We need to celebrate entrepreneurs – but remember they’re human

We live in the age of the celebrity entrepreneur. Founders like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Jack Ma are idolised, in a way that the CEOs of Tesco and Unilever are not. In popular culture, they actually have much more in common with footballers, music artists and YouTubers, all of which reflect the ideal of escaping normal life and achieving overnight fame and fortune.

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At the same time, entrepreneurs are frequently presented as a breed apart, particularly in tech – world-changing stars displaying a superhuman vision and self-belief that makes them seem somehow destined for greatness.

In many respects this isn’t a bad thing – entrepreneurship should definitely be celebrated, and young people should aspire to be founders – but it should be for the right reasons.

Two major awards ceremonies brought this into focus over the last week. Zilch founder Philip Belamant was crowned Great British Entrepreneur of the Year 2021, while Matthew Scullion, founder of Matillion, was named EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2021.

Both deserve praise for their achievements. They both started unicorn businesses – buy-now-pay-later fintech Zilch, in 2018; Matillion, a data business, in 2011 – that have been extraordinarily successful in very competitive fields.

But as a founder and a confidante of founders, I can assure you of two things: they are both human, and there was nothing overnight about their success.

Starting a company involves an unreasonable amount of hard work, and an equally unreasonable amount of determination, in the face of often considerable risk and doubt.

As Social Chain co-founder and TV Dragon Steven Bartlett told the Great British Entrepreneur Awards, “The only predictable thing about entrepreneurship is its unpredictability. It’s stressful, uncertain and demanding – regardless of how smart, well-funded or experienced you are.”

This means that great entrepreneurs also have an unreasonable level of optimism and a strong belief in what they’re doing and why – it’s the only way, as Bartlett says, that founders can keep going long enough to succeed.

Growing a business requires the same qualities as starting one, but a few others too, which are often left out of the popular narrative of superstar entrepreneurs.

Scaling founders need an eye for hiring talented co-workers with complementary skills and the same kind of drive and optimism they have. They need the leadership to listen to these people, to align them towards a common goal, and to ignite them in the pursuit of it.

They need the strategic judgement to know which opportunities to chase and which to decline, and, as Bartlett says, “the humility to allow new information to change their original hypothesis”.

As headcount grows, they need this humility again, so that they can let go of the reins and transition to a more strategic, less hands-on role

These things do not require you to be born with superhuman talents. They are earned through day after day of turning up to the coal face and labouring to leave your business better today than it was yesterday.

It may not be as glamorous as the unicorn valuations, or win as many followers on social media, but it is that optimism, grit and hard graft that I admire most in entrepreneurs like Philip and Matthew. Congratulations to them both – here’s hoping their example and those of the other finalists can inspire a new generation to take the leap.