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So What Is an Entrepreneur, Anyway?

By Justin Bariso | Small Business

The word 'entrepreneur' means different things to different people. Here are some of their thoughts.

A few weeks ago, I read a great piece by Phil Friedman on what he learned about entrepreneurship through his experiences with Andrew J. Mckelvey, founding chairman and former CEO of Monster.com. Phil's piece is a great read and touching tribute to Mr. Mckelvey, who passed away six years ago.

However this piece started a (friendly) debate between Phil and I about what exactly makes up an entrepreneur.

In a nutshell, here are the points that I disagreed with:

  • Not every owner of a business, small or big, is an entrepreneur. Indeed, only a few are.
  • Not everyone who starts his or her own business is an entrepreneur. Relatively few are.
  • Not everyone who works for him- or herself is an entrepreneur. Only a few truly are.

I felt that Phil's definition of entrepreneurship was too strict. I feel like I can instantly identify with most business owners / business starters on a certain level--because we've learned similar lessons through the school of hard knocks.

Phil, on the other hand, believes that "the term 'entrepreneur' has been hijacked by those who want to use it as a positive appellation for anyone who works independently." He went on to explain why he believes the handyman who works out of the back of his van, the bookkeeper who works for herself at home, and even he himself (who has been his own boss for most of his adult life) are not entrepreneurs.

On the contrary, I believe Phil, and both the handyman and bookkeeper he mentions, are all entrepreneurs--because they take on the risks that are inherent to working outside of the structure and stability of an employer. They are also forced to learn lessons about areas of business that are out of their field of expertise (marketing, sales, finance, etc.)--lessons they would never learn (at least to as great a degree) if they worked as an employee at a company. Just like entrepreneurs that reveal themselves to be business leaders and innovators, these people see a need, then work to fulfill it.

Additionally, some businesses place high value on the 'entrepreneurial employee'. Here's where it gets complicated. But if I'm hiring, I pay special attention to the 'back-of-the-van handymen' of the world.

In the end, Phil and I saw value in each others' points, but fundamentally we agreed to disagree. I haven't stopped thinking about our conversation, though. In fact, I wanted to see what some respected sources had to say about the subject, and came across the following definitions of 'entrepreneur':

Harvard Business School Professor Howard Stevenson: "Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled."

The Economist: "There are two distinctive views. The first is the popular view: that entrepreneurs are people who run their own companies, the self-employed or small-business people. The second is Joseph Schumpeter's view that entrepreneurs are innovators: people who come up with ideas and embody those ideas in high-growth companies."

U.S. Small Business Administration: "An entrepreneur is a person who organizes and manages a business undertaking, assuming the risk for the sake of profit.

An entrepreneur: Sees an opportunity. Makes a plan. Starts the business. Manages the business. Receives the profits."

Investopedia: "An individual who, rather than working as an employee, runs a small business and assumes all the risk and reward of a given business venture, idea, or good or service offered for sale. The entrepreneur is commonly seen as a business leader and innovator of new ideas and business processes."

In my research, I also came across the following quote:

Chris Oakley (former chairman of web design company Chapter Eight, as reported in businesszone): "An entrepreneur sees an opportunity which others do not fully recognise, to meet an unsatisfied demand or to radically improve the performance of an existing business. They have unquenchable self-belief that this opportunity can be made real through hard work, commitment and the adaptability to learn the lessons of the market along the way."

And one of my personal favorites:

Rory MccGwire (founder of The Marketing Donut): "An entrepreneur is someone who, rather than working 8 hours a day for someone else, would prefer to work 18 hours a day for [him or herself]. (And one can then embellish it with half-the-pay, twice the stress, but ten times the fun, etc.)"

After reading and thinking about all of this, I stand by my (relatively) broad definition of an entrepreneur--namely, that anyone who takes on the risk of working for him or herself is (at least one type of) an entrepreneur.

However, I wonder if my definition of 'entrepreneurship' as a philosophy is different. If so, why?

Just semantics? Maybe. But definitely makes for an interesting conversation.

Help me figure it out:

Leave a comment below and share the conversation. I'm interested to hear from as many of you entrepreneurs as possible.

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