You Are Not an Entrepreneur

You probably got this sent to you by someone who cares about you and wants to you be successful at your startup. They’re also subtly (or passive aggressively) trying to tell you to get out of the building and start selling. It might be a bitter pill, but stick around and we’ll have plenty of sweet goodness to wash it down with later.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.””— RICHARD FEYNMAN

You might be a “serial entrepreneur”, but not a successful one. People will stop referring to you, using air quotes around the term, when you actually get paying customers for one of your ventures. All entrepreneurship is sales. Someone, somewhere must buy your product or service. Even if you are involved in an “impact” project where the measures of success aren't financial, someone has to “buy in” to your product or service.

If you've only ever had ideas, but no customers, please stop referring to yourself as an entrepreneur. You might have always been the idea guy. You probably had ideas before it was cool to have ideas. (It became cool to have ideas about the time that someone coined the loathsome phrase. “I have an idea for an app.”) Ideas do not make an entrepreneur. Ideas are less than 1% of the output of an entrepreneur. Having ideas, even the best ideas in the world, does not make you an entrepreneur.

If you've read “The Lean Startup”, that doesn't make you an entrepreneur. Reading books doesn’t make you an entrepreneur. Creating new things and getting people to buy those things makes you an entrepreneur. Books can help you know how to do that, but merely owning books – even reading books – doesn’t make you an entrepreneur any more than reading a medical textbook makes you a doctor. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote: “That books do not take the place of experience, and that learning is no substitute for genius, are two kindred phenomena; their common ground is that the abstract can never take the place of the perceptive.” A doctor must go through a residency, and an entrepreneur must also go through his or her own residency.

Besides, you didn’t actually read The Lean Startup. You bought it so that it could decorate your shelf and show that you’re an entrepreneur.

If you've tried an “elevator pitch” on an actual investor, you're getting closer to being an entrepreneur, but you're not there yet. If you tried to communicate your idea to someone, that’s great! You’re now in the top 20% of what Noah Kagan calls “wantrepreneurs”.

If you filled out a “Business Model Canvas”, you're not an entrepreneur, but bless you for thinking about all of the components of a business model. Now you’ve considered what you’ve got to offer someone. You’ve thought about how much it’s going to cost you to make and deliver it. You’re asking how much you should charge. Perhaps most importantly, you’re asking why the customer wants this thing in the first place. You’re on the cusp of becoming an entrepreneur.

If you bought a domain name and made a website, you're getting closer to being an entrepreneur. Good heavens, you’re in business now! It’s! People are going to flock to it! It’s the perfect name! If you used that website to make an offer, you’re standing right on the line. You’re on the border. You are mere microns away from entrepreneur status.

If, instead of making an offer on your website, you printed business cards and started handing them out, immigration is going to turn you back at the border. You shall not pass. No visa, no entry. How could you be wrong? How could you still be in Wantrepreneurstan? After all, you just found the perfect logo. You had to talk to twenty people on some freelancer site. You even paid for five of them to come up with some options. It took a few days, but you found the perfect one.

You didn’t even waste all that time waiting. You spent your waiting time coming up with the perfect tagline. It's amazing. It’s brilliant. You mentioned this tagline to a friend, and he suggested you pitch your tagline to the local angel investment group. After all, you're an expert in your thing. In fact, you’re Chief Expert at Your business card says so.

You can’t be turned back now! You hired an employee! But, I'm sorry to say, you're still not an entrepreneur. You knew that you needed smart people to come up with great ideas to grow your startup, so you’ve been hiring. You’ve even gone out to two dozen meetings with outsourced product development firms. How is it that you’re being told that you’re not an entrepreneur?

Making someone sign a non-disclosure agreement doesn't make you an entrepreneur. Your idea is not this precious bar of gold that you must vigorously defend in case someone wants to take it from you.

Websites. Business cards. Logos. Company names. Ideas. Written plans. Employees. Non-disclosure agreements. None of this makes you an entrepreneur. All of these things are lovely when they are used in support of your entrepreneurship. Without the crucial elements of entrepreneurship, they are fake work. Just like fake news, fake work can captivate us.

I have seen hundreds of fake startups created by wantrepreneurs run for years at a time. Having an idea that won't go away doesn't make you an entrepreneur. It doesn’t matter if you are supported by government grants, paying half a dozen employees’ salaries, in a comfortable office in the middle of the city. It doesn’t matter if the government grant gave you money allocated specifically for t-shirts. It doesn’t matter how many people know your name. None of these things by themselves make you an entrepreneur.

Being an entrepreneur means you have convinced someone to give something of value to you in exchange for giving something of value to them. If you received something of value from someone but did not give something of value back, you are a charity case or a fraud. (Or both! You can be both!) If you gave something of value but did not receive something of value in return, you are running a charity. If you neither gave something of value nor received something of value in return, you are a wantrepreneur. If you gave something of value and returned something of value in return, you are an entrepreneur.

The timing doesn’t have to be perfect. Sometimes you deliver something of value and it takes the client some time to pay you. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to have someone with such a painful problem that they pay you in advance to solve their problem. Either way, you’re an entrepreneur.

Becoming an entrepreneur requires convincing people. You have to convince them that you understand their problem. You have to convince them that you have a solution to their problem. You have to convince them that you are the person to solve their problem. You have to convince them that your price is the right price.

Everything else you learn is secondary. Entrepreneurs don’t know everything from the start. You learn as you go. You are allowed to make it up as you go along and find other people to teach you as long as you are delivering something of value to someone in exchange for something of value.

The primary reason that you haven't been successful at your startup efforts is that you are not very good at convincing. All of the other work you do as a founder is meaningless unless it helps you to convince. This is a bold statement, but it is true. The principles of persuasion are consistent, but their application can vary wildly depending upon who you are trying to convince. As every good salesman will tell you, the first person who has to buy your product is you. You must believe that what you are selling is worth the price. You are the first person who you must learn to convince.

(Originally written for Prime CTO)

Lorenzo Swank
Entrepreneur in Residence and Venture Partner

Serial entrepreneur, computer scientist, and amateur eletronic violinist, currently working to level up my skills by collaborating with other entrepreneurs on early stage ventures.