At 3 Day Startup, we work to build the entrepreneurial foundation in students so that they can grow their ventures, effect change in their communities, and become entrepreneurs in their own right. And, through my experiences as a facilitator for 3 Day Startup, I noticed a trend among many of these entrepreneurs.
This trend is a disconnect between the perception of entrepreneurship ––– particularly “successful” entrepreneurship ––– and the reality of entrepreneurship.
Part of this disconnect is the indisputable dominance of Silicon Valley, a haven of unicorns and successful tech startups that rake in more and more money each quarter from investors looking for the next Facebook or Uber (or, at least, that’s how it’s perceived).
This perception creates unrealistic expectations for young entrepreneurs trying to enter the tech industry and “make it.”
Of course, what those expectations mean varies from person to person and industry to industry. But in my experience with young, excited, and ambitious entrepreneurs, their understanding of success follows a very particular trajectory.
Let’s call it the Mark Zuckerberg trajectory –– one that lives in the tech space and leads to seemingly (key-word here) immediate popularity and monetary success.
During at least one 3 Day Startup program I’ve facilitated, when I asked a participant why they wanted to be a part of the program, their answer was “I want to make a million dollars by the time I’m 23.” And I’m sure that participant wasn’t alone in that rationale.
Which leads us to the consequences this expectation: the misconception that with the “right idea” you can achieve monumental success at a very young age.
This misconception is detrimental to the landscape of entrepreneurship because it creates a culture of survivorship bias and champions visionaries as the backbone of the startup age.
So why is this a problem?
For one, it is a supremely narrow view of what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur and what kinds of people are allowed to be entrepreneurs.
At every program I’ve attended or facilitated, there is alway at least one person or team who is wholly convinced that their brilliant idea will make them wildly successful, that their vision will take them where they want to go.
But we know that that’s not quite how it goes. A lot of hard work, market research, pivoting, and failure will have to go into it too. And even then, while you may achieve success, it likely won’t look like the success of the tech giants.
Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Steve Jobs aren’t and can’t be the only faces of entrepreneurship. Not all entrepreneurs will be made in their image and follow their path. And, while their success can largely be attested to some combination of luck and talent, at the end of the day they are extreme outliers, representing only a microcosm of those trying to break into their respective fields.
Survivorship bias plagues entrepreneurship by glossing over important failures in favor of successful outliers.
You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted statistic that 90% of startups fail. Which can be a frightening sounding statistic for an aspiring entrepreneur (and according to new reports, may not even be fully true). But few startups have ever grown without failing first, in some capacity. And that doesn’t always mean sweeping, destructive failure that you can’t bounce back from. But where your idea ends up is generally far away from where it began.
The overarching focus, however, on the major success stories and unicorns undermines the important lessons and pathways that entrepreneurs take from their failures.
Innovation is not a straight line. It is full of twists and turns and rough prototypes.
But the culture of survivorship bias and championing of “visionaries” may actually amplify the number of failures.
Because most startups fail because of lack of market need.
And therein lies the true limitation of vision worship. Because generally, a vision for a tech startup comes from the mind and interests of a single person, while entrepreneurs must strive to address the needs of others and innovate in that space.
Knowing your own needs and your own vision is not a good indicator of becoming a successful entrepreneur.
If people –– whether it be a market segment or a target audience –– don’t want what you are selling, then you are dead in the water.
But the perception of entrepreneurship doesn’t necessarily prepare students and aspiring entrepreneurs for this reality. Even the smartest budding entrepreneurs are susceptible to getting caught up in their own ideas of what they and their startup need to be and forgetting the most important part of becoming a successful entrepreneur: solving a real problem for a real market.
Doing your market research and finding a team, cofounder, or mentor, to help you flesh out a solution is invaluable work if you want to be successful. To achieve what you want to do, you don’t have to chase the dream of becoming a visionary and going it alone. In fact, it will probably hold you back. And those outliers we mentioned before didn’t go it alone either. If they had bought into the belief that they were solo visionary creators and didn’t form a team to help move them along and offer advice, they probably wouldn’t have made it half as far.
So how do we guide students in the right direction and start changing the culture and discourse around entrepreneurship?
At 3 Day Startup, we keep a heavy emphasis on putting skills into practice early and often, rapidly iterating on an idea, collaborating with team members and mentors, and conducting customer discovery as a preliminary step to starting to grow a startup. We want them to experience failure, lots of it, so that they can quickly understand what pivots and adjustments they need to make on their strategy to find success for themselves.
Over the course of those three days, we see a lot of transformation from our participants and alumni in how they approach entrepreneurship and get started.
But on a larger scale, there needs to be a narrative shift in what makes an entrepreneur and what defines success.
And even if we don’t change those iconic role models like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk, we at least need to reassess why we idolize and celebrate them.
Because, though they are often counted as visionaries, they aren’t only visionaries. It would be a mistake not to talk about their hiccups along the way and the actual market need they addressed in new and innovative ways.
Those stories –– of failure, of change, and of learnings –– are what young entrepreneurs need to hear, and what they will all experience themselves. Because it will help them forge their individual paths as entrepreneurs and find their own successes.
Take the first step in unlocking your entrepreneurial potential. Contact us today and bring a 3 Day Startup program to your university or community. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to learn more about upcoming events and receive notifications for more blogs like this to help you on your entrepreneurial journey.
Think we overlooked something? Have thoughts to add? Let us know in the comments!