Guest Blog by Sue Keogh
(Summary of the talk given at Cambridge Startup Masterclass, Nov 28th 2011)
On the morning of The Accidental Entrepreneur: Different Pathways To Success, I was reading the Guardian article Tech City: The magic roundabout and was struck by the fact that none of the Silicon Roundabout start-up founders in the piece were female. At the masterclass that evening I was also struck by Dr Shima Barakat’s comment that women don’t like to refer to themselves as entrepreneurs. They’re ‘just running a business’. Why is this? What is it that’s putting women off declaring themselves part of the entrepreneurial world and enjoying the challenges, support and potential triumphs on offer?
Is it because the term itself is shifting in meaning? It seems to have gone from simply someone who is setting up a new enterprise to this caricature of the Silicon Valley start-up founder – the chest-beating caffeine junkie with a ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’ tattoo who boasts on Twitter about his lack of sleep due to running four separate start-ups.
The perception is being created that to become an entrepreneur means being part of this macho, aggressive culture where sleep is for losers and people battle it out like gladiators, as TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington would have it in his post The Man In The Arena. Or even better, play at being pirates!
But what if you don’t identify with all this? What if you’ve become an entrepreneur without realising it? What if you feel you just don’t fit?
These questions were addressed throughout the Accidental Entrepreneur event. The idea behind it was to focus on the motivations and realities for women starting businesses. Then organisers realised that ‘accidental entrepreneurs’ aren’t limited to women. Maybe men have this feeling of not fitting the mould too. A mixed panel, chaired by Claire Ruskin (CEO, Cambridge Network) shared their different stories about how they came to set up a business and the forces that drove them.
A key factor was control, which Julie Barnes from Abcodia felt was drifting away in her previous role. This was in part due to raising a family. Founding a company herself meant she was more able to balance the demands of work and family life.
Freedom was also important, with members of the panel feeling that they were shaping their own destiny rather than having to follow the path dictated to them when part of a large, established company. A driving force for Madhuri Warren from Pathology Diagnostics and for Ann Clarke with her charity Frozen Ark, which preserves the genetic resources of endangered species, was the belief that you can do something better. And the best way to do this is to get on and do it yourself.
A very common theme was redundancy. To decide to jump ship from a stable job so you can set up a new enterprise at your own personal risk takes a lot of confidence, not to mention solid financial backing. But with redundancy you are forced into the situation where you don’t have any choice but to pick yourself up and find a way of paying the mortgage.
Andrew Hatcher commented that redundancy was the best thing that ever happened to him. While it may not feel like it at the time, it can be the push you need. I couldn’t help but think of the day I was issued with redundancy from ITV – only to discover five days later that I was pregnant. Which is what you can call a tricky situation.
As job losses in the public sector and elsewhere hit and women’s unemployment reaches a record high, we will see a fresh stream of entrepreneurs from both genders and all ages and backgrounds. It’s important to recognise the different pathways people are taking and find ways of supporting them in their new enterprises, from the ones who will always stay at 0 to 5 employees to those with high-growth ventures who seek millions in VC funding and plan to sell the whole thing off in five years.
As a world-class tech hub, Cambridge has a lot to offer people thinking about starting a business. Initiatives like the workshops offered through Startup Masterclass or the business support on offer at St John’s Innovation Centre and the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (CfEL) are so useful, along with Pitch and Mix meetups and groups offering networking and support such as Cambridge AWiSE, Cambridge Network, and CamCreative. There are also a number of mentoring schemes offered through both universities.
Not everyone has the same notion of success. So if you feel you don’t conform to the stereotypical image of an entrepreneur, it’s OK. Just sharpen your elbows, don’t be afraid to reach out for support, and get on with it. And certainly don’t bother with that Steve Jobs tattoo.
Sue’s company Sookio offers editorial support such as website copywriting, ongoing updates and social media campaigns to small businesses and household names including AOL, Yahoo!, the BBC, ITV and Toshiba. She is also part of CamCreative, TEDxGranta and the campaign for The Cambridge Phenomenon: 50 Years of Innovation and Enterprise. Sue is also working with Cambridge angel investor Philip Baddeley to produce a graphic novel about entrepreneurs, to be published in the coming months.