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When Entrepreneurs Talk, I Listen

I still think Obama's critics are taking his words about business out of context. But some entrepreneurs think I got it wrong. Here's what they have to say.
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I heard from a handful of entrepreneurs after my column on how some of President Obama's opponents have twisted his words in a speech earlier this month. They thought I got it wrong. Moreover, they were personally offended by the president's remarks.

When true entrepreneurs reach out, I listen. I write about this stuff for two reasons: First, because I think entrepreneurship itself is heroic, and second, because I'm personally invested in the subject. As a small business owner myself several times over, I love talking about building businesses and learning more about how to do it well.

I still think what the president said was innocuous, but I want to give the entrepreneurs I heard from them their due. In other words, I report and you decide.

What happened, exactly?

First, a quick recap. By focusing on 14 words from the president's speech and changing his punctuation, Obama's opponents have changed the meaning. That takes them from a passage celebrating the government's role in developing the infrastructure that entrepreneurs use:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you've got a business--you didn't build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn't get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

To one in which the changed meaning suggests that entrepreneurs aren't responsible for their own success: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that.  Somebody else made that happen."

In other words, the "that" refers to "this unbelievable American system," not to "a business." But don't take my word for it; check it out for yourself. The speech runs more than an hour. Here's a link to the official transcript, and to an hourlong video.

Riffing off of the edited "if you've got a business" line is fast becoming one of the primary messages of the Romney campaign. It's unfortunate, but hey, it's politics. It ain't beanbag. Rhetorically, shift happens.

Here was th

Still, I was struck by how personally insulting some entrepreneurs said they found the president's remarks. A few suggested real context requires one more paragraph than I originally included. So, here it is:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me--because they want to give something back.  They know they didn't--look, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own.  You didn't get there on your own.  I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something--there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

On its own, no doubt, that becomes pretty tone-deaf. For example, as one commenter who apparently is CEO of a mobile gaming company, put it:

The entrepreneur may not be smarter than everyone, but we work just as hard, or harder than most. We create, we brainstorm, and we fail time and time again. We brush ourselves off and start again. We are not happy with the monotony of the 9-5 grind; we'd rather work 20 hrs a day building something that we can be proud of.

I don't know what the President's experience is, but I started my tech company as a full time graduate student, while also enjoying full time employment. I started my company in the midst of a recession, and spent countless months seeking funding, maxing out my credit cards and eating bare bones. So to the Presidents point about all that I did NOT do, I say I did all that and more!

Others who emailed me directly had similar sentiments. Most seemed well-reasoned and sincere. I didn't personally take offense from the president's comments, but it's interesting and valid that other entrepreneurs did.

The Man (or Woman) in the Arena

I'm reminded of another speech, also known for a comparatively small passage. In 1910, a year after his presidency, Teddy Roosevelt spoke at the Sorbonne in Paris. Chances are you know the famous part:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know neither victory nor defeat. 

Right on, Teddy R! Entrepreneurs need to dare greatly. You lead a start-up successfully by developing a unique insight to a deeply felt customer need, executing, and acting as a bit of a benevolent dictator. Still, there's nothing controversial to my mind in saying that innovators build on what has come before, and that the government has an important role to play.

So, roads, bridges and the Internet? Guess what? You didn't build that. (Well, unless perhaps if you happen to run a construction company or be a government contractor.)

But your business? Heck to the yes. Take pride. From the moment you step into the entrepreneurial arena, you're a hero.

IMAGE: jurvetson via Flickr
Last updated: Jul 26, 2012

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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