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Pop Culture Is Giving Entrepreneurs a Bad (But Glamorous) Name

An essay in The Wall Street Journal should remind you of a too-often overlooked fact: Starting and running a business ain't easy.
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How refreshing to see in The Wall Street Journal late last week a real, live, young business leader who hit on an idea that I--a real, live, young business journalist--have long been mulling: Society glamorizes the entrepreneur at the entrepreneur's own risk.

Henry Elkus, the COO of Unlimited Ltd. Clothing, wrote that in the digital age young people don't consider the dark corners of entrepreneurship when they think of staking out on their own.

"Millennials don’t always foresee this impending struggle when they enter the business sphere, and that is the fault of today’s press and popular culture," Elkus wrote. "I constantly meet young individuals who have fallen victim to the Gold Rush-esque expectations laid out by the media. Often, we celebrate the successes of Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel but ignore the long line of smart entrepreneurs who fell at their feet."

There's a term I particularly enjoy for this attitude that romanticizes "sexy" companies, "sexy" stories, and "sexy" ideas. It's entrepreneurship porn.

Entrepreneurship porn manifests itself in a number of ways.

It's the attitude that every new company, or at least every new company of note, must be a tech company. (If you think the next great selfie app creates more value than the new Mexican restaurant in East Anywhere, U.S.A., allow me to counter with a question: What's the longest you've ever gone without a taco?)

Oh wait, that's not right. It's the attitude that every company of note has to be a consumer-facing tech company. It's the elephant in the room that nobody dare mention during episodes of Shark Tank, that anybody who goes on that show in the first place is going to see sales skyrocket from the free marketing.

Or it's the fact that a show like Shark Tank--wildly entertaining, to be sure--is even considered emblematic of entrepreneurship, given that a tiny, tiny fraction of companies ever receive venture capital.

It's Olympic snowboarder Shaun White ditching his trademark flowing red hair in Sochi and shunning the nickname the Flying Tomato because his new public persona is--you guessed it--that of an entrepreneur. White's entrepreneurship refers to his serving as CEO of Shaun White Enterprises. Nevermind that he's still flying down mountainsides in Sochi. Nevermind that he couldn't manage his brand if he didn't build one as an athlete. He's an executive now. That a Gold Medal snowboarder would think it better to don the personality of an entrepreneur should tell you all you need to know about the rise of entrepreneurship porn.

Entrepreneurship porn manifests itself in TED talks and sitcoms, in movies and trade shows.

Here's the real life of an entrepreneur.

So let's drill down on some facts: The average entrepreneur is no millionaire; in fact, he or she doesn't even earn $100,000 annually. Only about 1,000 companies received first-time venture capital in 2010. (For the sake of comparison, in 2010, about 565,000 startups were founded each month.) And, of course, there's that oft-cited data point that only about 30 percent of businesses survive to see their 10th anniversary.

But that's not to say entrepreneurs shouldn't dare to be great. Nor is it to say entrepreneurship isn't important work. I'd argue I'm saying quite the opposite: that we know entrepreneurship is important work because it's hard work.

Elkus, in the Journal, reinforced that point. "Those that emerge from the dogfight of modern entrepreneurship can offer a better product than ever before, but they will be the first to tell you how challenging their journey was," he wrote.

But it's important to remember that entrepreneurship is not glitzy, and it's not glamorous. You might fail. Even if you don't, success probably won't make you a millionaire, it probably won't get you on national TV, it probably won't put your face on a magazine cover, and it probably won't see you jet-setting to Europe for a long weekend on a whim. But if that's what you're in it for in the first place, then you might be part of the problem.

IMAGE: Shutterstock
Last updated: Feb 10, 2014




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