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David Burnett
Founder, Technopreneurial.com
March 2001

The Enigmatic Entrepreneur
When the Internet bubble began to break in April of 2000, the founders of Internet companies everywhere started having personal epiphanies by the dozen. Many of these Internet entrepreneurs were forced to realize and admit that the Internet did not change all the rules of business. Of those who survived the carnage of the past 10 months, many are now subscribing to a new doctrine: even amidst the hype of cutting-edge startups and new market spaces, paces, and rules, certain basics of business planning and forecasting are always worth doing.

In the wake of the market shakeout, industry experts and analysts are now urging entrepreneurs to return to the drawing table to clearly define their core businesses, target markets, and mission statements. Although this type of organizational introspection is certainly worthwhile, if individual entrepreneurs want to actually achieve their visions, then they need to reach even deeper into the basics -- and redefine who they are as entrepreneurs.

After interviewing the founders of numerous Asian startups, I have realized that very few entrepreneurs can systematically define entrepreneurship. Some over-simplify the definition and relegate it to a synonym of self-employment; others claim that they can conceptualize the meaning but struggle to put it into words; and some even admit that they avoid using the word "entrepreneur" because they do not understand the scope of its meaning.

Nonetheless, the enigmatic entrepreneur has crept into the mainstream. The media now portrays billionaire entrepreneurs as heroes, and, everyday, new people are setting their sights on joining the ranks of this elite--but seemingly indescribable--class. Nonetheless, the dilemma of defining the entrepreneur is not a new phenomenon. A quick review of the history of entrepreneurship shows that practitioners and scholars alike have been struggling to formulate an all-encompassing definition for centuries.

However, a general, one-size-fits-all definition of entrepreneurship is inappropriate, especially considering that the characteristics of each entrepreneur are unique. In fact, one of the keys to the success of most entrepreneurs is that they see and do things differently. Given the individual nature of entrepreneurship, it is only appropriate that each entrepreneur defines his role differently and independently -- but in line with his actions and vision.

Why Define Entrepreneurship?
The best way to be good at something is to begin by understanding it. To a large extent, the recent plethora of failed Internet startups occurred because their founders were venturing into uncharted territory that few people truly understood. Additionally, many of the companies could not fully define what they were attempting to do or how their business posed a significant value proposition. Without being able to understand and define their target markets or their core competencies, many of these startups were trying to conduct business while being blindfolded -- they couldn't see or understand what were really trying to do. In short, because of these misunderstandings, many of them were without an accurate or purposeful mission.

From an organizational standpoint, startups need to understand what they are trying to do, and they should pursue a mission statement that forces them to remain focused on that goal. However, organizational focus is not enough. Behind every startup, there is at least one individual entrepreneur who must power the vision of the company. From an individual standpoint, the entrepreneur must also be able to see, understand, and define his role. In the absence of this understanding, the entrepreneur can actually impede the progress of the organization -- and he might prove to be as ineffective as an accountant who doesn't understand accounting or a lawyer who is clueless about the law.

Since each one is unique, every entrepreneur should create his own personal and purposeful definition for entrepreneurship, given his own goals and the competencies of his company.

So how do you do that?
Creating a personal and purposeful definition for entrepreneurship falls somewhere in between writing a personal mission statement and writing your own ideal job description. Your definition should be general enough not to constrain your entrepreneurial endeavors, yet it should identify, perhaps abstractly, your purpose for being an entrepreneur and what you are attempting to achieve. Your definition will prove purposeful if you write it both based on what you currently do as an entrepreneur and also how you envision your role in the future.

After writing your own definition, do not forget about it -- instead, refer to it regularly to see if it defines your current role. As a personal definition, you can amend it and transform it as your entrepreneurial functions change; as a purposeful definition, you can use it to double-check your performance and progress.

A Prime Example
If you need help with formulating a definition, learn from a seasoned professional: Dr. Y.Y. Wong. As the founder and CEO of the WyWy Group, a large, diversified Asian conglomerate, Dr. Wong is one of Southeast Asia's finest examples of homegrown entrepreneurship. In addition to being a practitioner of entrepreneurship, he is also an honorary professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Stirling and the Chairman of Singapore's chapter of the Pacific Basin Economic Council.

With both detailed clarity and eloquent simplicity, Dr. Wong defines entrepreneurship as the "enthusiastic trust to innovate and create purposeful ideas that are implemented with passion for extraordinary gains." The beauty of this definition is that it is general enough to accommodate a wide-range of long-term goals but focused enough to define the entrepreneur's role as a passionate initiator who innovates and creates while trusting in himself.

Dr. Wong also claims that being an entrepreneur is not just a static, career; rather it is "a practice that you must work through." Like perfecting your personal definition, entrepreneurship is an organic process of refinement and redefinition.

Use your personal and purposeful definition as a guide that encourages you to stay focused while simultaneously allowing you to constantly look for new entrepreneurial opportunities.

About the author

David Burnett is the Founder of Technopreneurial.com and a Thomas J. Watson Fellow. He presently lives in Hong Kong, and his current research includes working on a book about the collected "lessons" of Asia's new breed of technopreneurs. The author can be reached via e-mail at david [at] technopreneurial.com.

For questions about this site, please contact david [at] technopreneurial.com.

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