When people think of an entrepreneur, they often think of a white, American guy who’s either young and working in a Startup… or grey-haired and the CEO of a company.
That image isn’t accurate.
Most entrepreneurs worldwide are neither white nor American. And many of them are female. They’re the Cambodian woman selling you a coconut at the market. The Australian grandmother blogging online. The young Chinese man offering his self-made art near the Chinese Wall. The Rwandan couple operating a street cart. The Peruvian mother creating beautiful rugs for Etsy.
However, we don’t receive entrepreneurial advice from this diverse group of people. We receive it from Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and über-Americanized immigrants like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk.
Why most of us shouldn’t follow the entrepreneurial advice of a select few business superstars
If the majority of entrepreneurs worldwide aren’t privileged white American businessmen why is is it that most entrepreneurial advice comes from privileged white American businessmen?
It doesn’t make that much sense and isn’t necessarily helpful. “I did it so you can do it” is a form of psychological projection. Different people have different abilities. A superstar CEO telling us that we can build a multinational corporation because he was able to do it is like us telling him that he can be monogamous because we can.
Life doesn’t work that way.
A 90-year old woman wouldn’t be able to do what Muhammad Ali accomplished in his prime boxing days. Even 38-year old Muhammad Ali himself got injured when he tried to do what had so easily come to his past self — according to Sylvester Stallone, Ali’s last fight was like seeing an autopsy on someone who’s still alive.
We like to think that business building is different from physical exercise but in many ways, it’s not. We all are born with physical and financial advantages or limitations. Michael Phelps didn’t earn his extraordinary physique that (coupled with super-hard work) helped him be successful, any more than Mark Zuckerberg earned his family background.
Granted, overcoming hardship can sometimes be exactly what’s needed for success. In his book David and Goliath, author Malcolm Gladwell gives some examples of people who dealt with excruciating challenges.
And yet, success for a hard-working person born into the slums of a poor country will most likely look different from what it would look like if they had been born into more privilege.
If Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t gone to Harvard, he likely wouldn’t have created Facebook. Facebook’s membership was first restricted to Harvard College and then to all Ivy League schools… which makes it the exact opposite of a plucky upstart.
People born into less privilege can be successful entrepreneurs, just like 90-year old women can be successful athletes (after all, there are a number of centenarians who run marathons).
It’s just that success looks different depending on your starting point and your circumstances. Without his privileged background, Mark Zuckerberg might have still created a successful company but chances are that it wouldn’t be as big as Facebook.
3 things we should probably do differently than the business superstars
With that said, let’s explore 3 things we should do differently than Mark Zuckerberg and Co.
1. Don’t operate our business at a loss for a long time
Jeff Bezos was able to operate Amazon at a loss for many years. His parents invested almost $250,000 in his company early on. Good for him!
As writers Alison Griswold & Jason Karaian put it:
“Keep in mind that Amazon consistently lost money for its first several years as a public company. It first reported a quarterly profit in the fourth quarter of 2001 and, at $5 million, it barely counted. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has long maintained that investing in future growth is more important than hitting quarterly earnings targets, much to Wall Street’s chagrin.”
But here’s the thing: Most entrepreneurs worldwide don’t have parents who could invest a quarter-million dollars in their child’s business. Jeff Bezos could operate a business at a loss for many years. Most entrepreneurs can’t. They have to make a profit.
2. Don’t ignore work-life balance
I’ve previously written about Elon Musk’s intense workload:
“In 2018, he gave an interview where he said that he had been working up to 120 hours per week recently. The last time he took more than a week off? Well, apparently that was in 2001. Oh, and he was ill with Malaria at the time.”
Descriptions like these make us believe that all successful entrepreneurs have to work all the time. However, sweatshop employees work just as much as the highly-paid CEOs of multinational corporations so hard work doesn’t necessarily correlate with high earnings.
Also, most entrepreneurs don’t want to work 120 hours per week.
3. Don’t break the rules
According to the SEC, Elon Musk twice violated court orders with his tweets in 2020. As a Wall Street Journal about this situation put it:
“The feud appears to have ended in a stalemate without further consequence to Tesla or Mr. Musk, the correspondence suggests. Tesla’s lawyers argued against the SEC’s claims about the tweets, and the SEC never went back to court to ask a judge to intervene.”
Is there something those of us who aren’t multi-billionaire entrepreneurs can learn from this? No, not really. Good luck with violating food safety standards in your restaurant and assuming that authorities won’t enforce the rules. You’ll need it.
When we read stories about business superstars, we assume that we have to copy their behavior if we want to be successful.
But here’s the thing: most entrepreneurs don’t want to have a publicly-traded, multinational corporation. For most people, success means something very different. They want to make a good living and have a good life.
Most entrepreneurs also don’t have the resources that many business superstars had even before they became superstars. That’s not an excuse not to try hard. It’s not invalidating the hard work and talent that helped business superstars get to where they are.
It’s just an observation that sets the record straight. Nobody in their right minds would assume that a 90-year old woman can run a marathon as fast as a 25-year old athlete can. That doesn’t mean the 90-year old woman is a failure for taking longer to finish the marathon.
On the contrary, compared to her starting part, she might be the actual superstar.
Want more support to find and express your purpose in the world?
If you'd like to take the next step forward, sign up to receive my weekly emails that will help you live a life of productivity, passion and purpose.
I'll get you started with a free mini-course (3 short videos, delivered over a few days) that will show you the path to doing what you love.
I respect your privacy.