Mind the Gap: Myth vs. Reality in the Entrepreneurial Realm

A touch of paranoia is not a bad thing

Today, it's impossible to escape the mythology of the entrepreneur. Whether it's a celebrity turned brand-builder, a start-up podcast or the latest episode of Shark Tank—it's all around us. Robert Thompson, a pop-culture professor at Syracuse University, says entrepreneurs are "taking up a larger and larger role in our aspirational lives."

In our industry, we're seduced by creating a start-up culture and telling our employees to "think like a founder." We build incubator agencies and talk about seed funding. In the world of marketing, entrepreneur-speak is everywhere.

There's only one problem. The brand of entrepreneurship that's peddled in our industry can feel distant from the experience founders have each day. And this is resulting in a curious phenomenon—we're talking about entrepreneurship more than ever, but probably failing to learn the right lessons from it.

I've been an entrepreneur in both the U.S. and U.K. I've experienced the lows of a failed business and the highs of selling one. In the process, I’ve hired, collaborated with and learned from dozens of brilliant women and men in business, social enterprises and beyond. Some of these leaders have been stereotypical entrepreneurs: young, cocksure, leading start-ups. But just as many have been introverts, over the age of 60 or execs at leading corporations. The image of entrepreneurs in the public imagination is outdated, as are some of the lessons we take from them.

Here are three things I learned from my time in start-ups that can help marketing leaders build stronger agencies, client relationships and creative influence.

Only the paranoid survive

Entrepreneurs—especially on screen—are portrayed with steely imperturbability. They seem so confident in their ideas as to never worry.  But in a study of the key personality traits of entrepreneurs, the Harvard Business Review found a surprising characteristic consistently rose to the top: neuroticism. Specifically, feelings of anxiety, tension and nervousness.

The most effective entrepreneurs I've met are confident, but they are not without moments of deep anxiety. They have what I would call a high degree of "healthy paranoia." Even when successful, they take nothing for granted and treat every negative indicator, competitive threat and client complaint seriously.

They are particularly nervous about the future, even while remaining optimistic. This nervousness is in fact a superpower. They're excellent at peering around corners to anticipate problems that have not yet materialized. This ingrained, anticipative thinking—fueled by ambition, and yes, paranoia—is also a trait I notice in the best client leaders at agencies.

Cultivate collective will as much as individual ambition

When I founded my first creative agency—Mash, in London–I had a brilliant co-founder named Jonathan Williams. From the outset, it was a collaborative enterprise. But that agency did not truly flourish until we expanded. It was when we were surrounded by a wider cohort—who scrutinized our ideas, relentlessly picked holes in the business model, brought different professional backgrounds and lived experiences—that we grew. They made us better, and were a constant reminder that I have never created a great idea alone.

The "Great Man" theory of history states that behind every accomplishment there is a lone-wolf genius. But most great feats—from the recent moon landing to LLM design—have been collective accomplishments, not individual ones. It's about a group of people (and certainly not only groups of men) working with an almost scary degree of unity towards an audacious goal.

The real lesson of entrepreneurship is not about how to channel individual genius. It's about building collective, almost obsessive will around a shared objective.

Obsessed by value creation

In a world of abundance, entrepreneurs are masters of dealing in scarcity. While VC-backed unicorns steal much of the limelight, for each one of these there are thousands of bootstrapped start-ups.

Scarcity encourages discipline. And if you’re obsessed by value creation, yet have limited means, you become very good at making decisions, and a master of saying no. Entrepreneurs dream—but in a ruthlessly disciplined way.

Entrepreneurs deserve to be celebrated—whether that's a plumber in New Jersey or Rihanna flogging Fenty at the Super Bowl. But we do them the greatest tribute when we celebrate them for what they are, not for what we imagine.

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