The Myth of the Entrepreneur Myth

Almost ten years ago, I was assigned to report on the wisdom of the Michael Gerber’s “The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It.” The book, published in 1995 had a revised addendum, and Gerber was on a nationwide promotional tour for his work regarded in many business circles as the gospel.

The book lays out Gerber’s vision of how management and entrepreneurship works. It articulated the notion that founders ought to move from working in the business to working on the business. It smashed the idea that every founder is, by default, an entrepreneur — an assertion that drew the wagons around the select few who “get it” when it comes to business.

I recall seeing Gerber speak while on this assignment at a conference. He was high energy, and he laid out myths of entrepreneurship with a kind of gravitas. It was empowering in an opening-scene-from-Full-Metal-Jacket kind of way. He said that an entrepreneur is a founder who has converted their business concept into a McDonald’s. I remember him specifically mocking a burger flipping, mindless automaton on the stage to prove how easy business processes should be. An entrepreneur’s worthiness, it seemed, could be quantified by their ability to replicate a model and people can be plugged in where needs be.

I remember feeling unsettled in the audience. And today I know why. That form of reductionism with humans ought to feel unsettling. While it has helped leaders achieve scale, it is not a wonder that people resent their managers and hate their work life. If your existence within an organization can be reduced so easily, then people who find any form of fulfillment do so in spite of the model, not because of it.

Humans are — first and foremost — creative beings — all of them. So putting them in situations where they can creatively solve problems or design a new solution is their highest and best use.

Any system that seeks to reduce a human to a task-only role within a replicable system often looks like good business strategy. But if you have ever managed any human in real life, you know that reducing them to a task feels wrong. And it should. It goes against how our design works. Humans are — first and foremost — creative beings — all of them. So putting them in situations where they can creatively solve problems or design a new solution is their highest and best use.

We all know this intuitively. Very few entrepreneurs or managers are actually tyrants. But all of them, in some way, have skin in the game. If something goes wrong, it is their ass on the line. And ideas like Gerber’s provide a kind of panacea because if you have enough process documents, reports and business briefs, then it feels like you are predicting a future. But almost all of us also know the future is not predictable.

Process and business systems are important to establish what your organization does. But if you want to sustain that, it must have purpose. And the greatest advocates for your purpose are your people — customers, employees, partners and vendors. And creating a culture wherein they feel they can contribute, be connected and do work that matters will create more growth and marketing opportunities than watching videos on creating your company’s Pinterest page.

My marketing advice this month is simple:

Seek out ways to make the humans in your business matter. If you are going to create systems and get serious about growth in the final quarter, let this be the quarter that you become curious about the problem-solving awesome people around you.

Check out the full article in the September issue of Small Business Monthly.

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