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 What drives entrepreneurs to take the path less travelled

 

 One of the most enduring myths about those who take the difficult, uncharted path of pioneering their own businesses is that they are mainly motivated by money. The short response to anyone who tries to uphold this crude misunderstanding is simply: there are many easier ways to make money than starting your own business.

​The long answer has to do with what really drives and fulfils entrepreneurs. If it isn’t mainly profits, what then? And the reason why it is a long answer is because there are many different urges that entrepreneurs try to fulfil when they risk so much and work so hard for their businesses, says Gugu Mjadu, executive general manager: marketing for Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS).

While not one entrepreneur’s set of inspirations is the same as another’s, there are broad patterns that help us understand these complex soldiers of economic growth and wealth creation.

First, there are the necessity entrepreneurs, the most numerous kind of business owner in South Africa. As their name implies, they are too poor to be unemployed. They start their businesses because they have no other choice – their survival depends on getting out there and trading, otherwise their family will starve.

They scrape together what they can, get started by copying others, and eke out a threadbare living in wind and rain, and in usually over-traded markets. Growth and progress are rare because of their severe lack of schooling and business skills. Driven by survival, their fulfilment often has a strong family focus – putting their children through school and college so that their lives may one day be less hard.

Right on the opposite side of the spectrum is the rarest type of entrepreneur, even though they are the ones most people think of when the word “entrepreneur” is mentioned. They are such high-impact individuals that their fame has made names such as Mark Shuttleworth, Oprah Winfrey and Elon Musk synonymous with entrepreneurship. Yet they are what Mjadu calls the one-in-a-million kind of business people.

Surely these high-flyers, if no-one else, must be chiefly motivated by getting rich?

Not so, says Mjadu. If that were their chief fulfilment, they would stop fairly early on in their careers, but they keep on going in the manner of conquerors.

The presiding theory is that these high-growth entrepreneurs are mainly driven by imperial ambition. They want to build an empire, and money is merely a means to that end. Their fulfilment, if indeed they are ever satisfied, lies more in building power, influence and a formidable legacy.

Even though they are rare all over the world, South Africa still has far too few of them, Mjadu believes. One such an individual can do an enormous amount of good, from being a role-model and job creator to disrupting vested interests with their radical new ways of doing things.

There is no single programme or school that has consistently been shown to deliver such high-growth entrepreneurs. In fact, they are notorious for flunking out of formal education. It is most likely that their substantial talents are nurtured by a whole host of societal factors. They tend to appear in societies where all the conditions are right: good schooling that create deep pools of highly trained people, substantial peace and stability, a cultural celebration of creating wealth, praise for doing things in a fresh and clever way, and low stigmatisation of failure.

In the middle of the entrepreneurship spectrum, between the survivalist entrepreneurs and the high-flyers, lies a group of business owners who are no less important for South Africa’s prosperity: the lifestyle entrepreneur.

It is difficult to generalise about this group because they come from vastly different backgrounds and industries, but if there is one common characteristic that they share, it is their yearning for freedom and independence.

Almost all of them say they have no desire to be a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs – that kind of obsessive empire building is in certain ways the opposite of what fulfils them. Rather, they seek their fulfilment in financial independence and the freedom to choose their own working hours, deadlines and pace.

Anyone who thinks this is a sort of laziness has probably never run a business. It takes an enormous amount of work, creativity and persistence to become financially independent, and even more to get a business ticking over so that you can start working flexible hours – for long stretches you have to work all hours.

Most lifestyle entrepreneurs are highly employable and would easily fit into a corporate structure and make a success of quite high-level jobs. Although they can work with others, they find little fulfilment in working for others, even if it makes for an easier life.

Within an over-arching ambition to become independent the things that fulfil them can differ widely.

For example, a certain kind of lifestyle entrepreneur, usually the smaller ones, finds fulfilment in being excellent artisans – restaurateurs, cabinet makers, mechanics, or computer engineers.

Others find deep satisfaction in excellent customer care or having the best quality-control systems in town.

Some family-focused entrepreneurs live for providing career paths for their children, and dream of a business that stretches over generations. The patriarchal tendencies of other lifestyle entrepreneurs extend to their workers. They love fulfilling the role of the benevolent provider.

Many end their careers as pillars of the community, and find fulfilment in “giving back” to the people who have supported their business. This often makes retired business owners ideal mentors to new generations of entrepreneurs – they find fulfilment not only in sharing their business skills, but also in passing on their amazing spirit of generosity.

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