The self-made

shutterstock_150609167Have you met many entrepreneurs?

I’ve spent a good part of 2014 speaking to self-made business people, from spare-room online sellers to property zillionaires. As I sat in their homes and offices taking in my surroundings, I couldn’t help but see some similarities.

They were positive

Setbacks and challenges were expected, analysed and dealt with. Many seemed to filter the world through a solution-focussed mindset, skipping the shock/denial/worry stage when challenges arose. My favourite example? Renovating his first property at the age of 20, one taught himself bricklaying from a library book when he ran out money. How gloriously tangible.

They were restless

Scenting opportunities, not being satisfied, pushing for the next goal. You could see this physically: rooms were paced, legs were jiggled. Hopefully not all caused by my open-ended questioning.

They were unafraid of change

There were admirable examples of people going with the grain of circumstance. Using a redundancy payment to re-train in your 50s and setting up a new business, specialising in a completely different category when your supplier folded, starting parallel businesses when opportunities emerged.

They were detail-focussed

And not just about where the money comes from, mentally adjusting profit margins as we discussed rising costs. Many of those who had delegated day-to-day operations had an impressive handle on the minutiae of their businesses.

They were hard

From plain resilient to not ‘suffering fools gladly’ and everything in-between.

They were often self-mythologising

All were used to telling their story, chiseling it down to the salient points. The prevalence of swashbuckling TV businessmen means we’re all fully acculturated to the hero-entrepreneur archetype. Some were perhaps susceptible to narrative fallacy… but who can blame them?

“I started off in my bedroom in 2005 and now I’m the seventh largest seller in the UK”

“I’ve got 178 houses now but it all started with that cottage, sleeping in a cement bag after a 20 hour day”

“None of the published programmes worked so I wrote my own”

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About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at a communications agency. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Careers, Market research, Qualitative research and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The self-made

  1. Simon Riley says:

    Interesting and chimes with my own experience of interviewing self-starters over the years. Resilience and restlessness, absolutely. The self-mythologising is spot-on and part of why they often seem to take a social Darwinist approach: the phrase “self-made” is the clue. Their own experiences often form a self-reinforcing, looping narrative in which hurdles are overcome through effort, determination, skill etc. Luck is given lip service, but they don’t really believe in it. And the wider supporting environment, the social and business context in which the seeds of their success were planted and grew, is either entirely passive, air-brushed out or depicted as something actually hostile they had to overcome.
    It’s probably quite a dominant trope in business generally – though now being challenged? – that obligations such as paying taxes, looking out for people affected by the business and so on are seen as an unreasonable lag on business success, rather than, say, a natural part of being in business. Traditional entrepreneurs, I think, tend to accept the assumption that business sits apart from the rest of life somehow. Over the last 10-20 years a different type of entrepreneur has been emerging, who thinks in more socially responsible terms. They are still a minority of entrepreneurs, I suspect.
    Crucial to the new breed is a different self-narrative: not ‘look at the markers of my success’, but a more generous ‘some cool people have enabled me to create something meaningful/useful for people, here it is.’ There’s still ego in there but the focus is much more on the thing they have created and what it does. It’s a subtle shift towards a qualitative measure of success, rather than the numbers. They also acknowledge the support network.
    These are different models but I think it’s also true that some of the new breed can start to act rather like the old too – it’s not always a simple switch from the old mindset to the new. Being an entrepreneur pulls you strongly towards an individualist narrative and it remains hard to escape that, even if you wanted to. And why would you want to? In the individualist narrative, you are the thrilling, tough, successful hero …

    • Simon Shaw says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful builds Simon! I’m glad some of it chimes with your own experience.

      Self-narrative really interests me: limiting or liberating depending on circumstances. David Mitchell’s “The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting” comes to mind.

  2. Pingback: How to recognize an entrepreneur? | What is behavioral?

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