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Let’s Stop Romanticising Entrepreneurship

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It's not everyone's dream to be an entrepreneur and even if it was, realistically speaking not all of us can/should do it. Click To Tweet

It seems like everyone you meet nowadays either is or wants to be an entrepreneur in favour of being employed. I’ve heard statements like “I can’t slave for someone else” and people throwing around quotes like “If you don’t work on your dreams, someone else will employ you to work on theirs.” First of all, it’s not everyone’s dream to start a company and even if it was, realistically speaking not all of us can/should do it. Anyway, that’s a topic for another day. Today, I’d like to talk about why being employed does not mean you can’t be an entrepreneur or that you have given up on your dreams.

People younger than me always ask me whether they should start a company and get surprised when I say no. Why?  You may ask. Because there’s a lot more to running a company than simply having an idea, even if it’s really amazing. There’s your idea; then there’s forming a team; leadership; capital; operations; finance; marketing; growth, et al. No one tells you about these things in the beginning and no one warns you just how painstakingly difficult it is. As the marine says, “The only easy day was yesterday”. Why would any sane person put themselves through that torture? I’d rather someone be a student and do what students do. Those that truly want to go through with it, don’t listen.

Let’s start off by debunking some myths and we will go with the biggest one which is about young founders.

Successful founders tend to be middle-aged

Research done by Harvard University revealed that the average age for a successful founder was 45. Heck, even Y-Combinator’s famous Paul Graham once quipped that the cut-off in investors’ head is about 32. The point is, successful founders on average are middle-aged. That is not to say that you can’t be a young founder who strikes big, take Zuckerberg — but it also means that there’s nothing wrong with starting a bit late. If anything, odds skew more in your favour.

Employment provides a learning curve

I reckon that I am lucky to be employed while also building my company. It provides me valuable insight into how to be a better entrepreneur and what I can borrow and what I shouldn’t borrow. Some of the aspects I have learned would have taken me longer to learn while working primarily on my start-up, I get to learn first hand working for other start-ups.

I also notice things I shouldn’t pick up, grapevine culture, management, operations, and all these facets that make a business tick outside of your awesome idea. I like to think of employment as getting paid to learn because really, that’s what I am doing.

Financial security

The other thing for me is it affords me an opportunity to worry about the right things. I think better with a somewhat full stomach and less worry about where I am going to sleep. I’ve figured that it takes a long time to crack this space, especially a tech business in Africa. The last thing I’d want is to put more strain on the business salary-wise. I would rather that money goes into paying other employees while mine is sorted elsewhere.

You can’t beat experience

Then there’s the maturity that comes with age. Ceteris paribus, you can’t beat experience. You gain more clarity, more endurance, more network, more capital, or capacity to fundraise as well as domain expertise. It’s like training for the real fight. It takes patience to be a successful entrepreneur.

I think being narrow-minded about what it means to be employed closes people off from the opportunities that lie in front of them. But like in all things nature, there has to be a balance. Looking ahead, I would say the biggest trade-off with starting late is fear and risk tolerance. The responsibility that age brings makes a lot more people cautious and risk-averse.

So maybe being aware of this can somehow help mitigate it? I am not really sure.

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3 responses to “Let’s Stop Romanticising Entrepreneurship”

  1. Kevin Doyle says:

    Thanks for this article, Henry. These are things I think of often when working with youth in Kenya.

    Yes! Let’s stop romanticizing “entrepreneurship”. It is not a solution to youth unemployment. And the word itself is misused by so many. An entrepreneur is more than just someone who starts their own business. An entrepreneur is someone who conducts business by innovating, bringing in new ideas, goods, services, practices or procedures.

    So many youth programs taut entrepreneurship as a major part of the solution to youth unemployment. And in many youth surveys in Sub-Saharan Africa, youth themselves have come to the belief that starting their own business is easier than finding employment. The problem is that they are not being provided with any business skills, they lack access to capital, and they tend to copy what they deem as “successful” small businesses run by friends or acquaintances.

    I knew a young woman who I was trying to provide some guidance to who bragged about how much money she was making by traveling to Kampala to buy clothes there and then bringing them back to sell in Nairobi. I asked her what her last month’s profit was. She said something like 50k. I asked her if that was net or gross. She didn’t understand the question. So we sat down and I asked her how much it cost her to travel to and from Uganda. How much she spent on lodging and food. How much she spent on the clothes she bought. How much she spent photographing the items to market, etc etc. In the end, she profited about 8k. I then asked her how many days she spent on her business and the average number of hours per day. I then asked her if her business was registered and if she paid taxed. When she started thinking about all this she got depressed, but said that she was proud to be a hustler. I congratulated her on her “hustleness”, but then advised her on how she could do much better by 1) learning some basic business accounting, 2) studying her market to better understand their needs and their disposable income limits, etc, 3) studying her competition to see where there are opportunities were not being fulfilled and 4) making a business plan, even if it was simple, so she could make more of a profit.

    A couple of years ago, Safaricom launched a program through their BLAZE initiative called, “Be Your Own Boss.” While I understand that starting a small business and growing it is a dream of many, I also felt that the main message was engraining itself on the minds of many young Kenyans. The irony being, of course, that many of them have never had a boss that they worked for and can’t appreciate the challenges of working for a company with a boss — often someone who doesn’t have good management skills and makes your job more discouraging than it actually should be.

    Somehow, young Kenyans think that business is pretty easy. That all they need is some capital and the rest is intuition. For most of us, growing a business is not intuitive. It is extremely hard work. Successful business owners I know work 18 hours a day or more. A large percentage of them, unfortunately, fail. Often times due to things that are very hard to understand. National, regional, international market forces. Currency exchange fluctuations. Competition. Location, location, location. Poor marketing. Not to mention bad decision making.

    Who is telling our youth the reality that business is hard. Entrepreneurship is even harder?

    Get skills. Work. Work hard. Start at the bottom. Work your way up. Learn how to manage people. Learn how to conduct business. Learn from your own mistakes. Learn from other’s mistakes.

  2. […] recently came across a great blog post written by Henry Onyango titled, Let’s Stop Romanticising Entrepreneurship.  He observed what I have observed over the past decade or so working in the youth workforce […]

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