Why are there so few entrepreneurs?

Bright sparks: Aspiring entrepreneurs face too many obstacles Image: REUTERS/Mike Segar

Robert Gryn
Chairman, Codewise Sp. z o.o. Sp. k.
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This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

Despite being the founder of one of the fastest-growing bootstrapped technology companies, I don’t believe I was cut out to become an entrepreneur.

It was a set of coincidences that led me to take the leap - and eventually to succeed. By telling my story I want to not only empower ‘wantrepreneurs’, but also to underline how many thousands of potential entrepreneurs get lost in the system.

Entrepreneurship can be taught. I am confident that most people, to varying degrees, have the capacity to run their own business - although they may not know it. Some may start the next Tesla, others may open a local bakery; unfortunately, many would-be entrepreneurs never even try. The problem is that education, the media and society places entrepreneurship on a romanticized and seemingly unreachable pedestal.

Here are five reasons why there are far fewer entrepreneurs than there should be.

1. Entrepreneurship isn’t part of education

At school, nobody explained to us what a company was, let alone how you can create one, and that anyone can do it if they please. We were taught economics, programming and many other subjects, but there was never any mention of the idea that there is an alternative to being employed by someone. Instead of being normalized, the concept of entrepreneurship grew into something abstract and distant.

I graduated from high school as a hopeless wantrepreneur. In desperation, I enrolled in an experimental undergraduate course in the UK called Entrepreneurship in Technology. Over the next three years I learned I was terrible at accounting, management and business strategy, and graduated believing I simply wasn’t cut out for it.

Nobody told me that you need to hire a decent accountant, and it didn’t cross my mind that learning how to manage people from a book was much like learning how to swim by reading.

2. No opportunities for experience

In an attempt to delay the reality of becoming a grown-up with a nine-to-five job, I enrolled on a Masters programme. Luckily, a few days after I graduated a friend called me asking if I wanted to join an internet startup based in the Czech Republic. I joined without hesitation. It was there that I received what I call my MBA in running a startup (and perhaps more importantly, how not to run a startup).

Seeing it from the inside, I realized that running a company wasn’t some abstract idea; it was nothing more than a group of people with different skills trying to figure out how to reach a common goal. The accountants took care of the invoicing and numbers, the programmers coded the product, while the managers attempted to keep us motivated and productive - all the skills I had been led to believe were needed in order to even consider building a business.

Instead, I was free to figure out how I could best contribute, forgetting about the skills I lacked. This experience changed everything I had ‘learned’ about entrepreneurship over the course of my life.

3. Parents and the wrong outlook on failure

After 18 months at this startup, I gathered the courage to strike out on my own. However, there was one more obstacle, and unfortunately it was the greatest one: my father. Having worked at various corporations throughout his career, he told me that one must have at least 10 years of experience before even considering starting their own business. I believed him; how could I not?

Yet with time, something inside of me wanted to prove him wrong. I tried, but I failed. My first startup ended up going bust, and at this point I could have given up. I could have listened to my father’s warning and sought more experience.

But I was hooked, and I knew there was no going back. These are the words I wrote shortly after becoming self-employed 7 years ago:

“During the first few months of self-employment you're likely to learn more than any university can teach you, gain more experience than any job can give you, and acquire skills that will serve you for the rest of your life.”

I understood that I had to fail in order to succeed later. Instead of giving up, I dug in deeper and came back stronger. I learned from the mistakes of my first startup and now we are one of the fastest growing companies in Europe.

4. Governmental policies

I also learned how governments can cripple businesses. After overcoming these various obstacles, revenue started to come in but I wanted to call it quits too many times to count. Sometimes, the policies are not up to date reflecting the latest state of technology trends and business models and this has caused me lot of frustrations. Governments need to enable entrepreneurs by designing policies that promote innovation and hence, progress.

5. Lack of Inspiration

Inspiration is the most undervalued quality in the world and society can only benefit from more of it. It is the catalyst for taking action. Young people need to know that starting their own business is possible and that there are alternatives to the nine-to-five. One of the reasons I decided to lead a more public life instead of following the money is to demonstrate that it is possible even in Poland, a country not exactly famous for its high venture capital activity and thriving startup ecosystem.

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It upsets me when I imagine how many people must get discouraged along the way at each step, starting with education. Those who make it through the gauntlet get pushed into ruin by governments that do not understand the importance of facilitating entrepreneurship, especially in the early stages. It’s frustrating, because simple changes could mitigate all of those problems - and it is a personal mission of mine to help implement this change in as many countries as possible.

I want to see young people feeling empowered to start their own businesses. I want entrepreneurship to be normalized for all and perceived as a viable career option. I long for the day where being an entrepreneur and having your own business isn’t a romanticized and unattainable concept, but is instead seen as an equal alternative to taking a job at a corporation.

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