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Understanding entrepreneurs: what the government should realize

posted May 20, 2010, 5:33 PM by Marc Dangeard   [ updated Jun 4, 2010, 9:27 AM ]
2010 is the year of the entrepreneur, because we need jobs and jobs will come from many small businesses that we need to create and grow. It will take more than one year but it is good to get started as soon as possible. The problem is that there is no clear definition of what an entrepreneur is. Some people will even argue that you cannot train entrepreneurs, either you are born with the right DNA or not. So what should the government do? How can you create entrepreneurs on a large scale?
The real problem in this discussion is the system itself, which is not geared to help entrepreneurs because they do not fit into this system. The way we tend to think within the current system does not work for entrepreneurship. We have been living in an industrial age where we are trained to think about efficiency and scalability of processes. Your car can be any color you want as long as it is black. In this industrial age, the manager is king, he is responsible (and sometimes accountable too) for making sure that the right processes are being implemented in the right places.
In a world of process where managers rule there is not much room for individual initiative and entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs are the ones who innovate and create, but statistically and on average they are not the most successful financially. The maturation process for an entrepreneur is very chaotic, it includes a zest of luck, and the reality is that most of the time it is the odd individual who gets started on that path, because he/she does not fit otherwise. So just like in any population you will have a small percentage of drug addicts, you also have a small percentage of entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile what has been happening in the recent years is the rise of the peer-to-peer civilization. Information and knowledge are flowing more freely, empowering the people at the edge of the network. The cost of knowledge infrastructure has dropped down to being free most of the time. The promise of the internet is slowly being fulfilled, and we are just starting to see the real benefits and impact. We hear about stories of crowdsourcing, the power of networks, prosumers etc... and things are starting to fall into place.
In this world where information and knowledge flow freely, the open source community has shown us that it is possible to have a very large number of people with no formal hierarchy create very complex systems. A lot of creativity coming from many various and unexpected places resulting in a very powerful system. This is a world of geeks who do not accept the limitations of copyright rules (right to own - scarcity thinking) and choose to work with a licensing model that gives everyone the right to use: abundance thinking. These geeks are entrepreneurs in their own field, and they are showing us a way out of the current systemic crisis. Beyond open source, technology is opening up opportunities for all stakeholders within a value chain to participate in the process.
In such a world, what we need are no longer managers making sure processes are implemented, but leaders capable of empowering their followers so that the group as a whole can grow. These leaders are entrepreneurs and educators, providing vision and tools allowing the rest of us to thrive. They use "governance" rather than "management" to channel the energy.

In this current context, the government recently launched a series of Entrepreneurship summit. This is a great step forward.
But who gets invited? From what I have seen, they are people who are part of the problem just as much as they would like to be part of the solution, because they are at the heart of the very system that we need to change: they are the same managers, government people, bankers, VCs and other people who gravitate around entrepreneurs, plus the successful entrepreneurs who may have forgotten what it is to live in the trenches.
And what do they come up with? An e-mentor corp that will give entrepreneurs access to mentors who will help them - a great concept and a great start, but also a slippery slope because it sounds a bit like patronizing. Mentoring implies that there are those who know and there are others. But with entrepreneurship, every new venture is a new challenge and while previous experience definitely helps, there is no guarantee that it is enough to make a difference.

What entrepreneurs need is not mentoring, it is peer-support: we do not need to be taught what has worked for others in different times and contexts, we need to hear stories of what has happened in similar situations so that we can decide what is the best next step for us within our own current context. Empowerment through knowledge sharing rather than education. And if you go down that path (peer support with the proper governance), I believe that anybody with a project in mind can be grown into an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is no longer a world of odd inidviduals who do not fit into the corporate system, it becomes a world of individuals empowered to grow their own ideas into a sustainable business providing valuable products and services for the ecosystem. Peer to peer at its best.

The good news is that entrepreneurs are not waiting for the government to help themselves. Organizations like Entrepreneur Commons, StartupWeekend, First Tuesday, Founders Institute, Startup School, 1M/1M, Springstage, Techstars, Venture Hacks, etc... are already busy implementing programs that successfully deliver real value and support to entrepreneurs. 
Hopefully the next Entrepreneurship summit will include all of these organization - not just through an invitation to participate, but through the allocation of the proper means and resources so that they can attend and share their own grass root experience. This would be a much clearer message to entrepreneurs that help is on the way.