I can’t quite remember when it finally clicked. Maybe it was when enough people realized the word entrepreneur wasn’t a good descriptor for the kinds of businesses us “non-business” folk were interested in building.
The first push for a new definition, I recall, was “social entrepreneur.” It came into my awareness sometime in the early to mid-2000s, and I remember feeling really liberated by the idea that I could have a business with social, rather than economic, drivers as its engine. It felt like a homecoming actually, like someone finally gave me words to describe something I previously could not articulate. Social entrepreneurship inspired me to experiment with turning our café in Berlin into a salon that would host different kinds of conversation events exploring interculturalism, philosophy, city-building and language exchange events.
Over the past two years I’ve been very involved in researching and designing training for a new form of entrepreneur: the creative entrepreneur. Again, taking up this qualifier for entrepreneurship has been really exciting. What would businesses look like if creative people drove it? What would artists, writers, filmmakers, illustrators, designers, playwrights and any other creative professional bring forward as a business model? What could their efforts mean for our communities?
Working in this domain has brought me back to consuming more art and performance, while also creating art. The push on the definition has inspired me to venture into completely new places; it’s caused me to challenge my own understanding of what commercial exchange is in the first place and what it could mean in the future.
And although I’m in my fourth year as a freelancer/consultant, I’m only now realizing a new term has emerged for my breed of professionals: solopreneur. Our motto? Have no boss, be no one’s boss.
Rather than turn myself into someone who perpetuates hierarchies of power and/or income, I’m much more interested in exploring collaborations, collectives and partnerships. What does it look like when people of different skills sets come together to work on projects, to organize our own learning, to band together around our collective interests, and to support one another without replicating old models of doing so? I feel incredibly excited to think about what new ways of organizing will look like among all of us independents.
Out With the Old
In the past, the word entrepreneur only really included a small sliver of the population, primarily males interested in growing very profitable companies. The vision was not that appealing to anyone who did not find thoughts of monopolies of distribution channels, IPOs and complicated cash forecasting techniques something to look forward to.
For those of us looking to create something for ourselves, rather than fit into what was on offer for us, we only had these guys to look to as examples of what it meant to run a business. If we were on a social or cultural mission, then we only had non-profit models to aspire to. The past decade has changed all that. Entrepreneurship has been disrupted and it’s happened as a result of creative, heart-and-soul-filled people who prioritize mission, purpose, significance and impact above the instrumental approaches to business that were birthed from and supportive of industrialism.
When I think of it like this, it all feels kind of revolutionary. We’ve managed to snatch entrepreneurship away from those who have benefited from it the most. We’ve pulled it out from underneath the feet of a male-dominated technocratic start-up scene. By taking up a social mission, we’ve challenged and exposed sclerotic non-profit institutions and organizations that have lost sight of who they are there to serve.
We’ve stretched the definition of the possible to fit a larger group of people who are not looking to establish large corporations or institutions, are not looking for investors or funders, are not motivated by the possibility of growing rich and who are not business school grads. We are people who are in this to try something new, not to replicate the methods, cultures, values and techniques of those who’ve already made it.
Defining the New
What that “new” is and exactly how it will be done is still in the making. We know that most of us are interested in nurturing practices, values and spaces supportive of a more humane way of living together. We also know that we need to earn a decent living doing so or none of our visions will stand up in the material world. But we have, by no means, landed on a clear understanding of exactly what these new attempts at building businesses and means of organizing will look like. And because we don’t have a clear path ahead of us, we are all invited to take a crack at shaping what entrepreneurship will look like in the future and how we will use it to build our world.
So on that note, I’d like to put forward the essential meaning that I hold when I approach entrepreneurship — socially, creatively and individually. I don’t see it as a process or a destination but rather, I see it as an overall approach to interacting with the world around me. Being an entrepreneur to me means:
Being someone who appropriately relates to the environment I operate within, who is able to remain flexible enough to perceive and respond to changes and cues from that environment in a way that is satisfying to both me as the entrepreneur and those I serve.
Put more simply, I believe being an entrepreneur is about being good in relationships. There is no, one-size-fits-all approach to define what being good at relationships is. Rather, the definition varies depending upon the partners involved in the exchange. That’s why no one can give you specific instructions on how to be good at relationships and even if they do, it doesn’t mean you’ll actually be able to do it. Relationships always involve a dynamic and delicate interplay between at least two people.
Of course you can be in a relationship and not be good at it. Think, for example, about parenthood or leadership or teaching. Just because you get the title does not make you good at it. The same goes for entrepreneurs. You can start a business and be manipulative. You can thrive on exploiting other people. You can be an egomaniac interested primarily in power and prestige. You can grow rich as this kind of entrepreneur. That’s a choice you can indeed make, but it certainly isn’t a requirement.
Creative, social and solo entrepreneurs, amongst others, are at the forefront of creating new relationships with those they serve and by doing so, are challenging the very way in which business is conducted. They are questioning the tenets of our economic system, they are challenging the divisions between for-profit and not-for-profit models, they are pushing themselves to take action to make art, products and experiences that shake up our world and invite more people into the process of world-making.
If you think about it, being in relationships with others can help us strive to be the best people we can possibly be; entrepreneurship can and should be the same. Building a quality relationship between you, your business, those you serve and the community you all exist within can be the primary focus of an entrepreneur. The commercial exchange that happens as a result of that relationship comes second.
Or at least, that’s how I see it. You are completely free to contest that definition in any way you want so please do so. This is our world to make, so let’s get to it!