Does Australia have a culture of snake oil entrepreneurship?

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Being invited to yet another conference that promises to give entrepreneurs the blue print for a successful business, I can’t help but wonder if we have a culture of snake oil entrepreneurship.

Perhaps it is an unfortunate by-product of our emphasis on start-ups and innovation, but often led by those with little to no background in building actual businesses. When we think of the term ‘snake oil’ in the context of business, it may be of interest to learn about Clark Stanley, who in the 1900’s, would kill rattlesnakes in front of crowds; at the same time, trying to sell his snake oil tonic at only 50 cents a bottle. It turned out the tonic was comprised of beef fat, pepper, turpentine and 99% mineral oil. While his business wasn’t sustainable, the term ‘snake oil’ sure was.

I guess you could say I am an entrepreneur, but I shy away from that label. Not because I’m not proud of what I have built, but because I believe we currently have a problem with too much motivation and too little delivery when it comes to promoting entrepreneurship in this country.

If you watch anything business-related on Youtube, you likely have seen the same advertisements as I have. The ones that want to teach you about what it takes to be entrepreneur; they have the blueprint, the funnel, the e-course you need.

They are likely standing outside a fabulous mansion, being faux-humble beside a perfectly positioned Lamborghini and telling you that they were once broke but now travel the world telling others how to become millionaires. Or maybe, it’s the Instamotivational account of an inspiring entrepreneur, yet there is no tangible evidence of the successful company they have built outside of their Instagram account with a big following.

Personally, I would rather read about those, or attend conferences with those, who actually have made a tangible impact in their industry, and have a record of both failures and successes in their own business.

I want to hear stories that resonate with me, not stories about how someone went from $5 to $500,000 in six months and how I can too, if I attend their webinar or buy their book.

Many entrepreneurs, myself included, have gone through extremities in the process of building companies. There are no true benchmarks to indicate how long the tough times will last or even how long the easier times will remain.

What we do know in business is that they both come at you, and they impact your company and yourself personally. Entrepreneurship is a tough gig and you will unlikely be sitting in Bora Bora with a laptop turning over 60k a month any time soon.

There are the exceptions, of course, but it is time to place greater scrutiny upon those who claim to be leaders for entrepreneurs, and there needs to be more fundamentals in their books than inspiration fluff. The responsibility comes down to both founders and investors navigating the start-up climate in Australia.

Philippa Lewis (Founder of Elementum) and I recently found ourselves speaking at an event in a hub for entrepreneurs. We lamented over a culture that both inspires entrepreneurship, but one could argue, also belittles it. Philippa said that she wants to see entrepreneurs truly understand what it takes to build a company.

“Investors and funders must also shoulder blame for not demanding a higher level of scrutiny and objective analysis from the applicant.  Until the two are working together towards value creation seamlessly and with common guidelines and goals, commercialisation success will remain hit and miss.”

Truth be told, it is fashionable now to call yourself an entrepreneur, a disrupter and have perfectly positioned Instagram posts with your morning coffee, book and the hashtag hustle. But it takes a level of grit and astute understanding of your industry to truly build something sustainable, and that is not the responsibility of everyone around you.

With so much energy, will and attention, how can we fail to build the so called, Innovation Nation? Easily, and that’s the problem.  It’s easier to keep doing what we have always done because it seemed to work in the past.  Fashion as we know, comes and goes,” Philippa Lewis notes.

As someone, who has both gone through corporate education in regards to business, and also runs my own company, I suggest wannabe entrepreneurs consider the following:

#1. Understand the difference between being an entrepreneur who launches a start-up, and being an entrepreneur who wants to own a lifestyle business. There are fundamental differences, requirements and ultimately, risks. To misunderstand the difference will either place you in extremely hot water with responsibilities that you were not prepared to shoulder, or outcomes that are severely disappointing.

#2. Learn the pillars of what your company requires to survive. You may believe you are in one industry, but based on the sales required may realise it’s a different industry altogether. When I started my company I had a very different understanding of the business I was actually in, and had I understood that then I would have achieved what took me three years, in 18 months. Realising this early, while being agile, is crucial.

#3. Understand calculated risk and what that will require of you. Some people start companies, and they will immediately want to take a wage that is of current market value, and they may want to keep full weekends to themselves. That is okay, but it’s important to understand that for many businesses, especially in the early years, you are threatening the growth of that company and the opportunities you could have by such an approach. For me personally, it was more important that my company was comfortable than me personally.

#4. Understand the ownership required of you. Similar to understanding calculated risk, understanding the ownership required of you means you don’t blame anyone when things don’t go right. It means that if a deal doesn’t happen, or you didn’t manage that staff member well, you recognise that is on you. There is a feeling of control and liberation when you take on that responsibility. You don’t blame others in your team (if they are that hopeless you should have managed them differently or not hired them in the first place) and you don’t blame the markets (businesses throughout history have still made money in the harshest of climates).

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Alexandra Tselios is the founder and publisher of The Big Smoke. Alexandra has a diverse background in corporate, public and creative fields. Alex is also a regular commentator on leading AM/FM radio stations across the country and expert business columnist.

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