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Does Entrepreneurship Need to Get Real?

14/07/2016 11:22 | Updated 14 July 2016

There has been such a buzz around entrepreneurship recently. We've been told it's time to celebrate the entrepreneur, to get close to an entrepreneur, or to become one. From Government to the media, the message has been clear; take the plunge and set up a business.

It's undoubtedly true that small businesses are the key to economic recovery, and according to a report by Lord Young, the years 2010-15 were 'a golden age for small firms', their numbers increasing to a record 5.2 million, accounting for 99.3 % of all private sector businesses and 48% of employment.

However, I'm noticing a disturbing trend. The concept of entrepreneurship has become so fashionable that I think we're in danger of encouraging our school leavers and graduates to think that it's the 'easy option'. It certainly isn't, and post-Brexit, things may be about to get harder.

In my own enterprise Cause4, we help early-stage creative enterprises grow. Young entrepreneurs wanting advice about starting a business approach me on a daily basis. Many are convinced that success simply relies on having a 'good idea', inspired by stories like that of 17 year-old Nick D'Aloisio, who sold his Summly app to Yahoo for $30 million.

It's just this sort of media story that makes me worried. We're living in an age of fast gratification, and the message young people are getting is mostly about being famous or making easy money. The entrepreneurial world could be accused of exacerbating this trend by basking in the stories of its superstars, rather than preparing would-be entrepreneurs for the reality of what's going to be required to be successful.

The contrast with other professions is striking. If you are training in medicine, you find out very early on that the role of junior doctor will mean pressure and incredibly long working hours. Similarly, for a teacher, the demands of the job are well documented. But for the aspiring entrepreneur with an inspirational idea, it might seem from the media hype that a couple of years of graft will lead smoothly to a multi-million pound exit, where the world of first-class travel beckons and a luxury yacht becomes the just reward.

Recent industrial action by teachers and junior doctors has raised awareness about the pressures on those trying to make their way in these professions, and consequent dropout rates. Burnout in the entrepreneurial sector has been less well reported: British commercial insurer RSA found that more than half of new businesses don't survive beyond five years and the Enterprise Research Centre announced in 2015 that between 2008 and 2014 a total of 5.7 million jobs were lost from folding SME's - sobering facts on risk. Running a business can be a roller-coaster at the best of times, and now with Britain poised to leave the European Union, UK entrepreneurs can't assume they'll get an easy ride.

With secure jobs increasingly hard to come by, it's not surprising that young people turn to enterprise for solutions. It's been reported that more than half 18-24 year olds want to start their own business. A report from Santander estimated that 80,000 UK university students ran a business, and a quarter of these planned to turn it into a career once they graduate. With these trends in mind, I think that now more than ever, it is vital that we are honest in preparing our aspiring entrepreneurs for the true realities of growing a business.

I've met two brilliant and successful entrepreneurs this week, both with established, profitable multi-million pound turnover businesses. Both report over 90 hour work weeks, stress, workaholism, and a negative impact on their relationships and health - and that's for those at the top of the game.

When you invest everything in your own business - time, money, passion and creativity - work can border on obsession, with a high risk of personal failure and plenty of fear to boot. The pressure of being solely responsible for the payroll and welfare of staff each week is hard to put into words.

That said, I couldn't be a bigger advocate for the benefits of business ownership. I've learnt more in the last seven years than I ever thought possible and it's an absolute privilege to support other startup businesses. We need the spirit of creative innovation and self-reliance that entrepreneurs bring to the table now more than ever, so there should be debate, training and support about the challenges of business ownership amongst the celebrations of brilliance. Forewarned is forearmed...

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