The heresy of telling new entrepreneurs they are wrong

By Neil Patrick

I know a lot of people who are starting businesses these days. It’s partly because of what I do and partly because my networking means I inevitably meet a lot of them. And I enjoy it. I get genuinely excited hearing about people’s plans and ideas and I love helping them improve and refine them.

But there’s something which troubles me. It’s the idea that anyone can become an entrepreneur and anyone can make a fortune this way. Both these notions are wrong. Not wrong because people shouldn’t aspire, but wrong in terms of what people’s goals and expectations are.

The media focus on business success stories and the absolute armies of people selling stuff to ‘help’ businesses succeed, support and encourage these aspirations. Which is fine, except if a business is doomed to fail. Which sadly is the majority. Long before this happens, any wise and caring counselor would say to them, ‘No. You’re wrong. This will NOT work. Stop wasting your time, money and energy on this RIGHT NOW.”

But we live in a society where such counsel is chastised as negativity. As lack of belief. As discouragement. For people who need and deserve encouragement. Even governments and government agencies attempt in their own bureaucratic ways to support entrepreneurs.

And because setting up and growing a business is truly hard work, most successful entrepreneurs tell us that the unwavering belief of someone else meant everything when they were so worn down and frustrated that they just wanted to quit. That belief and support kept them going. And they went on to achieve great success in the end.

People lap this up. It’s become a business start-up archetype. A rags to riches fairy tale that is deeply seductive. Just keep going. Never quit. And eventually you will succeed. It’s a simple and powerful idea that permeates so much of what we are told about entrepreneurship.

Yes commitment, passion, belief and sheer hard work are all essential for successful entrepreneurs. But no amount of these things will make up for a business idea that is so full of holes and flaws that if it were a ship, it would sink in the harbour.

Most people that new entrepreneurs meet want to sell them something. Even if that something is dressed up as ‘help’. This vested interest means no-one is likely to tell them that their business plan sucks. That it has some terrible flaw that will kill it dead. On the contrary, they express entirely fake enthusiasm, either because they cannot see the problems, or if they can, they are sure as hell are not going to mention it for fear of losing a bit of earning potential before the whole thing collapses.

So why would anyone want to become an entrepreneur? Part of the answer these days lies in the difficulty of finding and retaining a relatively secure and well paid job. People lose their jobs and think, “do I really want to go back to anything like that again?” Often the answer is “No”. So that leads inevitably to the idea of self-employment. Which in turn leads people to start up companies.

But start-up businesses have a truly dreadful record of success. Depending on who you listen to, around 80% fail in their first three years. They fail for all sorts of reasons, but one is that people might be very experienced at what they do, but have absolutely no-experience of setting up a business, let alone growing one.

Another is that what they aspire to be and what they actually are, are so far removed from reality that they chase the wrong dream. They lack the self-awareness to determine where their true talents really lie. It’s much better (and more profitable) to be a great version of you, than a second rate impersonation of someone else.

But the greatest failing is our fantasy notion of what success looks like. Business success isn’t about fabulous riches, business empires or fame. Success is about figuring out a way that your work rewards you in a way that enables you to live the life you want on your terms. And the best way I know to do that is not to become a slave to some idealized fantasy of what an entrepreneur is but just to earn our living independently by being the absolute best version of ourselves that we possibly can.

And by making sure your advice comes from someone who knows and cares enough to tell you when you've got it wrong.

Jim Clifton, former CEO of Gallup and author of 'The Coming Jobs War' has one of the most insightful (and least viewed videos) on YouTube about the problems with entrepreneurship in the US today, and its consequences for jobs and society. Clearly there is no correlation between brilliant insight and social media popularity!

Ignore the mass media herd, this is the information that matters:


  1. He had a lot to say and said it with authority borne of strong scientific sampling.

    1. I agree Jim. Opinions are one thing. Facts are another.But most of all,Jim C. has absolutely no vested interests in promoting any viewpoint. Cynics might suggest he wants to sell more copies of his book, but I'm sure that even 10,000 book sales is small change to him.

  2. Great post Neil. I can personally attest to the reality of entrepreneurship, it's not a bed of roses, it's hard work which takes time to develop and grow. It's not for the feint of heart. However if you're in it for the long haul you will be okay... Success takes time for most!

    1. Absolutely agree Donna-Luisa. The danger in my view is when persistance isn't tempered with realism. Some things are just never going to work. And the sooner we spot them the better. So we must adapt, revise, refresh, but never quit! :-)