Entrepreneur. It is a word that, courtesy of television programmes like “The Apprentice” and “Dragon’s Den”, conjures up images of a lone wolf or “dragon” with a business vision. When one thinks of entrepreneurialism one immediately thinks of personalities like Sir Richard Branson and Steve Jobs building a brand and a business empire in their own image, hewn from their own industry and wild creativity. Entrepreneurialism appears then to be something wholly individual, almost egotistical, and consumer-facing. It is not a term one would often associate with big businesses and certain sectors – professional services being particularly close to my heart – seen as almost anti-entrepreneurial.
Yet I believe any good business has an entrepreneurial heart beating at its core. Entrepreneurialism is all about change, creating a competitive advantage so that you can outperform your competitors. It is this urge to create competition and then to beat it that lies at the centre of successful entrepreneurship.
The most successful companies empower people to think in an entrepreneurial manner by enabling employees to feel able to express themselves within a safe environment, to challenge, to be challenged and to talk openly without fear of being derided. Promoting diversity in the workplace, both in terms of skill and background, enables businesses to create what you might term a ‘melting pot of ideas’ capable of producing a regular stream of creative ideas based on the pooling of a wide variety of influences and knowledge. I would go so far as to argue that under the right conditions – a blend of framework, incentives and liberalism – businesses can produce an entrepreneurial spirit capable of matching the most creative of “dragons”. Fostering a global community of budding young entrepreneurs is a subject close to my heart and something I am personally involved with, sitting as I do on the board of Youth Business International (YBI), a global charity with members in 40 countries – inspired by the Prince of Wales and linked to the Prince’s Trust – whose purpose is to encourage young entrepreneurs. The cultivating of young entrepreneurs around the world not only helps stimulate growth, it also eases youth unemployment, which is a massive global problem.
A big part of entrepreneurialism is based on making calculated risks. For any business with ambitious growth plans it is no different. Companies make calculated risks all the time in an effort to expand their frontiers – be they geographical, operational or cultural. In a post-financial-crisis environment, however, businesses must be able to retain their “permission for entrepreneurialism”. There is an inherent contradiction in political rhetoric which on one hand exhorts banks to lend more so that businesses can grow and on the other enshrines an anti-risk culture. Expansion at this phase of the economic cycle is especially tricky and the importance of a well timed and strategic move plays heavily on the minds of business leaders internationally. After a period of economically-induced relative stasis, I believe we are about to see a wave of entrepreneurial activity, whereby progressive businesses seek first mover advantage. As well as M&A activity, this could manifest itself in the form of investment into new geographies, potentially diversifying further from the developed markets, new technologies or into human capital – providing staff with the support and training required to develop new skills and new ways of thinking.
The appetite to take informed, strategic risks is a cornerstone of growth – and, as the post-crisis tremors show signs of abating, the ability of companies’ to act on this impulse will increase. Entrepreneurialism is not merely something reserved for the gifted individual with an idea and the bravery and perseverance to pursue that idea in a highly competitive marketplace, it is a central tenet of capitalism and an essential component of any sound business strategy. Without entrepreneurialism, businesses stagnate. Perhaps in the UK we need to ramp up what has historically been a strong part of the “national character” – an outward looking urge to trade new items with new territories.
If you want to see Dragon’s Den in action, look no further than global businesses and the internal culture they foster and you will find more often than not a thriving hub of creativity and bold business ideas.