The cult of entrepreneurship needs a different deity

22 Jul 2019

Image: © THANANIT/

The familiar founder’s journey is one of self-sacrifice and singular focus on work. Maybe it’s time we made room for a different story, suggests Elaine Burke.

In conversation with a founder recently, we were each reflecting on our weekends after a busy work week. Both of us had unplugged a bit; me because I had accidentally forgotten my phone charger on an overnight stay, her because she had family matters keeping her occupied. Dealing with this, she found that vantage point where she could see what was truly important. What was agitating her on Friday had diminished by Sunday after some distance and family time.

This is not a hugely unique story. It’s practically a packaged parable. I’m sure you can find many movie commissions to the theme on Netflix or whatever your platform of choice. Yet after I remarked that this kind of perspective is a great reminder of “what’s really important”, I still wondered if my comment was committing a cardinal sin in retrospect.

The sacred image of the entrepreneur is one of singular focus, determination and personal sacrifice for the business at hand. Is anything allowed be more important than that?

Well, maybe it should.

As we strive to diversify the pool of entrepreneurs being supported across industries, buoyed by the research that tells us of all the benefits of diversity in any one grouping, we may forget that the ideal model of an entrepreneur tends towards a particular type. At least that’s how the story goes.

Sure, they can come dressed differently now, but much remains the same. The determination, the focus and the commitment comes in a hoodie and jeans as often as it comes in a shirt and tie. And it almost always come as someone who can afford to ignore other matters of life.

It would be hard to imagine a single parent putting a business before their child. The same for someone caring for a family member. And then there are those without any semblance of a financial cushion should a business idea fail. Not everyone can afford to fail once on a lifetime bet, let alone fail fast. The real confidence gap isn’t in believing in yourself; it’s having the confidence to know that if things go wrong you won’t be ruined.

If the cult of entrepreneurship rules out people with other priorities, such as looking after family members and keeping a roof over their heads, how diverse can this pool get?

Intercom co-founder Des Traynor, a model entrepreneur in terms of the success story, put paid to some of the mythologies we have built around founders’ journeys in his Inspirefest talk earlier this year. He called out the 996 working lifestyle being popularised in Silicon Valley (that’s a 9am to 9pm work schedule for six days a week) as outright “horseshit”. He reminded us that “hustle” is just sending emails. That success requires many elements, and one of them is, plainly, luck. And he declared that the only good reason to start a business is to care about a problem so much that you would do whatever it takes to solve it.

It’s not like people with more than one priority can’t still have that passion to get things done. In fact, Traynor credits becoming a parent as a “force multiplier for your own productivity” because of the motivation to put work behind you and get back to life.

You can still be committed and determined to achieve success while understanding, in the grand scheme of things, that things fall apart and, if they do, you’ll want a stable home and relationships to fall back on. Like the founder from my earlier chat, perhaps it’s no harm to admit there are more important things in life, especially if having those things is what enables you to go forth and run a business.

We need to dispense with the myths and start talking about these founders who are committed to their cause, but also have other commitments. We need to let people like this know that there is space for them and their lives, too.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2020 are available now.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.