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Do we need a new word for entrepreneur?


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Has the word entrepreneur become too trendy as to have lost its meaning? I’m hearing it and the word entrepreneurship being used in so many conversations incorrectly.

Here’s a simple example. On a daily basis, I have an email exchange with someone who says they are an entrepreneur. I respond “What company did you start?” They respond, “Oh, I didn’t start a company, I was the fifth employee of Company X.”

Another example is the email that I get from someone in a large company who says “I want to create more entrepreneurship within BigCo.”

Now, these are well-intentioned people, so I’m not critical of them. But I’m critical of the use of the word "entrepreneur" in these contexts.

I like Wikipedia’s definition:  “Entrepreneurship is the process of starting a business, a startup company or other organization. The entrepreneur develops a business plan, acquires the human and other required resources, and is fully responsible for its success or failure.”

Merriam Webster’s is also solid: “a person who starts a business and is willing to risk loss in order to make money.”

This morning I read an article in the New York Times titled With Start-Ups, Greeks Make Recovery Their Own Business. Other than the fact that the New York Times hasn’t yet figured out that It’s startup, not start-up or start up, it was a good article that got me thinking about this rant.

In 2010, the Startup America Partnership finally got the US government to separate the notion of small businesses with high growth businesses. The word startup was firmly introduced into our lexicon as shorthand for high growth business and now is a comfortable one. While we are still stuck with one government organization – the Small Business Administration – that tries to help both small businesses and startups, the language around this continues to evolve.

For example, I think we are finally starting to differentiate between local businesses (your local restaurant, coffee shop, bookstore, gas station, movie theater, clothing store, art store, or anything else that sells to your local community) from a startup business (a company that might be small, but is selling to anyone anywhere in the world). The language isn’t quite right, as local businesses can evolve into startups (The Kitchen, run by Kimball Musk, is a good example). But we are getting there.

And then there are a several words trying to characterize different stages of startups. A scaleup is a startup that is scaling quickly. A gazelle, a word that has been around for a while and is becoming popular again, is a startup that has achieved critical mass and is a rapidly growing company, kind of like a scaleup, but falling comfortably into the animal taxonomy that seems to include unicorns and dragons.

And that takes us back to the word entrepreneur. Theoretically, the entrepreneur is a person who creates any one of these companies (local business, high growth business, startup, scaleup, gazelle, unicorn, but not a peppercorn.) And entrepreneurship is the act of creating and operating the business. Note the and clause – you need to be the creator and the operator to be an entrepreneur, not just the operator.

As I type this, I realize I’ve buried the lead. I’ve always loved the word founder to describe the person the word entrepreneur refers to. When I started Feld Technologies, I referred to myself and my partner Dave as the founders of Feld Technologies. This was well before anyone used the word entrepreneur (the 1980s) and for many years I used the word founder. Somehow my brain shifted to entrepreneur and entrepreneurship and that’s taken over for me. But it’s now uncomfortable, awkward, and tiresome.

I think I’m going back to founder. It’ll be interesting to see how hard it is to rewire my brain. We’ll see if it lasts. While it’s not clear to me that it matters, given my pedantic obsession with eliminating the hyphen in words like startup and email, it’ll be fun – at least for me – to see where it goes.

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Brad Feld

Brad has been an early stage investor and entrepreneur for more than 20 years. Prior to co-founding the Boulder-based Foundry Group, he co-founded Mobius Venture Capital and Intensity Ventures, a company that helped launch and operate software companies. Brad is a nationally recognized speaker on the topics of venture capital investing and entrepreneurship and writes widely read and well respected blogs at www.feld.com and www.askthevc.com. He holds bachelor's and master's of science degrees from from MIT. Contact him at brad@feld.com

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