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What is an entrepreneur?

It’s not a word that exactly rolls off your tongue. It’s not even a particularly pretty word—in the mouth, it feels clunky and has a somewhat sour endnote. And whenever you write it, you have to double check you’ve spelt it right. No wonder, then, that the term ‘entrepreneur’ can be a contentious and potentially divisive one. Remember when George W. Bush once lamented that the problem with the French is they have no word for entrepreneur?

Some love its associations—innovative, driven, adventurous—while others prefer to be known simply as businessman, businessperson. The reason for this conflict? Well, because as well as being an awkward word, the definition of entrepreneur these days is ambiguous, ever-changing and, to some, even unwelcome.

The problem starts with the word’s ubiquity. Just like Instagram makes everyone a ‘photographer’, blogging makes everyone a ‘writer’, and knowing four chords and being able to play Wonderwall makes everyone a ‘musician’, some people think simply starting their own business means they can call themselves an entrepreneur.

But before we get some expert opinions on the matter, let’s look at where the term originated from:

I said it first

The term ‘entrepreneur’ was coined as far back as the 18 th century, but—here’s another contention—there’s debate over who actually invented the word. First, we have Richard Cantillon, an Irishman living in France. In his 1755 book, ‘Essay on the Nature of Commerce’, Cantillon used the word to refer to anyone who makes or buys a product then sells it at an uncertain price. The word is derived from the French ‘entreprende’ which means
‘to undertake’.

Richard Cantillon
Wikimedia Commons

Then there’s French Economist Jean Baptiste Say—he of Say’s Law—who might not have invented the word but most likely popularised it. In his 1800 book, ‘Treatise on Political Economy’ he said an entrepreneur was someone who, “undertakes an enterprise, especially a contractor, acting as intermediary between capital and labour” and “shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield.”

Jean-Baptiste Say
Wikimedia Commons

Whether it was Cantillon or Say directly responsible for bringing this word into the world, we’ll never know. But since its inception in the late 18th /early 19th century, use of the term has steadily increased, seeing a significant rise since the early 2000s.

Tony Beales – Beales Gourmet

“An entrepreneur is someone who can take an idea and turn it into success. I’m absolutely, one hundred percent okay with the term. It could be contentious because I think to be an entrepreneur you have to have some kind of obsession and a certain determination that sets you apart from someone who doesn’t really class themselves as that. And that can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing. It can be very bad for your social life and for your family, but a good thing because they can see how much drive and passion you have and they want you to succeed.

I’ve had that during my journey. And I think once you’ve decided enough is enough and you can be content with what you’ve achieved, that’s when you can back off a bit, and that’s another part about being an entrepreneur—you have to know when to back off. I know lots of people who don’t know where that line is. That’s the key turning point in anyone entrepreneur’s journey. Your goals change, and then they change again depending on your circumstances.”

Barbara Cox – BC Nutrition

“The term means many things to many, many people. Obviously it’s such a personal journey for any person who goes through it and though I believe there are some common elements of being an entrepreneur, there are also some very personal elements. You evolve as an entrepreneur, so someone who has maybe finished their journey can mentor someone starting their journey but the person starting out will still have to learn every single part of that journey themselves, because no two journeys are ever the same. For example I’m coming from the point of view of a woman entrepreneur—my youngest child was three years old when I started my company and 15 when I sold it. So you can imagine that running a business during that time was… interesting.

There are some younger people coming into the entrepreneurial field without the experience that some of us ‘older’ entrepreneurs have. But would I knock them? No, because I think they are bringing a different element. I’ve just joined a young entrepreneurs group for women 25 and under. Their way of looking at life is very different, and their aspects of how we do business are actually quite different to what we do from a traditional point of view.

So I think they have the right to be termed an entrepreneur because I’m actually learning from them. Business is ever-evolving, we are ever-evolving and so I don’t want to compartmentalise myself in any genre of entrepreneurship; I’d like to think it’s fluid. Who knows what my next step is going to be on my entrepreneurial journey?”

Warren Munson – Founder of Inspire and Evolve, and author of ‘Evolve to Succeed’

“Entrepreneur’ is a term that’s become widely used in the past few years: to some it will seem like it’s a word that only applies to people who go on Dragon’s Den. However, I use the word for individuals who might describe themselves as owner-managers, self-employed shareholders, directors, or founders. Whichever of these titles you take, if you are ambitious and driven, and are on a journey to grow and scale your business, for me you’re an entrepreneur.

There are lots of different types of entrepreneur, and it’s useful to figure out which you are. The four main types—though there are more—are as follows: the first is the innovating entrepreneur, who sees a new piece of technology, a new way to develop a product, or a new way to be disruptive in their industry; they start their business and their journey to innovate and to create new products and services. James Dyson is a great example of this.

Richard Branson

The second is the inspirational or visionary entrepreneur, such as Richard Branson: they have the ability to think and see things differently, and spot and seize opportunities. The third is the evolutionary entrepreneur who often starts up their business because that’s the typical thing to do in their industry; over time they may well move onto creating something larger, diversifying and going on their entrepreneurial journey.

And the final category is the circumstantial entrepreneur: these may have inherited a family business, bought a pre- existing business or have become a business owner as some other consequence of circumstance; in this case it’s this event that activates entrepreneurial spirit and encourages them to take the business forward.”

Andrew Sheerin – Halo Design

“I don’t like the term at all because I don’t like to be badged in any way, shape or form. Bizarrely, I think an entrepreneur who doesn’t like being called an entrepreneur is the true entrepreneur, because they think differently.

I think differently and quite enjoy that because it’s what I do naturally. A badge limits you. Also, the word has been hijacked by the media to mean negative things—greed and so on. My entrepreneurial spirit has come from doing things I’m passionate about and making a success of it, rather than just pure financial decisions. Success comes from lots of things other than just monetary terms.

My business card says ‘Creative Director’ and I’ve started three businesses, but if I had to call myself something I’d say I’m an ‘ideas person’. I see myself as a person who makes ideas happen by having the bravery to jump into them.”

Andrew Skipsey – M12 Solutions

“An entrepreneur is someone who really values the freedom to manoeuvre and has got deep ideas on how he can do something better and make a good living from it. I know some people, even in my own business, who are very good ‘intrepreneurs’. They’re entrepreneurial inside the business and probably destined to be very good entrepreneurs at some stage, but the stars have got to be aligned for your to be comfortable starting out in business. I don’t think everyone is prepared to make massive mistakes, particularly when it means risking the security they have when they’re employed.”

Ross Thornley – Entrepreneur and author

“The definition of something is in the eye of the beholder. The term ‘entrepreneur’ has bevolved over time to be synonymous with certain people, and whether you like that person or not might determine whether you like that particular profession. I think for me what’s changed is that opposed to, say, accountants or salespeople being perceived in a particular way and the whole group being blanketed accordingly, those moulds are being broken.

I’m very proud to be an entrepreneur. I consider it an incredible life skill and I think there’s still different definitions between someone who has a business and is self-employed, to then taking a resource and making more value with it. The latter have something that, even if they were to eventually leave it, would still exist. That’s where you see the evolution of an entrepreneur.

If you look at the culture in China, everybody’s an entrepreneur; their whole thing is about how to make a quick buck. If you look at the Western perspective, an entrepreneur has to have the big mission and the vision and all those sorts of things. I consider myself a serial and parallel entrepreneur, someone who has multiple business at the same time, which brings its own challenges.

One of the biggest changes for me was shifting from thinking ‘how’ to thinking ‘who’. If you have an idea and think too much about how it might generate value in the marketplace, often it takes you a lot longer to generate that value. Now that I’ve shifted to finding the right ‘who’s’, I can build pockets of them within my entrepreneurial “journey, which then accelerates my growth and impact.”

  • Do you have your own definition of an entrepreneur? Tell us, we’d love to know.

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Show Notes: (3:52) The story behind Escape the City (6:02) Biggest challenges people face when desiring a career change (8:02) Generational attitudes to work and career (9:53) Common reasons for people to make career change (11:40) How to find meaning in work (16:01) Can you learn to be an entrepreneur, or is it something innate? … Continued