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Startup founders vs Entrepreneurs

There are more than a few falsehoods within the world of startups. Most are not worth worrying about, but some are very damaging. Some have side-effects that can ruin or kill people.

Every once in a while, the debate about "startups vs lifestyle businesses" recurs. It's one of those never-ending debates, with one side, let's call them the "scalable startups", bemoaning the lack of ambition of the "lifestyle businesses", and the other bemoaning the hare-brained, risk-it-all attitude of the startup crowd.

This is not the main contradiction I want to address in this article, but it's related.

The falsehood I want to address is exposed when you look at the terms in the title: startup founders, entrepreneurs. Pretty much all startup founders believe they are entrepreneurs. They consider themselves an exclusive, elite subset of entrepreneurs who start an elite subset of businesses: the scalable tech startup. They therefore naturally look down on the wider world of entrepreneurs, who do business in a less fashionable, sometimes less scalable manner.

However, that belief is a falsehood. Many startup founders are not entrepreneurs.

What is an entrepreneur?

It helps to start with a good definition for entrepreneurs. Here I am not concerned with the dictionary definition, which is based on usage. I want a useful definition.

An entrepreneur is someone who sets out to find business opportunities and create business systems to exploit those opportunities for financial gain.

I have deliberately excluded "internal entrepreneurs" at large corporations, and "social entrepreneurs" who aim for social good rather than financial gain. I believe those should be considered as separate categories. Although many successful businesses lead to social good, making social good the primary objective of a venture makes it a social venture rather than an entrepreneurial venture.

This definition is useful because it is broad enough to include anyone who genuinely tries to create viable businesses, but not so broad as to include anyone who does anything of their own initiative in the vague hope that maybe some day it might make some money, however unlikely. Creating a blog or site which perhaps some day could make you money through advertising does not make you an entrepreneur, neither do owning a good domain name, having ideas for cool products, or registering a dormant business. Those things may lead one to later becoming an entrepreneur, but they are not, of themselves, sufficient.

However, the definition does include anyone who tries to find business opportunities (through pot luck, determined research, personal connections, etc) and do useful work (themselves or via employees) that results in substantial enough amounts of money being made that the enterprise has a chance of becoming profitable at some point.

There are many tens of millions of entrepreneurs in the world, perhaps hundreds of millions, or even more. In poor countries, many people have to be entrepreneurs to survive. They spot business opportunities and exploit them to make a living. Because the opportunities tend to be small and conditions are very uncertain, they are never able to scale those businesses up, but the person who runs their own clothes shop in Liberia under incredibly difficult circumstances is every bit as much an entrepreneur as the one who starts a global fashion brand in New York.

Startup founders

Many startup founders are in fact entrepreneurs. I consider myself to be both, for example, though only since launching GrantTree.

Startup founders are, quite simply, people who found startups. They register a business (maybe) and create something that might turn into a business at some point, or even do turn it into a business successfully. So far, they sound a lot like entrepreneurs.

One difference is the goal. Entrepreneurship always has a financial motive. For startup founders, though, that motive is often secondary. They usually want to change the world, build cool products, become famous, have a big exit - oh, and perhaps, if it's socially acceptable at the time, enjoy the money that they've made as a side-effect of their chosen career. The money motive is often discouraged as a primary driver.

The even bigger difference comes when considering the concept of closing the loop. A business is not viable until the loop between creating value, delivering it to customers, and being paid for it, is closed. For entrepreneurs, closing the loop is essential, the main task on their task list until it is done. There is no business until the loop is closed. For startup founders, closing the loop is often secondary, perhaps even toxic (since if the loop does not generate large profits as soon as it's closed, funding will often dry up).

This is not to say that closing the loop is the only way to build a business. Erstwhile startups like Facebook, Google and Twitter, show that it is possible to build huge businesses, some of them very viable, without worrying about making money for years. Success stories like Instagram, Tumblr or Youtube show that it is possible to achieve a billion-dollar exit without having ever closed any viable loop whatsoever.

In Silicon Valley, it is even plausible to make "the loop" be the creation and acquihire of the startup itself. That is a valid model for investors, and even for some founders, though it presents a lot of downsides that I believe most first-time entrepreneurs wouldn't accept if they were fully aware of the alternatives.

The downside of being a startup founder

As I mentioned earlier, most startup founders believe they are entrepreneurs, even if their startups are completely divorced from the financial reality of business. Cushioned under a blanket of (relatively) easy VC money, surrounded by the hype bubble, drenched in startup articles from Hacker News, one could be forgiven for thinking this is the only way to do business in the 21st Century. Meanwhile, the rest of the entrepreneurial world looks on at this incredible machine that takes unviable businesses, pumps them full of venture money, and sells them on for stratospheric valuations.

It's a wonderful system for the savvy investors who know how to play it, but what about the founders?

The downside of this system for the founders is pretty simple: the risk and pressure are enormous. In order to succeed at this game, the game usually requires the founder to tie the startup to his identity. The failure of the startup and the founder's fate become closely tied. Importantly, the outcome, success or failure, is only known years into the venture. Youtube succeeded in a lightning-fast 1-2 years, but they are the exception, and even they must have been under enormous stresses approaching the exit event (Youtube was, I recall, being sued by content holders when Google acquired them). It could have gone very badly very quickly for them. Tumblr was running for 6 years before being acquired, and had, from the sound of it, a failing business model. Imagine the stresses David Karp was under.

Any startup where you're going to have to raise lots of money, make lots of promises, hire lots of people and generally tie your fate to the startup very publicly, for years, before you can find out if you're successful, is going to be a pressure cooker for the founders.

The result of such a game is tragedies like Jody Sherman and Ecomom. While tying the two together remains speculative since Jody left no note, it is fairly credible that the two were strongly linked.

Even if the outcome is not so dramatic as a suicide, such stresses take their toll. Binary outcomes that can change your life from heaven to (subjective) hell are always extremely stressful.

A funded startup always carries with it the possibility that you will exit as broke as you came in.

An alternative

Despite its apparent anti-startup stance, this article is actually not an attack on startups and startup founders. I believe that the startup game can be a valid way to create businesses. Some day, I will probably venture down that road too.

However, it should not be painted as the default or superior option. Choose the startup founder path if you want to, but choose it in full knowledge of what you're doing.

The alternative is to do business the way it's been successfully done for millenia: find business opportunities and exploit them to make money.

There is much less risk in this approach (you know whether the business is working out within months, if not sooner), and it is more rewarding emotionally and financially. The skills are also more transferrable. You can apply the skills of the entrepreneur anywhere in the world, whether there's war (Milo from Catch 22 and Oskar Schindler come to mind) or peace. The startup founder path is only truly viable in a few places in the world right now - most of them in or near Silicon Valley. It could close up quickly if the historically rare, 60+ year long period of peace we're experiencing comes to an end.

And lest someone thinks entrepreneurship is destined to create only smaller businesses, there are many giant companies out there that started as level-headed entrepreneurial ventures - including such Tech household names as Apple, Microsoft, HP and Cisco. There was no guarantee that any of those would become the behemoths they are today without additional capital, but even if they had ultimately failed, their founders would have retired wealthy.


Either path is viable, and if you're determined to go down one path or the other, no article is ever going to stop you.

But if the thoughts in this article are news to you, I urge you to consider which option is more suitable to you at this point of your life, and to remember that you don't have to restrict yourself to just one of those. You can be an entrepreneur today and a startup founder tomorrow, or both at the same time, or just a startup founder. Which of those three you pick will make a huge difference to the risks you take and the pressures you face.

My personal opinion is that if you're starting off from a position of weakness (i.e. you're poor and not famous), and especially if you're not in a startup hub like Silicon Valley, it makes a lot more sense to go down the entrepreneurial route than to go via the startup route.

And if you do, don't let anyone who's chosen the startup route tell you that your business is somehow less worthy than theirs. Both are viable approaches with different risk and pressure profiles.

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