OPINION: Caveat emptor and the problem with ‘wantrepreneurship’

2 Dec 2014

Jennie McGinn (centre) with her sisters and co-founders of Opsh, Sarah and Grace

It’s a debate we hear played out among our community and readers, so when entrepreneur Jennie Mc Ginn offered her viewpoint on the cult of ‘wantrepreneurship’, we wanted to read it.

After the 2014 Web Summit, a term Mark Little used in an article in The Irish Times really chimed with me: ‘wantrepreneurship’. He spoke about the idealisation of the start-up industry, and how impressionable college students were buying into this vision of free beer, ping-pong tables and get-rich-quick attitudes.

The start-up industry has exploded in Ireland in the last five years. We have a variety of structured accelerator programmes, access to seed funding and an incredibly vibrant mentorship network. The industry particularly flourished at the height of the Irish recession, offering viable career opportunities to young people.

Our journey began at the NDRC LaunchPad programme, where we built out the original incarnation of Opsh, a shoppable magazine called The Prowlster. We then progressed onto The Irish Times FUSION programme, and have since been shortlisted for the IBYE Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, among other competitions and programmes aimed at nurturing start-ups. We have been supported by our Local Enterprise Office, Enterprise Ireland and AIB. But we have been fortunate.

Realistic view

The harsh reality is that very few start-ups succeed. We haven’t even achieved ‘success’ as we would call it right now, but to get to this point has taken a battle of wills, finance, security and confidence.

In my view, the media projection of the start-up industry is romanticised and favours the success stories over the failures. Over the past few weeks, I have been invited to speak at various events aimed at start-ups and college students, and I have noticed a disconnect in messaging.

The communication is focused around the opportunities, the gains, the success of heavily-invested Irish start-ups who now operate on a global platform. But the reality is that the attrition rate for start-ups in Ireland is extremely high – and for a variety of reasons.

Perspective required

Firstly, I feel there is too much focus on ‘innovation’ at the expense of ‘realistic business models’.

Secondly, when new teams come together straight out of a collegiate environment, the dynamics of managing those relationships during the intensity of an accelerator programme are excruciatingly difficult. Particularly if no one on the founding team has industry experience and can weather the incubation rollercoaster with a greater sense of perspective.

Thirdly, there is a serious funding challenge in Ireland in between seed and series A. This is the critical point when you leave the comfort of the accelerator programme, possibly have managed to build an MVP and now have the task of building traction, customers and sales. It’s at that moment that you realise you have absolutely no cash flow, but you have staffing, technology and marketing costs. You are too early-stage for a VC – or even an angel – and you have moved as far up the funnel as you can with Enterprise Ireland.

Fourthly – and this is not necessarily as tangible – you need to be prepared for everyone you encounter telling you that your business won’t work, it will fail, that they could do it better, that if you just altered the very core proposition you could be in with a better chance.

Start-up lifestyle

I think we have benefitted enormously from the start-up industry in Ireland. However, I think the messaging around the lifestyle of building a start-up needs to be carefully communicated. The responsibility of running your own business is both gratifying and terrifying.

It is liberating to be able to make your own decisions and craft your own vision for the world. However, if those decisions don’t work out, or no one believes in your vision, it is you, and you alone, who has to face the consequences.

And sometimes, when you have worked 14 days straight, and you’ve had to beg, borrow and steal to keep the office doors open, and anxiety has become your only emotion – then, the idea of playing ping-pong and eating pizza is not very enticing.

I think it is incredibly important to support young people in business, and people who want to pursue an entrepreneurial goal in general. But we need to critically look at the support structures in place for post-accelerated start-ups, access to finance, access to business services and paths to industry.

We need to be careful and realistic about how start-up life is presented in the media, and most importantly, we need to question what happens to those start-ups that do fail. What happened? Why did it happen? And how can we prevent it from happening again? 

Jennie Mc Ginn

Jennie Mc Ginn is the CEO of online shopping platform Opsh, which she co-founded with her sisters Sarah and Grace. The Mc Ginns sold their first start-up, The Prowlster, to Sweatshop Media in August 2013.

Have views on this issue? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter: @siliconrepublic.