Growing entrepreneurism is like a magic trick. Everyone is thrilled when it happens, but only a few people know how to make it work. We asked two local experts to pull back the curtain and explain a few things about starting a business. Lois Josefson is executive director of TiE Minnesota, an entrepreneurs' education, networking and mentoring organization. Mark Spriggs is chair of the entrepreneurism department at the University of St. Thomas.
First off, who is an entrepreneur? Some people weed out the self-employed person who hasn't invented anything or developed a product that is "scalable" or could go big someday. Is the person who cuts hair in her kitchen to make the mortgage an entrepreneur?
Mark Spriggs: "My view is that an entrepreneur is someone who brings together the necessary resources to open or start some sort of a venture. It's pretty broad. I look at it in terms of what is the goal of the person, what are they trying to do. A lot of the medtech people in town are building businesses they hope they can scale and grow significantly. Others are in lifestyle businesses, saying, 'I don't want to work for the man anymore. I want to run a business that's large enough to meet the needs I have.' To me, the task is similar. The fear in moving forward is similar as well."
Lois Josefson: "An entrepreneur is someone who takes the risk of starting a business. That is at the base of everything. You are going to find divergence in people who will say a lifestyle business is really just a small business. 'Just a small business,' those are words that are demeaning. They are not appropriate. A lifestyle business isn't likely to scale as some other types of businesses have the potential to do. But it doesn't change the fact that if you are starting a business and all your investments in it are fully at risk, you are an entrepreneur."
It sounds like there is a gray scale, with self-employed people at one end and inventors at the other. What drives the people we think more commonly of as entrepreneurs?
Josefson: "They have a personality that is aimed at fixing shortcomings. They hone in on where the pain points are in anything and say, 'That really ought to be fixed.' They proceed to march down that path if they carry the skill set to fix that pain point. Another quality is an observant personality driven to meet challenges. They are not just taking things to the next level, but beyond the next level and they like the opportunity to connect what others see as random dots. Another type is sensitive to waste streams and finds creative ways to use them. They are developing value-add out of those streams. Entrepreneurs don't just go to work. The unique ways in which they think create a drive that energizes them to persevere."
Often entrepreneurs start businesses with their own money. Do you have to be a risk junkie?
Spriggs: "I think there is misconception about entrepreneurs being risk-taking individuals. They have recognized the risk and figured out how to manage the risk. You try to risk the least amount possible."
Can you teach it?
Josefson: "If one looks at the baseline of entrepreneurship, putting everything at risk to start a business, yes. You can teach someone how to take an idea and carry it forward into a business, putting assets at risk as they do that. When it comes to the other pieces, the more internally hardwired components, like developing the drive to fix something...I don't know the answer about teaching it."
Spriggs: "First, you have to have a passion to do it, because it's going to be painful as you move forward. There are going to be some sacrifices, some late nights, some risk associated with it. The other characteristic we see is courage. There has to be a willingness to walk away from the safety of whatever it is you are doing. I can teach entrepreneurial skills. I can teach accounting, management, finances, all the things they need to know. I can try to support them when they are moving forward. I often compare it to, can I teach somebody to be successful in sales. I can teach selling skills, but they probably are going to have to have passion for selling. I give them the skills, encourage them that they can do it, but they are still the ones who have to pull the trigger."
Can a community make entrepreneurism happen?
Josefson: "I firmly think it can. It takes anywhere from one to a cadre of people in a community who just get excited about the potential and are willing to risk sharing the excitement, and then have the good fortune of the rest of the community not slamming them down. If that can happen, any place can do this. The reason I say that is, when you think back to children, what child have you ever known who wasn't intrigued by a lemonade stand? So, in my mind there is something in us that is drawn to entrepreneurship and if given an environment of support it will come out. [I]f we want people to be innovators and entrepreneurial as adults we have to nurture creative behavior throughout their growing years."