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Never underestimate the power of the entrepreneur, or the public

As Mark Zuckerberg breaks a promise to investors that he will stop spending by acquiring Oculus, to the fury of the gaming company’s fans and investors, King Digital Entertainment launches a $7.1bn IPO based on the strength of one successful app, invoking comparisons with Zynga’s failed IPO in 2011, and Alibaba prepares an IPO in New York for a Company the US public has barely heard of, Haggerston Times asks, what is the role of an entrepreneur, and can we trust them?

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   

But I have promises to keep,   

And miles to go before I sleep,   

And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

We all know the story by now; the creation myth that made it impossible to launch a product without one. Mark Zuckerberg, the awkward, socially inept, Harvard freshman takes on the mighty Winklevoss twins and wins, building the most recognisable brand on the planet in the process.

Here’s another one; Jack Ma, the English Major at the Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute, launches Alibaba with 18 friends from his apartment block. China’s most recognisable billionaire, his biggest ambition is to start a tai chi club with actor Jet Li.   

And what of the people behind King Digital Entertainment, the makers of Candy Crush, who expect to raise $7.1 billion USD today when their stock debuts in New York?

There’s Melvyn Morris, the Chairman, who left school at 16, and has already founded a dating agency and Spanish property group; his CEO Richard Zacconi, who, after the dotcom bubble burst in 2001, upped sticks and came to England to search for new digital opportunities; and Sebastian Knuttsson, the Pac-man obsessed Chief Creative Officer, who hails from a long line of entrepreneurs.

Final example: Nick D’Aloisi, the 17 year old founder of Summly and Trimit. D’Aloisi became the youngest person ever to receive venture capital funding, aged 15, after he was telephoned out of the blue by Li Ka-shing, the Hong Kong based billionaire, who was prepared to fly to London with his business partners, to meet the precocious coding genius face to face.

Cast your eye over any industry you choose, and the theme remains constant; the men or women at the controls of almost every front-running Company have a story to tell, or are part of a story worth telling.

Barclays Capital had Bob Diamond and his sidekick Richie Rich, the flamboyant, horse-racing aficionado with the bright red braces; what would Virgin Media be without its founder and Talisman, Richard Branson, whose obsession with space travel and ballooning escapades persuade punters to open bank accounts? And, politically speaking, would the “pink tide” of socialism have spread so quickly across Central America without the charisma and machinations of Hugo Chavez, and Fidel Castro.

So can we characterise an “entrepreneur”, is it even helpful to do so, and how do they impact our society?

Firstly, no entrepreneur will ever feel that they are in it for the money, or that they are playing simply to win. Entrepreneurs have a deep seated need to represent those they perceive as victims, weak, or disenfranchised, which in turn justifies their own megalomaniac tendencies.

An entrepreneur is social chameleon; sympathetic and ruthless in equal measure, and often it is hard for the bystander to predict which way the axe will fall. Could a pin striped Zuckerberg, in another life, have run an investment fund on Wall Street? Might Richard Branson have made a good Prime Minister? Swapped at birth, would Carlos Slim have invented the PC, and Bill Gates ran Mexico’s communications industry?

Unlikely. Why? An Entrepreneur, no matter how powerful they become, will always be a product of their environment. They will be blessed, or sometimes cursed, with a tremendous work ethic, the most energy of anyone in their peer group, and an instinctive ability to adapt the tools they find at their disposal, to whatever task they see as the most pressing. Think Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood.

Ultimately, when nature and nurture permit, an entrepreneur will emerge from the cocoon of emotional turmoil, nervous tension, introspection and innate selfishness, a well-rounded, decent yet fiercely driven individual. And, when circumstances permit, an overriding ambition to build an empire. In fact, it could be argued that the only thing that can stop a successful entrepreneur, is an even more successful entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs fulfil a twin role for the Company, or people that they represent: they are the decision makers, but they are also the story. A business without a leader is a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies lack the personality to grow, to challenge, or to innovate. A company in the hands of an entrepreneur will grow until its path is blocked by another business, and then it will get ready to fight.

And it is at this point that we come to the crux of the matter; a leader is born from a desire to lead others, and to help others by setting them on the right path. But a leader is also a personality, and a personality that feeds off achievement. A leader’s ambition is based upon a sense of what they feel is achievable, and given their almost inevitable intellectual superiority, it can be impossible for the community to predict what this may be.

What this means in practical or business terms is that an entrepreneur’s appetite for what can be termed risk is far greater than others, because for them risk equals opportunity, and opportunity means achievement, or progress. Moses parted the Red Sea to help his people, but you can bet your bottom dollar there were those among the Israelites who didn’t fancy that crossing.

When a leader sees opportunity that the rest of us don’t see, a gulf in ambition is created which can cause a separation between leader and led.

So it is with Zuckerberg, who must reason that just as he confounded expectations when he founded Facebook, he must face down the nay-sayers again, until the world understands that he is best placed to take a Company like Oculus forward. Likewise Jack Ma, who knows in his heart that he can make the West believe in him and his Company, but also knows that most do not share his enthusiasm.

Because of the way that they operate, an entrepreneur will never, ever, let on what they are thinking. To reveal their plans is anathema to them , so they must scheme and plot ways to carry the public until their strategies are in place, and robust enough to become visible to all.

Any entrepreneur, then, must have tremendous, almost unlimited self-belief. But history is littered with examples where de-coupling from the public and going it alone has had disastrous consequences.

Take the Dotcom bubble of 2001, the collapse of the global markets in 2008, or British Airways dirty tricks campaign against Branson’s Virgin airlines. When the public, or a rival, cannot see clearly the direction its leaders are taking, they instinctively take a step back from the brink, “common sense” prevails, and the leader must either go it alone, or, more often than not, abandon the position they have taken, even while their instinct tells them they must go on.

There is no doubt that there are many “masters of the universe”, who still feel that the risk they took on by providing mortgages to Mexican farmers in Florida was a justifiable step on the path to creating a more equal society. The trouble is, nobody else saw it like that, and they never came down from their ivory towers to try to re-connect with the supporters they had lost.

The phenomenon of separation repeats itself historically every time change threatens to overwhelm an industry, way of life, or social norm. At its worst it is known as corruption, a road to hell paved with good intentions, at best it is a generally misguided strategy, almost impossible to pull off. Once the horse becomes detached from the cart, people start to question its value, and its pulling power becomes all but illusory.

Of course, a good way to judge the success of the modern entrepreneur is when they face their greatest challenges. When the crisis point looms large and the entrepreneur’s motives are questioned, can they persuade us that their ideas are fresh, noble, and altruistic, or have they, hubristically, been led astray by their own desire to always achieve more?

Zuckerberg’s rhetoric is, at times, alarming, but he is not the only culprit, and like any good entrepreneur, he has sought to place himself on the side of the people. His haranguing of President Obama over the NSA scandal could be seen as somewhat ironic given the power he himself wields. In the UK, Richard Branson’s efforts to win over his public have often been excruciating, but there has never been any doubt in his mind that it is he who knows best.

In the Chinese fable, the rat wins the race across the river because it promises to sing for the far stronger ox, in exchange for a ride. In the final reckoning, perhaps all that an entrepreneur is, is a manifestation of society’s hopes, aspirations, and progress, permitted to ride at the front on the journey because it sings so sweetly. Or perhaps the rat has other ideas.   

Ultimately, it is to be hoped that the entrepreneur is judged not by their ambition, but by their achievements.


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