Once again, there's a newspaper article that explains what entrepreneurs are like. And once again, the entrepreneurs rolled out as exhibits are Travis Kalanick, Martin Shkreli, and Parker Conrad. The omission of Mike Cagney and Elizabeth Holmes was surely an oversight.
This particular article, in The New York Times, argues entrepreneurs are "more likely than others to cross the line" legally and morally. Their comfort with rule breaking as adults is foreshadowed by youthful indiscretions, according to research conducted four years ago by Ross Levine from UC Berkeley and Yona Rubinstein from the London School of Economics.
Levin and Rubinstein's work drew on, among other things, surveys of people with incorporated businesses. The respondents weighed in on 23 questions about whether they'd committed various illicit acts, from skipping school to assault. The entrepreneurs scored higher on bad behavior than salaried workers or the non-incorporated self-employed.
Entrepreneurs are richly endowed with traits like determination and risk-taking; they are also unusually creative problem-solvers, according to research by Gallup. It's no surprise they're willing to push a little further or harder than most people. The whole "forgiveness over permission" thing is big with them.
But Silicon Valley's nefarious elite--those outsize incarnations of hubris and ambition--are in no way representative of entrepreneurs. Nor are their jet-black unicorns with blood-smeared horns typical of entrepreneurial companies. Referring to "entrepreneurs like Kalanick and Shkreli" is like referring to "politicians like Donald Trump." The exception proves just that: the exception.
The Times cites Joseph Schumpeter's theory of creative destruction, which "rewards those who upend the established order." In this narrative, entrepreneurs are all determined to blow things up. That makes them rebels or--if you want to stick with the bomb metaphor--anarchists. It's exciting stuff. It makes compelling headlines.
The thing is, though, most entrepreneurs aren't out to bring down the world order. They are disruptive to the extent that they've created something that wasn't there before. The successful ones come up with a product or service that is higher quality, or more functional, or less expensive than what already exists on the market. Most are content to build sustainable midsize companies that serve the needs of their customers, their employees, their communities, and themselves.
Over 17 years at Inc. I've interviewed hundreds of these people. Describing their younger selves, far more cited activities like helping out in the family business, starting car-washing services, or selling candy than assaulting people, shoplifting, or committing acts of vandalism. But then, I'm a journalist, so maybe they just left that stuff out. Plenty copped to experiences early in their entrepreneurial careers when they did something less than Eagle Scout-ish. Typically that meant assuring a customer they could deliver something they weren't equipped to deliver. Some exaggerated their experience. Many lost their friends' and family's money.
Then most went on to build fine, sustainable businesses you've never heard of. They install flooring or clean offices or build databases. They grow their companies on cash flow. They reinvest profits in people and product. They don't make a lot of noise. Those people are entrepreneurs, too.
When we talk about entrepreneurs as a species, we should not focus only on a tiny, explosive-growth, venture-funded subspecies. People may be entertained. But they'll get the wrong idea.