’ philosophy, there needs to be other outlets for entrepreneurial minded (aspirational) individuals in the digital industry to help us to forge SA as a global digital force.

Companies themselves need to look at promoting and harnessing the essence of entrepreneurial spirit (perhaps also known as potential wealth generation). Offering infrastructure and the relevant rewards, ownership and control for people with the added benefit of personal de-risking the journey with a ‘not so hard landing’ should it not work out.

I believe that even true entrepreneurs can be born and housed within companies, they too will need to fit the criteria as discussed, and they still carry risks which under this infrastructure may not particularly be monetary, but in order to succeed as a true entrepreneur you will always be making some kind of personal sacrifice. Keeping these brains and entrepreneurial drive together can only mean great things for digital or any other industry on the world stage.


Alternatively, in a land of ‘go- it-aloneship’, most of those people labeling themselves tech and digital ‘entrepreneurs’ need to drop the self appointed labels and look to create an ‘entreprelaboration’ approach where by collaborating and joining these small silos of great talents would deliver creative solutions, products and ideas far greater than the sum of the parts.

As a rule of thumb, for collaboration to be effective it requires an element leadership. Not typically ‘do as I say’ leadership but rather a form that is social or decentralized, a form of leadership that can be liquid and malleable. By that I mean where a skill set is strong, a natural leadership will be formed and where that person was weaker they would automatically look to support the leadership of another in the group more suited to particular task with the shared goal of a common vision. This is easier said than done where clearly we have large egos at large but surely not impossible.


The collective and collaborative result should all of our ‘go-at-it aloners’ work with an entreprelaborative approach would surely have a profound effect on South Africa’s digital landscape and its global competitiveness.

Lets face it, these solutions are not very likely, but the constant dilution of our nations great brains in this way is detrimental to a country trying to claim it’s rightful place in the global digital economy, but if you must go at it alone, please do it with caution, it’s really hard out there.


For all of you self-labeled ‘entrepreneurs’, let us instead park the egotistical titles and work harder to make the digital landscape greater. Entreprelaboration can create true digital greatness for South Africa and within that, if you are truly great, there is still room for others to recognise your achievements and honour you with label of being a true ‘entrepreneur’…. You could then add it to your Twitter profile if modesty is not your thing.

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