Summary: You can become an entrepreneur without a new, innovative idea
A lot of the discussion around how to become an entrepreneur and entrepreneurship generally, centers around innovative ideas and the individuals behind them. This is for good reason, as many of the names we hear about as representatives of the entrepreneurial class – the Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezoses or Elon Musks (although not applicable to Tesla per se) of the world – were very much the idea-generators of their companies.
However, there are many examples of successful entrepreneurs who didn’t have that great idea on their own and ended up building expansive businesses nonetheless. One highly publicized example involves the founder of what is now known as Meta, and a pair of Harvard rowers (for reference, see: The Social Network). In all seriousness, I’m not suggesting you steal your friends’ startup idea and call it your own, but rather that there is a lot more to being an entrepreneur than having an incredible one-off idea, and that the lack of a new, innovative idea doesn’t discount you from the possibility of becoming a successful entrepreneur.
An important caveat: Why do you want to be an entrepreneur?
There are a lot of good reasons to want to be an entrepreneur. The world is not black and white and your desire does not have to come from an entirely pure place of wanting to fix a very specific set of problems in the world in order for it to be legitimate (although it probably should be some part of it.)
In my opinion, however, there are a few bad reasons to want to be an entrepreneur. As you will read, all of these can and may be a part of your motivation, but if they represent your motivation in its entirety it may be worth doing some re-evaluating.
- It’ll make me cool: This often ends up being what we’ll call “wantrepreneurship”. That concept sometimes gets defined as someone always talking about entrepreneurial ideas but not acting on them. For me, however, it’s more accurate to think of as “wanting to be an entrepreneur for the sake of being one, and in order to tell everyone around them that’s what they are.” This is an easy way to set yourself up for failure, as you’re not thinking at all about what makes entrepreneurship what it is (solving problems, building processes, forming teams, learning independently, etc.) and thus your infatuation is for what comes with success in entrepreneurship rather than what that process actually is.
- Just for the money: There’s no problem in having money be part of the equation, especially if you’re thinking long term. However, money being the only reason is dangerous because it likely means that you want money now, and in most cases, a shift to an entrepreneurial career will have the opposite effect in the short term. In addition, it can very quickly disappear as a source of motivation when it’s not coming in.
- It seems like everyone is doing it: This is closely related to the first point. There are a ton of wantrepreneurs out there, and there are also a good amount of entrepreneurs who have created value and will shove it in your face. Those are the loudest voices; many of them are overrepresenting their success. The reality is most people are not running their own business, or if they are, it’s not working. It gets said often but comparing your success or your outcomes to others’ is not helpful, especially because it’s tough to know how much of these are real. However, comparing your processes to others’ definitely is valuable as these can be applied to your work in ways that outcomes simply can’t be.
- You’re unhappy in your current job: This point is tough. If you are unhappy in your current position, it makes sense to seek a change. However, starting a business or project is not easy, and won’t necessarily fix those issues. I do think that this can legitimately be a major part of your decision, but should be complemented by some reasoning beyond the need for change. You don’t need to be an entrepreneur to have success, balance, happiness, wealth, etc., so don’t feel like it’s the only legitimate way to build a great life just because some people are telling you it is.
What to do if you’re looking to solve problems, build processes, form teams, learn independently and create networks, but don’t have a game-changing business idea?
The title of this section is long, but for good reason. It serves as a counter to the title of this article by outlining a sort of synonym for entrepreneurship. There are other reasons to become an entrepreneur, but these are many of the main ones. If you want these things, but don’t know where to start, below you will find some of my suggestions.
For a little bit of context, this is a position I found myself in not too long ago. I’d always worked hard from a young age – in restaurants as a server, cook and dishwasher, as a coach in a number of sports, as an assistant at an art gallery, etc. None of these are strictly entrepreneurial positions, but they did allow for quite a bit of creativity, independence and a need for self-motivation and initiative. Throughout university, I often organized and promoted events (which ended up becoming a successful business in its own right), but I was looking to build something impactful in which I could be involved in a consistent process of problem solving and scaling.
I ended up joining a team working on a project called Nimbus: a marketplace platform for tutoring at university. I went to the CEO, William Liu, and promised that I would work harder than anyone he’d ever met to get this app known at McGill and Concordia. I proceeded to spend the next few months doing hundreds of class announcements, handing out thousands of flyers and doing countless hours of tabling getting the word out. In parallel to this, Will and I formed a strong working relationship solving problems, discussing a larger scale vision and strategy, and working on the business. Soon after that, he asked me to become the COO and co-founder of Nimbus alongside him. Since then, the business has evolved significantly and we’ve been able to build it into a rapidly growing Education SaaS company serving 25 universities and more than a quarter-million students in Canada and the US.
This forms the basis for my suggestions if you find yourself in a similar position:
- Do your research and reach out: There are so many places where you can find information about early stage startups and projects (AngeLlist, TechCrunch, School websites, Accelerator/Incubator program websites, LinkedIn, etc.). Read up on them and reach out to any you are interested in. In some cases, you may be looking for a job and, in other cases, you’re just looking to learn or make connections. Whatever the reason, make sure to reach out and know what’s out there.
- Networking with purpose: Networking is a term that gets thrown around quite often. What are the objectives of it and what does it look like? The image that comes to mind is likely some type of conference, a ton of the same conversations, business cards handed out and no real action items when it’s all said and done. The networking I’m talking about is not about selling yourself but more about learning what people around you are doing. Conferences are good, but any social events in which you encounter starting businesses are an opportunity to learn and connect and to see if any of these projects interest you (or if their friends’ projects are more up your alley). People in entrepreneurial spaces tend to know each other, and so you can be connected to more and more people if you’re asking the right questions and looking to add value. That latter part gets underrated; you don’t have to be a business owner or subject expert to add value. You can also, as your network expands, make connections between people who you’ve met, who may then be able to more directly help each other or work together.
- Figure out how you can add value to a team, then do it: If you’re looking to join a very early stage startup, with the hopes of becoming a core member of the team (i.e., an entrepreneur), it’s important to figure out how you can uniquely add value. Of course, you will need to work hard, but not everyone adds the most value by simply hustling more than their peers. If you know what your skills are, figure out what that startup’s unique challenges are and see how you can apply your skills to those problems. If you’re not sure what unique skills you have, figure out what you’re willing to do that others are not, then do it.
- Be prepared to make sacrifices, but know your value: There is a certain level of privilege that has to be recognized here. Not everyone is able to make the financial sacrifices needed to embark on an entrepreneurial journey. If you are able to, however, you likely will need to. It’s a long game – wealth as an entrepreneur is built more on equity than on cash flow (in most cases) – which means that you will not have the same level of liquidity as some of your friends with similar levels of education in their careers. Again, this is not necessarily always the case, as there are cash-cow businesses that get built all the time that run completely counter to this, but generally sacrifices in personal income are necessary in favor of long-term growth. That being said, don’t get taken advantage of: know when you should be asking for pay, or equity, or both. It may not be right away, but if you add a great deal of value, make sure that it’s represented in how you’re being compensated.
- Don’t underestimate the traditional business (execution is key): Quite often, we get caught up in the idea of being or starting the next big thing. We want to build something which has never been done before, or which will single-handedly change the world. These are noble pursuits, but we can’t all be the ones to do it, and beyond that, you may realize that what you really want out of building a business is more personal, or for your community. You want autonomy, you want to solve problems, you want to make people’s lives better and you want to make more money in the long run. All of these things can be done within the context of more traditional business models – home improvement, house cleaning businesses, dog walking services, daycares, stores for niche or specialized products, corner stores, import/export, distribution companies, the list goes on. They can all be incredibly profitable companies when run well. Sometimes, focusing on execution rather than novelty is the way to go, and is often underappreciated when discussing entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurship is not just about the big ideas, so don’t let the lack of one discourage you from pursuing it as a career. If you do choose to pursue this path, make sure that you are doing it for a reason that will set you up for success and fulfillment and, most importantly, make sure you are prepared for the hard work and late nights ahead.
Entrepreneurship isn’t the easiest lifestyle, but those who take this path can take immense pride in whatever it is that they choose to build for themselves and for others.