Picture the quintessential entrepreneur. There’s a good chance what comes to mind is someone in the mold of Eric Reis, Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg—young tech types with a yen for all things groundbreaking and new.
That’s just not the case, according to entrepreneur, investor and Columbia Business School professor Daniel Isenberg. In his new book Worthless, Impossible, and Stupid: How Contrarian Entrepreneurs Create and Capture Extraordinary Value, Isenberg argues that the prevailing notion that most successful entrepreneurs are Silicon Valley dropouts is not only inaccurate, it’s detrimental: “As appealing as that stereotype is (with a grain of truth, perhaps), it’s one that paradoxically can discourage many people from setting off down the entrepreneurial path,” he writes.
That’s why Isenberg identifies what he believes to be the three biggest myths about entrepreneurs—and summarily debunks them. Is he right?
Myth 1: Entrepreneurs must be innovators
Here’s a truth many have a hard time understanding: the great idea behind your business doesn’t have to be yours.
Most people assume entrepreneurs are all mad inventors toiling in labs and/or garages to create something new. It’s often not so, says Isenberg. Entrepreneurs are far more likely to be shrewd opportunists that market other peoples’ ideas than brilliant innovators themselves.
“Extraordinary value is often created from gaps in existing markets, from the copying of businesses from one market to another, or in industries that (mistakenly, in my opinion) few consider innovative—real estate, commodity trade, financial services, import agencies, retail and so on,” he writes.
“At the end of the day, even the most innovative idea can end up as only a footnote in the inventor’s hall of fame (or much less) if an entrepreneur does not turn that idea into something that creates tangible value—something the market will buy.”
Myth 2: Entrepreneurs must be experts
There’s no denying that expertise of a particular industry or function can be an asset when building a business; the world is full of successful entrepreneurs who set out their shingles after toiling for years doing something similar for someone else.
But there are also plenty of examples of booming businesses in which the founder has only rudimentary knowledge of the sector he’s dominated. Expertise can be an asset, argues Isenberg, but equally—if not more—valuable is the disruptive power of entering an industry with a total lack of bias: “An argument can be made that looking at a topic with fresh eyes and without the blinders and beliefs about what is impossible’ facilitates being able to see opportunity where others do not.”
Myth 3: Entrepreneurs must be young
Entrepreneurship ain’t for the faint of heart. That may be why there’s a prevailing assumption that it’s a young person’s game, suited best to those who have the energy to log endless hours building a business and lack the commitments—spouses, children, mortgages—that can distract from the venture.
There’s no evidence to support this stereotype, according to Isenberg. He cites studies reporting that the average age of founders at startup is 40 for men and 41 for women; moreover, the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity is among boomers in the 55-64 age cohort.
So why do people assume youth make better entrepreneurs? Isenberg speculates it’s partially because titans like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell and Zuckerberg struck gold so young. “Yet even most of these iconic young entrepreneurs relied on adult supervision’ in the early growth years, hiring experienced hands to help them navigate the tricky startup waters,” he writes. So don’t be so quick to discount the value of age and experience.
Do you agree that these are, in fact, the biggest myths about entrepreneurs? What others would you add? Share your thoughts in the Comments below.