Too Much Entrepreneurship Is a Bad Thing

At the risk of sounding like a Grumpy Old Man, and with near certainty that this post will be roasted by many who read it, I am about to make the case that there is such a thing as too much entrepreneurship--or at least too much excitement about becoming an entrepreneur too early in life.

I know, I know. This blog, and all of my work over the last 15 years, has celebrated the spirit of innovation, disruption, and changing the game. But last week, when The New York Times published one of those bound-for-the-time-capsule reports on the culture of Silicon Valley, I for one had had enough. Anything in excess is a poison, after all, and in America we've made the phenomenon of taking every good idea to excess our new national pastime. That's what we may be doing with entrepreneurship today. The startup bug has become a startup fever, and that fever may be driving many people to hysteria.

The Times piece was all about the new "War for Talent" in Silicon Valley, a replay of the battle waged more than a decade ago to recruit top-flight young engineers and coders from elite colleges and assorted countercultural pursuits. "The atmosphere is brutally competitive," one executive said. "Recruiting in Silicon Valley is more competitive and intense and furious than college football recruiting of high school athletes."

Talk about partying like it's 1999: Zynga, the red-hot game maker, "dangles free haircuts and iPods to recruits, who are also told that they can bring their dogs to work." (No word if the dogs get free haircuts too.) At Integra, a photo-sharing site, "workers take personal food and drink orders from employees, fill them at Costco, and keep the supplies on hand for lunches and snacks."

All of this is pretty familiar, if slightly ridiculous, stuff. (I guess I am a Grumpy Old Man.) But what is truly new, and to me, at least, rather worrisome, is that companies have agreed to teach new employees how to start their own companies virtually from the minute they walk in the door. The hot new perk, for people who have barely spent a day working inside the company they have been recruited to join, is training and advice and lessons on how to leave that company and start one of their own. As the piece concludes, "Many of the most talented engineers want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, not work for him."

I suppose I'd like to be the next Mark Zuckerberg too, if only to get Jesse Eisenberg to play me on the big screen. But to me, this cult of the young entrepreneur runs the risk of becoming just another business-culture fad, the Silicon Valley version of every East Coast smarty-pants who aspired to be the next Gordon Gekko (a Hollywood-created crook, who, bizarrely, inspired countless young people to flock to Wall Street).

Here's my major beef with what's happening. The real metric of business success is whether you have a positive impact--on your industry, on your community, on (in a small way) the world at large. That doesn't always mean starting your own company. Most of the time, in fact, it means becoming part of a company that you love, with a purpose you believe in, and people who you can't imagine not working with. It's all about the cause, the mission, the values you embrace, and the value you create. I've always admired talented people who want to be part of something bigger than themselves, rather than those who think it's all about them, even when they're in their mid-twenties.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against teaching people at a company how to be entrepreneurs. And, unlike say at Bloomberg, where people who leave the company are banished forever, I'm all for encouraging people to try new things with the hope that they will return. But I think it's incredibly wrongheaded to compete for talented people based on pitching a company as a training ground for someone's individual dreams, as opposed to a place where individuals can't imagine not being--because the product is so important, the values so robust, the culture so engaging. Business ultimately is a team sport. As someone building a company, I'd much prefer people who genuinely want to be part of the team for the long haul, rather than "free agents" who are willing to suffer through a brief stint on the roster before they field a team of their own.

Malcolm Gladwell looked at this very issue a decade ago, during the last War for Talent, in a long New Yorker piece called "The Talent Myth." The object of his attention (and scorn) was a company that vowed to attract the brainiest and most high-powered people in its field, and who promised that spending a few years there would give them the skills and mindset they needed to do whatever they wanted with the rest of their lives. That company was Enron, and we know how that turned out.

There's a difference between attracting brilliant stars, Gladwell argued and building a brilliant systems for the long term. The most successful organizations, he said, "are the ones where the system is the star." Indeed, he asked, "What if Enron failed not in spite of its talent mind-set but because of it?" he asked. "What if smart people are overrated?"

That was a heckuva question 10 years ago, and it's a heckuva question today. Does it really make sense to move heaven and earth to recruit young people to your company whose real commitment is starting their own company? How about focusing on people (even if they are a little less young or a little less talented) who believe in your company and are committed to its success?

Reprinted from Harvard Business Review

William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine, author of Practically Radical, and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. Follow him @PracticallyRad or at WilliamTaylor.com.

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  • Free Enterprise

    Entrepreneurs are a powerful part of our country's story; the ability of those entrepreneurs to secure capital is critical to its economy. I work with the Campaign for Free Enterprise, a project of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and we recently launched the Center for Entrepreneurship to give entrepreneurs a voice in D.C.

    While we agree that it is always great for a company to measure its success through its positive impact, what greater impact is there than creating a job for someone else? According to the U.S. Government's website, www.entrepreneruship.gov, from 1980 - 2005, firms less than five years old accounted for ALL net job growth in the United States. More recently, in 2007 young firms-defined as one to five years of age-accounted for nearly two-thirds of job creation that year.

    It seems that companies who support entrepreneurship won't lose their young talent. The average age of U.S.-born tech founders when they started their companies was 39. In fact, twice as many were older than 50 as were younger than 25. In fact, most entrepreneurs need the experience they gain at larger companies. Where would Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, be without his experience at Fairchild Semiconductor? Or Steve Jobs without the skills he learned at Atari?

    We would love to hear more from you. You can join the conversation about free enterprise at http://www.facebook.com/americ....

    -Hilary, freeenterprise@uschamber.com