At the beginning of this month a group of uber-famous musicians launched Tidal – an artist-led streaming service designed to rival Spotify.
Jay-Z, Beyonce and Rihanna are three of the best-loved musicians on the planet. They are also three of the coolest people out there.
They launched a new company that not only offered streaming at supposedly hi-fi quality but also showed a burning entrepreneurial spirit. Everyone stood up and applauded that music and business had finally been combined in such an inspiring way right? Well, not exactly.
The project has been widely ridiculed by most – with many vilifying the musicians for lining their pockets at the expense of newer artists and music-lovers themselves. So what went wrong?
Admittedly one of the reasons there was such a backlash was the perception that incredibly rich people were just making themselves richer. But they’ve been doing that through music for years. Could it be that – whisper it quietly – entrepreneurship just isn’t cool?
Shows such as The Apprentice and Dragons Den led to comparisons between entrepreneurs and rock stars – as is inevitable whenever anything gets at least a bit cool. The Dragons themselves were revered as legitimate celebrities and successful contestants like Levi Roots for a while charmed the British public.
But as the popularity of both shows wanes, there is a sense that this may have been a false dawn. Hollywood film The Social Network briefly brought Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to the silver screen – but in truth it didn’t paint him or Silicon Valley in a very favourable light.
So where does that leave us?
One thing that prevented most entrepreneurs, or indeed most people in business, being bullish about financial success was the global recession. To act ostentatiously in relation to your wealth was seen (rightly) as being insensitive and boorish.
But as the economy has recovered the goalposts have just started to move. This is especially true of entrepreneurs – as we are forever being told that it is on their shoulders that we are climbing out of our financial hole. Surviving or even going out and succeeding financially – especially off your own back – is suddenly something to be admired. In short – money is cool again.
So have entrepreneurs been able to piggyback off the back of this trend and find personal acclaim? Can they even be as cool as rock stars? Before we continue the answer is obviously no – but let’s see how far we can go.
When I put this question out to entrepreneurs themselves I had an overwhelming response. One who got in touch was Bizdaq co-founder Jonathan Russell. He said that, for him, “entrepreneurs have always been rock stars”.
He cited the original entrepreneurial giants of the industrial revolution who used to “throw the best parties and rub shoulders with world leaders”. Hard to argue with that – that’s cool.
“The only difference between then and now is the sheer speed at which young, mostly tech, entrepreneurs can amass huge fortunes and in the process become celebrities,” he continues.
“This has led to popular culture now recognising tech entrepreneurs as on the same pedestal as most film stars or musicians.
“The stories of Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel (who has dated a pop star) detail the overnight success and amassing of billions of dollars before the age of 25.”
Russell does rather uncharitably suggest that whereas entrepreneurs require “intellect, hard work and dedication” – rock and film stars don’t. In truth they normally need two of these to succeed (I’ll leave you to decide which two). But despite this slip he does talk a lot of sense. Maybe entrepreneurs are cool after all…
Crunch MD and founder Darren Fell takes a slightly different approach to Russell. He challenges the public perception of entrepreneurs as model-dating party animals.
“The public perception of what an entrepreneur is has been hopelessly skewed by TV shows like Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice,” he warns.
“Running a business isn’t about being driven around in a big Mercedes or crushing all competition, it’s about doing something you really love and helping others.”
Well said Darren! Helping others is cool and there’s no doubt that some entrepreneurs do that, either directly or through funds raised by their enterprises. A kinder type of cool is something we can all get onboard with I think.
Fell does maybe overreach slightly with his next statement, but you can’t fault the effort.
“To sound slightly cliché, being an entrepreneur is a journey and not a destination,” he opines. “And for most people it’s about shaping their own destiny and having control of their lives.”
Wait for it…
“At the end of the day that’s exactly what film stars and musicians are doing!”
Okay Darren you’ve been pretty honest so I guess we’ll give you that one – just.
My Parcel Delivery MD David Grimes has a similar take on the issue. He told Growth Business that “being in charge of your own destiny” is one of the things young people see as most attractive about an entrepreneur’s lifestyle.
He also believes that super-cool social networks such as Snapchat and Facebook have thrust their founders into the public’s conscience as pioneers of business chic.
“There’s the famous quote in The Social Network where they say ‘a billion dollars is cool’, and it’s true,” he explains.
“Films like this mean that the days where the entrepreneurial world is a mystery are over,” he continues. “People now can see what it’s all about.”
Grimes also believes the public is enjoying looking at people starting businesses to deal directly with a problem they are facing.
“If you look at the guys at Uber they started the company because they were in Paris and couldn’t get a taxi. So people really admire people who tackle problems like that head-on while having an impact of society and making money,” he says.
It’s all academic
As well as the entrepreneurs themselves we also wanted a (perhaps more objective) view from the academic world. Thankfully Manchester Business School lecturer in enterprise James Hickie was able to oblige. He believes there has been “a huge shift in perception” among young people in recent years. To highlight this he points to the fact that the University of Manchester Entrepreneurship Society now has a membership of around 4,000.
“Fifteen or twenty years ago few universities had a student entrepreneurship society at all!” he explains.
“Programmes like Dragons’ Den and the Apprentice have played a major role in encouraging this interest in entrepreneurship – presenting wealthy entrepreneurs as glamorous media stars,” he continues.
“In reality, building a business empire the size of one of the dragons’ takes many years and is a hard slog – the programme does not necessarily fully acknowledge how much work the dragons have done to get to the positions they are now in.”
Hickie also believes that, for a certain type of entrepreneur, being cool is important. It’s inevitable that as we move into this area the name Steve Jobs enters the fray.
“I believe Steve Jobs enjoyed his status being seen as cool and it was very useful in building the Apple brand,” he says.
“Richard Branson revels in his ‘cool’ status as well, while also understanding being seen as cool and media worthy brings Virgin significant levels of free publicity to sell more products.
“If you’re in a business to consumer mass market industry it’s especially important that you take your message to the largest possible public audience, and being cool and media savvy can certainly help with this process.”
While this is the case for the celebrity entrepreneur, there are others for whom image simply isn’t an issue.
“By contrast, there are many entrepreneurs in business to business sectors living in the UK (e.g. in the finance and pharmaceuticals sectors) who have achieved amazing things in their industries and become very wealthy, yet have much lower public profiles,” he concludes.
That appears to be the rub. Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes and, whereas for some image helps both their personal and business brands, for others it’s simply not an issue. The diversity of fields entrepreneurs operate within makes this difference inevitable.
But will those who crave the adulation ever see the same level as rock musicians or Hollywood stars? Well no in truth they probably won’t. But whether it’s through just making a shed load of money or having an impact on society, there are those who are starting to fly the flag for cool entrepreneurs.
Ultimately the success of the business, forged through years of hard work and dedication, will always matter most to entrepreneurs. But for those who do want that kudos, there are signs that it is not beyond reach.