Calling all entrepreneurs
‘Entrepreneur’ is a term one should never use to refer to one’s self; rather, I consider it a title of honour that may only be bestowed upon you by others. Sure, the title carries within it a certain range (from, say, a very nearly bankrupt John Symonds in the early 1990s, to say, a much more liquid John Symonds now after selling a third share of Aussie to CommBank for a rumoured $100m). But at its core, the title ‘entrepreneur’ conjures up ideas of someone capable of recognising opportunities that others fail to see, of being able to bring together people and resources to achieve results, and of having a distinct ability to think ‘outside the square’ (or, as I prefer to say, in ‘the other dimension’…).
There’s one more characteristic I think worth noting. In a desire to remove any inherent sexism or gender bias, I’m going to keep it simple and call it ‘courage’. Courages of steel, or big brass courages, you might say. Ones that, when everyone else is afraid, speak to you and say ‘There is a likelihood of failure – be aware of it, but not afraid.’ (Perhaps I should propose that to our grim-talking PM as a new tagline: ‘When it comes to national (financial) security, be aware but not afraid.’)
Entrepreneurs will be the driving force that gets the economy back on its feet. Sure, it may sometimes be driven more by a) desperation to keep their businesses going so they can pay their mortgage and b) ego than any sense of altruism. But they’ll also be pushing on because, at the heart of it, they love a challenge. They want to prove to themselves as much as anyone else that they have what it takes, that outside factors can’t force them out, and that when the going gets tough, the tough start looking for the paddles rather than lifejackets.
By their nature, entrepreneurs are hands-on types – they’ve got their fingers on all the pulses and in all the right pies. They know what’s going on with their staff, their customers, and their competitors, because they own what they’re doing and it forms part of who they are. But perhaps one of the most important aspects of entrepreneurs is that they don’t allow themselves to be bogged down by rules, policies, or others’ expectations.
It is this last point which will be of most relevance to managers in larger firms. We’ve often been told in the past that we need to be ‘innovative’. (This is a term that should be filed with Vanilla Ice, linen suits with cheesecloth shirts, and Paul Keating as a relic of the 90s that no-one wants to hear from or see again). What we need from managers now is entrepreneurialism. Entrepreneurialism is innovations’ bigger cousin, and it’s here to help companies get through the tough times of the GFC. It’s going to teach big companies to be flexible, adaptable and responsive, and to not allow their cherished ‘way we do things around here’ to get in the way of doing things that someone with bigger courages would go ahead and do, the sort of things the little guys would do without needing to go through forty different approvals processes.
Find me a big company who thinks now is a good time to launch a new premium food product in a category dominated by several other big players (save the comments guys, that was rhetorical). On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised on a recent trip to Coles the other night to find a new premium muesli offering from an Aussie start-up ‘Table of Plenty’.
As it turns out, they’ve been going since 2006 with a line of spices, but secured distribution for their muesli with Coles and Woolworths/Safeway in the last few months. Their packaging caught my eye, with its snapshot of the life story of its founder, Kate Weiss, and an invitation to get in touch with her personally if you’d like a chat. Being the inquisitive bloke I am, I did like a chat and so got in touch with her.
Clearly, Kate is an entrepreneur. Building the business from her passion for food and her desire to rekindle her passion for life itself, she has set about her task with obvious vigour. She’s done no advertising, but has got by with a little PR and some in-store demonstrations (does it sound like she had a massive marketing budget? That’s also rhetorical, thanks anyway for those of you bee-lining for the comments section). Yet she tells me that their spice line is doing well, muesli is steadily increasing, and they’re now about to launch a new line of muesli bread and related products too. If you’ve never heard of muesli bread either, you’re not alone – they’ll be introducing the concept to Australian shoppers in coming weeks.
Now I didn’t specifically ask, but Kate somehow struck me as switched-on enough to be aware of the fact that consumer confidence is down and that the world economy isn’t exactly looking rosy at the moment. Last I checked, people weren’t looking for ways to increase their grocery bills either.
But her business is growing in spite of all the extraneous factors which conventional wisdom tells us should have the opposite effect. Passion, vigour, experimentation, flexibility- all the qualities that get snuffed out in the bureaucracy of a larger organisation – are ensuring that the business makes its mark regardless. I didn’t get a chance to ask what the five-year plan was, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s to set up for a buy-out by one of the bigger players who’s probably been in damage minimisation mode throughout the downturn and is looking for a quick way to recover ground.
There’s a reason why large businesses no longer seem to grow organically, but instead by acquisition: they lack the entrepreneurial spirit found in people like Kate. No amount of pre-launch testing, relentless meetings, or approval processes will replace the electrifying mix of courage and passion embodied by entrepreneurs like her. While it’s easier said than done, now is the time companies need to try and energise managers and employees to generate some entrepreneurial spirit and counter the spirit of ‘you may not have a job tomorrow’ which currently prevails. If the Kates of this world can achieve business growth in spite of the times, there’s no definitive reason why many bigger companies – with almost infinitely greater resources at their disposal – can’t do the same.
In the end, it’s all about your approach. No one’s denying the way things are: there’s a certain amount of water in the glass. But a bit of corporate entrepreneurialism which sees it half full wouldn’t go astray either.