03.04.20166 min read

Entrepreneurial Adventures in Missing the Point: Why the Definition of Entrepreneur Doesn't Matter

Is it just me, or is there a lot of debate, mostly among entrepreneurs themselves, as to what it truly means to be an entrepreneur? Why are we always debating the definition of entrepreneur?

Unfortunately, most of these conversations focus on what an entrepreneur is not. For example, a recent post by Leela Cosgrove on Profitalist called “Face It: You’re NOT An Entrepreneur,” in which Cosgrove classifies people as either artist or entrepreneur.

I don’t want to pick Cosgrove’s article apart point by point. It’s an opinion piece, and that’s fine. What I really want to discuss is how we talk about entrepreneurs vs. pretty much anything else: artists, business owners, innovators, what have you. 

Let’s talk about why self-proclaimed innovators and businesspeople feel the need to classify their world. 

Let’s talk about why it’s apparently OK to say this:

Entrepreneurs are good quitters. They know when to walk away.

Artists suck at letting go. They hold on to things long past the point of them making sense, because they care so much.

And even though Cosgrove prefaced her comments by saying “there is no value judgment here,” saying one group is “good” at something while the other group “sucks” at something is in fact a value judgment, and the whole post is an excellent example of a false dilemma. Implying that there are only two options—artist or entrepreneur, reduces entrepreneurship to an either/or, while it is anything but.

Cosgrove’s post highlights a simple truth that I think is lost in all this bickering about definitions: it’s not what people say when talking about entrepreneurs, it’s how they talk about being an entrepreneur—or “not.”

For some reason, entrepreneur has become an elitist label of working for yourself/owning your own business, and if you don’t possess the right amount of risk acceptance, unacknowledged privilege, competitiveness and, apparently, detached calculation from your business, you’re something, but you’re definitely not an entrepreneur.

Why is being an entrepreneur completely exclusive of being anything else? Why is it entrepreneur OR artist? What I want to know is this:

How did entrepreneurship become a country club?  

Well, if you read this Quartz article, it’s sort of always been that way:

[What] often gets lost in these conversations is that the most common shared trait among entrepreneurs is access to financial capital—family money, an inheritance, or a pedigree and connections that allow for access to financial stability. While it seems that entrepreneurs tend to have an admirable penchant for risk, it’s usually access to money which allows them to take risks.

Surely we who share this space don’t wish for the word “entrepreneur” to become shorthand for “privileged white guy who started a business.” (I don’t think that’s what Cosgrove thinks or is asserting in her article. But I do think that the constant bickering around narrowing the definition of entrepreneur will eventually narrow it into the aforementioned undesirable shorthand, whether it’s intentional or not.)

Here’s why it really matters how we talk about people: The more restrictive we make the label entrepreneur, the more people we exclude. In fact, most entrepreneurs rely on help from and collaboration with others like them. Getting into the game of who’s an entrepreneur and who’s “just” a business owner or “just” an artist creates a chasm among people who probably have more commonalities than differences.

It also makes being a “true entrepreneur” seem purer by imbuing that label with traits that are meant to sound more admirable, like taking “going all in” instead of working for someone else (unless they’re working for free) or being “good leaders” instead of being passionate. These traits are not inherently better or worse, they’re just traits, and they are so personal that there’s almost no way to draw a clear definition, so whether one “is” or “is not” an entrepreneur is decided by solely subjective virtues (which usually validate the person dictating them).

Being an entrepreneur isn’t about purity or an arbitrary metric of risk (while an entrepreneur is by definition willing to take risk, we can’t quantify what’s “enough” risk nor qualify risk by what’s a “real” risk and what’s “not.”) 

Most of the time, there’s a host of other factors aside from risk at play; a lot of people become entrepreneurs to follow a dream, whether that dream is to disrupt an industry, solve other people’s problems, build and sell a company, spend more time with their family, or to do the thing they love until they die. Being an entrepreneur is not conditional on the why people started their business—it’s the having of one’s own business that matters. 

There’s a vast array of entrepreneurial types out there. Why, why, why are we trying so hard to narrow the label? What do we truly gain by doing so? More importantly, what do we lose?

Because while there are plenty of entrepreneurs out there with family money and top-tier connections (and there’s nothing wrong with that), there are plenty of people out there who are standing up to a lot of risk without a substantial safety net. Some of them might have a lot of passion for their business, some of them might be running it with the intention to sell. Some of them might be working day jobs or holding onto a few contract jobs to make sure their rent is paid. 

So my question to Cosgrove, to Gary Vaynerchuk, to anyone saying that an entrepreneur is a very specific subset of unquantifiable traits, is this: Why is it so important to put people in such narrow boxes? 

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