The word entrepreneur is used so often in so many different contexts these days that pinning it down is virtually impossible. Everyone has their own definition, and the one you adopt—or unconsciously accept—can determine your aspirations, dictate your behavior, and in some instances cause you to underperform or fail outright. It’s a classic self-fulfilling prophecy—you’re likely to get what you expect to get.
Among the many definitions of entrepreneur, six currently dominate the popular press, the how-to literature and business education—and loom large in the popular imagination. Each definition, in its own way, can be both empowering and pernicious. Here’s what to look out for:
The Noble Founder. This would appear to be the simplest definition of all: if you start a business, you’re an entrepreneur, regardless of whether it succeeds. Today, there are over 16 million people attempting to start over nine million businesses in the U.S. But even this apparently simple definition brings with it some significant psychological baggage. People who associate themselves with this definition often feel a deep sense of pride in their willingness to even try to start a business. But that understandable pride in taking on the struggle can also mean a too easy acceptance of poor results. Inside the noble founder lurks the noble failure.
The Self-Made Success. Some definitions bestow the title of entrepreneur only upon people who have started a successful business, or at least one from which they earn a decent living. People who see themselves this way can feel a bit proprietary about the definition. To them, everyone who is struggling to make a living is merely an “aspiring” entrepreneur.
Only 30 to 40 percent of startups ever achieve profitability. In the world of Silicon Valley high-risk startups, the chances of reaching profitability plummet to less than one in a hundred. The self-identity of people who feel success is an essential part of what it means to be an entrepreneur are proud of the self-sufficiency they achieve or at least seek. They are more likely than noble founders to keep their eye on the bottom line, but they also can be overly fearful of risk and can underperform in terms of innovation.
The Entrepreneur by Temperament. In this view, entrepreneurship is a state of mind. It can apply equally to people starting a business or people working in corporate settings. It’s all about mindset: such people “make things happen,” “push the envelope,” or refuse to stop until they get what they want. It is the broadest of definitions. In fact, Ludwig Von Mises, a member of the Austrian school of economics, theorized that since we all subconsciously assess the risks of our actions relative to the rewards we expect to receive, we are all entrepreneurs. Because this definition applies to everyone, anyone can delude themselves into believing they are an entrepreneur. You don’t even have to start a business. You just have to behave a certain way, let the chips fall where they may.
The Opportunist Par Excellence. For at least a century, entrepreneurs have described themselves as having the ability (a skill, not a state of mind) to “smell the money.” There are indeed many entrepreneurs who proudly identify their ability to spot money-making opportunities. But it wasn’t until the economist Israel Kirzner, in the mid-1970s, described the core of entrepreneurship as opportunity identification that academics began to study it as a process and a skill. Entrepreneurial education today is often targeted at teaching opportunity identification skills.
What is interesting is that there is no strong evidence, after several different studies, that entrepreneurial education actually results in students or attendees having a significantly higher chance of reaching profitability. Perhaps opportunity-spotters can overextend themselves by doing multiple startups or product launches simultaneously, a problem that can be compounded by a lack of synergy among these disparate efforts.
The Risk-taker: Frank Knight, one of the founders of the highly influential Chicago school of economics, drew an illuminating distinction between risk and uncertainty. With risk you can predict the probability of various unknown outcomes of business decisions. With uncertainty you not only don’t know the outcomes but also you don’t know the probability of any particular outcome occurring. In other words, risk can be managed, but uncertainty is uncontrollable. Knight argued that opportunities for profit come only from situations of uncertainty.
To succeed as an entrepreneur, you must therefore seek out uncertainty. Today, few entrepreneurs know of Knight’s thesis, but many nonetheless proudly describe themselves as “risk-takers.” This identity can lead to taking on more risk than necessary, especially when you see all risk as good and see yourself as an adventurer into the unknown. You would be better advised to think of your adventures as a series of small calculated experiments that turn the greatest uncertainties into knowable risks.
The Innovator: Joseph Schumpeter’s description of entrepreneurs as innovators who participate in the creative destruction that constantly destroys old economic arrangements and replaces them with new ones has appealed to many observers, including economists. That concept is often naively married to Clay Christensen’s notion of disruptive innovation of industries and markets.
See, for example, Zero to One by PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel. This fetishizing of disruption has led many entrepreneurs to invoke the concept of innovation in support of whatever they want to do, no matter the effects it might have on society like creating a “gig economy” of low-paid workers. Seeing yourself as an innovator and regarding innovation as an unquestioned good is arguably one of the most dangerous definitions of all because it simultaneously encourages great boldness and justifies equally great moral blindness. It also results in passing over opportunities to create valuable and socially beneficial businesses that were less than truly disruptive.
All of these definitions of entrepreneur are self-limiting. How you define yourself as an entrepreneur also defines what actions you’ll take to view yourself as deserving of the title. But the only two things academics have ever been able to show conclusively correlate to entrepreneurial success (measured generally) are years of schooling and implicit, core motivations that align with feeling good about getting things done (known as “need for accomplishment”). Pinning your identity to any of the current definitions of entrepreneur will only set you back.