The reality of entrepreneurship

Written by
Janine Swail

19 Nov 2015

19 Nov 2015 • by Janine Swail

Managing expectations

TV executives are often accused of flogging dead horses to fill the schedules, but the fact is, you seldom hear a dead horse complain. And so, with The Great British Bake-Off well and truly baked for another year and Strictly Come Dancing safely on the dancefloor, The Apprentice returns for its late-autumn run.

Clever editing will be employed to make the parade of wannabe entrepreneurs appear confrontational, incompetent and essentially idiotic. But beneath the cheap laughs and the mockery there lies a very real danger: the creation of false expectations.

The fundamental problem with The Apprentice, Dragons’ Den and other examples of what we might call ‘entre-tainment’ is that contestants either win or lose. This gives the firm impression that there’s absolutely no middle ground between triumph and failure, between acclaim and ridicule. We’re left with a narrow window on what it means to succeed in business – and as a result, there’s a very real risk that the next generation of entrepreneurs is being set up for a fall.

Such a claim might sound alarmist, but it’s actually rooted in research. Last year I co-authored a journal article about whether these programmes are perceived as harmless fun or an accurate reflection of life as an entrepreneur. We found that students – the highly educated young, whose views of entrepreneurship are crucial to our economic future – do believe such shows can teach them something valuable about how to communicate, evaluate and negotiate.

Of course, the principal aim of ‘entre-tainment’ is to entertain; to educate is a subsidiary by-product. Accessible to the layperson and the novice, these programmes strike a chord with the masses and can make people believe entrepreneurship is something for them.

The worrying flipside is that ‘entre-tainment’ advances a deeply aspirational form of entrepreneurship. It encourages individuals to develop an inflated sense of optimism and a perilously heightened faith in their own ability. The reality, as we know, is that entrepreneurs succeed to varying degrees and failure can be the result of a number of factors, which may or may not include one’s personal talents or lack thereof.

Finding the definition

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. The rise of ‘entre-tainment’ reflects significant changes in entrepreneurship’s public perception, which not too many years ago revolved almost entirely around Del Boy, Arfur Daley and “nice little earners”. We live in more enterprising times, and the popularity of these programmes suggests people are now more accepting of entrepreneurship as an innately respectable form of work and a viable career path.

Even so, it’s essential that we avoid producing a generation of would-be entrepreneurs who may be surprised when they’re faced with the reality of running a business. Instilling a degree of measured realism via graduate management programmes and training is a responsibility – not just of business schools but the wider business community.

The truth about entrepreneurship – however unspectacular and ratings-unfriendly it may seem – is that it comes in many forms. The pinstriped CEO who makes his aspiring candidates seem inept for the amusement of couch potatoes, is just one of them. And for that, quite frankly, we should be very grateful.