Opinion

Youth entrepreneur culture risks getting out of hand

4 min read

07 February 2014

It’s undoubtedly true that small businesses are the key to economic recovery, and the profile of small businesses is getting higher all the time through initiatives such as Accelerate 250, representing those six per cent of UK businesses that are creating half of all new jobs in the economy.

However, I’m also noticing a disturbing trend. The concept of entrepreneurship is so ‘of the moment’ that we’re in danger of encouraging our school leavers and graduates to think that it’s ‘the easy option’.

As we support early-stage creative enterprises to grow, I’m approached on a daily basis by young entrepreneurs wanting advice about starting a business, many inspired by stories like that of 17 year old Nick D’Aloisio who sold his Summly app to Yahoo for $30m. Most are convinced that success simply relies on having a ‘good idea’.

But it’s just this sort of media story that makes me worried. We’re living in an age of fast gratification, where being famous or making easy money is the message that young people most readily seem to understand. The entrepreneurial world could be accused of exacerbating this trend by basking in the stories of its superstars, rather than more readily preparing would-be entrepreneurs for the reality of what’s going to be required to be successful.

The contrast with other professions is huge. If you are training in medicine, very early on you know that the role of junior doctor will mean pressure and incredibly long working hours. Similarly, for a teacher, the demands of the job are well feted. However, for the aspiring entrepreneur with an inspirational idea, it seems from the media hype that a few years of hard graft will lead to a multi-million pound exit, where the world of first-class travel and a luxury yacht become the just reward.

We readily hear about worrying drop out figures for doctors and teachers, with recent figures showing almost 23 per cent of doctors and 30 per cent of teachers dropping out in the first year. However, the less well-known facts from Government about entrepreneurship cite that of the 400,000 businesses started in 2012, 20 per cent will have failed in the first year and 50 per cent won’t be around in 2014. 

With jobs being increasingly hard to come by, it’s not surprising that young people are turning to enterprise for solutions. New data from Aston Business School shows 16-25 year olds accounted for 9.5 per cent of new businesses in 2012, compared to 4.9 per cent in 2010. And with these trends in mind, I think that it is even more important that we are honest in preparing our aspiring entrepreneurs for the true realities of growing a business.

I’ve met two successful entrepreneurs this week – both brilliant with established, profitable multi-million-pound-turnover businesses. But both report 90+ hour working weeks, stress, workaholism, and negative impact on relationships and health…and that’s for those at the top of the game…

When everything is invested in your own business – time, money, passion and creativity – it can border on obsession, with high personal risk of failure and one with plenty of fear to boot. It’s hard to put into words the pressure of being solely responsible for the payroll and welfare of staff each week.

I couldn’t be a bigger advocate for the benefits of business ownership – I’ve learnt more in the last four years than I ever thought would be possible and it’s a complete privilege to support other start up businesses. But I also can’t help but feel that there should be more debate, training and support about the challenges of business ownership amongst the celebrations of brilliance. After all, forewarned is undoubtedly forearmed…

Michelle Wright is CEO of Cause4.

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