What does it mean to be an entrepreneur?

With shows like Shark Tank and The Profit, entrepreneurship is more popular than ever. But what is an entrepreneur? Is a Lyft driver an entrepreneur? What about a contractor that helps homeowners keep thing in working order? Is a hardworking corporate leader an entrepreneur?

What is an entrepreneur?

Let’s start with my super simple definition of entrepreneurship:

“An entrepreneur bucks the system and carves their own path to achieving their goals in life.”

I’ve purposely kept this definition open-ended. Which goals are you achieving? What is the system? How do you carve out your own path?

Usually an entrepreneur is chasing a financial goal. But the best entrepreneurs have a mission that goes far beyond financial success. Steve Jobs said it best, “…You have to have a lot of passion for what you do…because it’s so hard that if you don’t, any rational person would give up.” The amount of bullshit that you have to fight on a daily basis is ridiculous. The reason people stay in the system is because a lot of the bullshit is deflected or spread around the organization – your HR department handles your benefits enrollment, the company provides a pension or 401(k) to help you plan for retirement, the customer service department deals with crazy customers. The list of bullshit goes on, and on, and on.

Entrepreneurs break loose from the system because, while it provides more safety and security, there are also guardrails that keep you on the path that the system deems most productive. If you’re working in product development and a customer gives you invaluable feedback, you probably can’t offer that customer a voucher for free services without getting approval from a manager. If a co-worker screws up and causes a bunch of extra work for everyone else, or treats a customer poorly, you probably can’t just get up and terminate their employment. In fact, you might even be limited in the coaching that you can provide.

I witnessed this kind of situation time and again when I worked at Fortune 500 companies, serving as a cog in the machine. My relationship with customers and co-workers was dictated by the man. Entrepreneurs are willing to give up the insulated security of a 9-5 job in return for the freedom to operate as they see fit.

But remember, when you are your own boss, you are also the only one to blame when things go sideways. The freedom to choose is also freedom to fail, or succeed. Over 75% of startups fail. Entrepreneurs have to be able to white-knuckle their way through the roller coaster ride. You can secure your largest contract, and get hit with a kidney stone in the same week. Painkillers are out because they cloud your judgement. So, suck up the pain and get back to work. Or, tell your new client that you’re too sick to work. Both are pretty awful options.

In the image above, you can see a visual representation of a successful entrepreneur’s life-cycle. It’s a bumpy ride. And sadly, so many would-be successful entrepreneurs give up before experiencing their breakthrough.

Do you have to be rich in order to be an entrepreneur?

What is an entrepreneur? Do you need boatloads of cash? Money is a wonderful tool. It can also be a heavy burden. You do not need money in order to be an entrepreneur. You need to be resourceful and self-sufficient. If you can get things done, find solutions to complex problems and keep pushing forward, you can be an entrepreneur.

Many entrepreneurs are wealthy. This is because they’ve experienced success in their career. Having financial resources at your disposal can make the entrepreneurial journey much easier. But having money does not guarantee success. In fact, too much money can lead you to outsource too much and lose control of your project. Entrepreneurs need to be heavily engaged in their startup. Your fingerprint should be on everything that you do, even if you need to bring in experts to help you move more quickly and avoid common pitfalls.

I’ve personally worked with someone that proudly claimed the title of “entrepreneur”. They put it everywhere – on their social media profiles, on PR releases and even a bumper sticker on their car. This individual had come into a multi-million dollar inheritance in their mid-twenties. It was an exciting time. They pulled me in with their enthusiasm. And because of my naivety, it took me a long time to realize this person wasn’t an entrepreneur. They were just someone with too much money and not enough life experience. Shortly after I exited the project, this person was broke and looking for a place to stay after being evicted from their luxury apartment.

Entrepreneurs don’t need money or big-shot connections. These things can help, but they can also rob you of the hard-earned experience you need in order to succeed in the long-term. If you hire and leverage connections in order to build something, your project will die as soon as your money runs out. Self-sufficient individuals with the tenacity to find creative solutions to the challenges they encounter are the entrepreneurs that survive the roller coaster.

Freelancing is a great way to slide into the world of entrepreneurship.

Some of the most impactful and successful entrepreneurs I know started with a side-hustle. They had a 9-5, or they were pursuing higher-education when they decided to dip their toe in the water. They leveraged a skill or talent and found people willing to pay them for their time. Sites like UpWork and Fiverr are excellent marketplaces to start. If technology really isn’t your thing, TaskRabbit is a cool offline marketplace where you can connect with people in your neighborhood that need help with offline tasks.

The really important takeaway is that you need to start taking action. You don’t need a business plan, although it will help you organize your thinking. You don’t need a business license, although talking to a lawyer and understanding how to legally protect yourself isn’t a bad idea. And you absolutely do not need someone’s permission to try something. We grow up in a system that tells us how we scored on the test, what grade we’re in and what prerequisites we need in order to take the classes we are actually interested in.

Entrepreneurs don’t ask for permission. They take action and make progress towards their clearly-defined goal with every ounce of courage, strength and ingenuity they can summon.

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