Want to know how to get rich? Me too

Want to know how to get rich? Me too


Sathnam Sanghera: Business Life
July 16, 2007

It was one of those days. In the space of a few hours I managed to reduce a
friend to tears by inadvertently implying she was fat, wipe a day’s work by
tripping over the cord of a laptop, and then lose the laptop in a violent
mugging on the way home.

But worse to come the next day, in the form of a newspaper story about
ukessays.com, which specialises in providing ghost-written essays for
students. “The company made £90,000 in one week in May and the owner has a
Ferrari and a Lamborghini in his garage,” it said, before quoting Barclay
Littlewood, the 28-year-old entrepreneur behind it. “My overheads are pretty
low . . . so I take about a third of the £1.6 million turnover.”

It was like being mugged on my doorstep all over again. Not because Barclay
Littlewood was an acquaintance. Nor because I objected to the way essay
sites are encouraging plagiarism. But because in 1998 I had the idea of
setting up a website offering custom-made essays to lazy students. And now a
man apparently named after the corner of a high street had made a success of
it.

At the time, I dealt with the mortification by pretending it hadn’t happened.
But it all came back recently on reading about the extra £180 million that
schools have been granted to boost enterprise education, and the subsequent
debate about how we can encourage Britons to be more entrepreneurial.

If a straw poll of acquaintances is anything to go by, the problem doesn’t lie
in people not having ideas. Everyone seems to harbour a couple and, given
that my own dreams have been shattered, I have no qualms in shattering those
of friends and colleagues by sharing them with you: here is a colleague
banking on making millions from marketing a toilet seat that automatically
resets downwards after use; a friend who has noticed hotels never supply
toothbrushes, and aspires to creating and then cornering the market; another
friend who dreams of setting up “Sweet Silence”, a chain of salons aimed at
people who hate making small talk with hairdressers. But what is it that
divides people with ideas from those who make them succeed? The thing that
separates people like Barclay from losers like me?

Given entrepreneurship is so critical to economic vitality, it is no surprise
to find the question has received a lot of academic attention. But the first
thing that strikes you when sifting through the studies is the lack of
consensus. Over the course of an hour of reading, I noted no less than 42
different factors cited as being the defining characteristics of
entrepreneurs, ranging from “a desire for self-employment” to “a lack of
fear of borrowing money”.

The second striking thing is that many of the cited factors contradict one
another. One recent report suggests that people from poor backgrounds are
more likely to be entrepreneurial because they have less to lose, while
another suggests that most entrepreneurs are middle class. One survey
suggests successful entrepreneurs tend to be control freaks, while another
argues it is their ability to delegate that makes them thrive.

It doesn’t help glancing at the syllabuses of entrepreneurship courses,
either. The CBI, for instance, suggests enterprise should be taught via
emphasis on “numeracy, communication and literacy, IT skills,
self-management, team working, problem-solving, business and customer
awareness”. But surely these are basic skills demonstrated by everyone in
business? Having them doesn’t make you entrepreneurial.

Indeed, I didn’t find anything resembling an answer until I gave up on the
official literature on enterprise and stumbled across 43.things.com, a
website that encourages people to list personal ambitions. The site makes
fascinating reading, not only because of the combined banality (“clean my
room”) and creepiness (“overcome my fear of dead bodies”) of people’s
ambitions, but because it reveals the desire to start a business is actually
extremely popular, along with the desire to write a book.

The analogy should have struck me sooner. I’ve been writing a book for the
past 18 months and the most common reaction from people, after the
inevitable eye-rolling and groaning (another Indian writer), is: “Oh, I’ve
always wanted to write a book.” Which, to judge from my response to
ukessays.com, must be a common reaction to entrepreneurs.

The comparisons don’t end there. People have similar book ideas all the time,
just as they have similar business ideas. Writing families tend to produce
writers, in the way that families with entrepreneurs tend to produce
entrepreneurs. Setting up a business and writing a book are both difficult
things to do, and the torment doesn’t necessarily translate into success in
either field.

There are only really two ways in which the activities differ. First, while
the world needs lots more entrepreneurs, it doesn’t need any more writers.
Second, while writing is, in the words of Kingsley Amis, essentially “the
art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair”,
being an entrepreneur is the opposite: the art of removing the seat of one’s
trousers from the seat of one’s chair.

The thing that separated Barclay and me, the reason I was spending Friday
nights being punched in the face outside a flat in a dodgy part of London,
while he was swanning around in Italian sports cars, with a beautiful
girlfriend doubtless laughing uproariously in the passenger seat, was that
while I just talked about my idea, he actually did something about his.
Enterprise is so important that those studying it tend to complicate it. An
entrepreneur is simply someone who is entrepreneurial. Just like a writer is
someone who writes.

Which leaves the question of whether schools can teach it. You can tell
students what enterprise is. And anything that informs children there are
more ways of getting rich than by winning Big Brother or becoming David
Beckham is a good thing. But can you educate people into being
entrepreneurial? Don’t know. But you could make a killing if you found a way
of doing it.

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