Worthless. Impossible. Stupid. Safe to say those are three words aspiring entrepreneurs probably doesn’t want to hear assigned to their idea, right?
Wrong, says Daniel Isenberg. The author of the aptly-titled book Worthless, Impossible, and Stupid argues that anything entrepreneurial–truly entrepreneurial–shouldn’t be perceived as valuable, feasible, or smart. That’s because entrepreneurism, rather than referring to anybody who starts a business, is all about seeing value where nobody else does, he says. Entrepreneurship is contrarian.
Isenberg is the founding director of the Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project and a former professor at Harvard Business School. His book was published earlier this year, and he took some time to speak with Inc. about it.
Inc.: Nobody wants to hear about their idea as worthless or impossible, and certainly not stupid. But you’re using those as positive terms. What is behind that framing?
Daniel Isenberg: It’s something very fundamental about entrepreneurship. Because entrepreneurship has become a buzzword in the last five years or so, people do with it what they want. I think we’ve gotten very confused as a society about what is important about that term. One (confusion) is that it has to do with startups, that every startup is entrepreneurial and every entrepreneur has a startup. The second confusion is that every entrepreneur is innovative and most innovations are entrepreneurial.
What I’m trying to get back is what entrepreneurship really means: doing something that is out of the ordinary in terms of value creation. Entrepreneurs are creating extraordinary value by, in the most general sense, buying low and selling high. They’re beating the market by taking something that looks less valuable to everybody else.
It gets at the very heart of what entrepreneurs do. They’re doing things to create extraordinary value to the marketplace by finding things the market doesn’t appreciate. So what is the market supposed to say? What are investors supposed to say? “This is wonderful, this is great, why didn’t I think of that?” No. They say something between apathy and rejection and derision. That’s the experience of the vast majority of entrepreneurs who later, in hindsight, people say, “What a great idea that was!”
How do we know if something’s going to be good or not? The point is, we don’t. There’s something about entrepreneurship that is intrinsically unpredictable.
Inc.: One example you reference in your book is Tough Mudder, the fitness challenge that is conducted in, well, very muddy terrain.
Isenberg: It’s literally people running through the mud doing these ridiculous things. And it’s interesting because the two co-founders competed in the Harvard Business School Business Plan Competition. And they were trounced in the first round because the judges said, “This is too narrow. It’s a niche concept. It’ll never be scaleable. It’s a little blip.”
Well, this year they’ll do $120 million in revenues. It’s their third full year. And that’s with $20,000 they invested in the company.
Inc.: So if you’re telling us the modern definition of an entrepreneur–somebody who starts a business, basically–is misplaced, where do you think the misperception came from?
Isenberg: Oh, I don’t know. How does any fad emerge? The flames have been fanned by (political) leaders who don’t know what they’re talking about and have latched on to this since the economic crisis. They were grasping at straws. Entrepreneurship has been held out as the great hope of humankind during the economic crisis that we’re not quite out of yet.
Related to that is when somebody graduates from school, they take their pick. What do you want to tell your friend? I’m unemployed. I’m living with my parents. I’m going back to get a second master’s. Or, I’m starting a company. I’ve got a startup! It’s like the waitress in Los Angeles who when she’s at a party she’s an actress.
The vast majority of young entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs because their alternatives aren’t very good. When the economy picks up, we’ll see that entrepreneurship will become less popular, I predict.
Inc.: Do you get a lot of angry letters?
Isenberg: I’ve been accused of disparaging entrepreneurship. I’m the last person in the world to disparage entrepreneurship. I’ve been an entrepreneur, I’ve been an investor, an angel investor, I was a venture capitalist, I’ve researched, I’ve taught. Please don’t tell me I don’t like entrepreneurs. But I think it’s important to look it in the eyes and say what it is and what it isn’t.
Inc.: So what can this book tell the small-business owner?
Isenberg: I intentionally did not write the book with any prescriptions. … It’s the entrepreneur’s job to surprise. Prescriptions are inherently limiting to the entrepreneur.
Of course I believe entrepreneurship can be a force for good in the world in many ways. I also think it behooves all kinds of leaders, including policy makers, to think, “How can we create an environment where entrepreneurship can thrive?” Where you don’t try and constrain it. But if there are lessons, it’s that you can’t tell entrepreneurs what to do because it’s their job to surprise us.