The "Wantrepreneur"

I’ve struggled a lot lately with my feelings and actions toward wantrepreneurs. These are the people who say things like, “I’ve founded a company, it’s an app. Now I just need someone to build it because I’m the idea guy.” or, “Yeah, I’m an entrepreneur. What have I done? Well I’m in the entrepreneurship major so I’m learning to become one.” They are posing as entrepreneurs because it is currently fashionable to be one. Because of how pop culture has overused and devalued the word entrepreneur, I try to avoid using it as much as possible. I just don’t identify with it. I don’t call other people entrepreneurs, and my skin crawls when people say to me, “Oh, you’re an entrepreneur?” I’ve worked on a lot of projects - I don’t call them companies. Most of the time my goal is to learn and have fun, not generate a sustainable income. During my life, I’ve recycled cans, mowed lawns, built things that made money and others that didn’t. But these were just side projects.

Today, however, if you have technical skills, are working on a side project and don’t have a normal job (whatever that means) then you must be starting a company. That assumption is pretty poor and gets more irritating every time I hear someone make it.

One day I would like to start something. I think I can do it. But I don’t want to start something just to start something. Starting a company is going to be a long and at times soul-crushing slog. If I don’t truly believe that my product is going to make the world a better place, then I will probably fall flat on my face. And that’s the problem I have with a lot of wantrepreneurs - they start something to start something.

As I’ve struggled with these feelings, trying to understand them fully, I’ve come to a few realizations: 1) my frustration is not with what they are doing, but why they are doing it, 2) their “build it and they will come” mentality, and 3) - probably my largest source of frustration - the fact that I’m currently in school and the actions of these wantrepreneurs directly affects me in my day to day life.

Starting a startup just to make fast and easy money is very frustrating and honestly insulting. I worked full-time on one of my side projects over the summer and it never made a dime. There I was busting my ass and in walk these students who talk down to me. They thought that I should have $5 trillion dollars by now because I’ve been working for 2 months, and that they will cash out after about a week, without knowing how to program. It’s also sad to watch people waste enormous amounts of human capital and money on trying to make a marginal improvement to something for a few dollars and an ego boost. If you’re going to put in the time and effort, then make something amazing and valuable.

Getting someone to download an app is near impossible, and you would know that if you spent more than a week in the tech space before you called yourself a founder. Build it and they will come just doesn’t work. This isn’t “Field of Dreams.” If your plan is to hire someone to build an app with 55 features and then post it in a subreddit and buy Facebook ads (because why not?), then you’re f*cked man. Dead in the water. No chance. Also, who do you expect to “come?” Is your target audience moms in America? College kids? Can you make it a little less specific for me? Let’s just say everyone ages 1-99. And you think you’re going to become super famous and make millions of dollars? This is also insulting. If your idea was that simple to implement, don’t you think everyone you know would have executed on it by now?

Those previous two examples probably account for about 10% of all of my frustrations with college-aged wantrepreneurs. The other 90% stems from the fact that most of these wantrepreneurs directly affect the way people view me personally. They are only in it for the image, so they talk about it, write about it, seek out press about it, but never actually ship anything. They optimize for the vanity metrics of likes and shares, not for users or revenue; so everyone hears about them. In the off chance they do optimize for growth, their product doesn’t hit 5 million users overnight and they give up. Let me clarify, I’m not frustrated with seeing articles, because I usually don’t, it’s not hard to avoid them. I’m frustrated with how this affects other people, like me, that are hustling and trying and hoping to solve a real problem and make a real impact.

Wantrepreneurs are not just annoying, but dangerous. They are the outliers (and not in a good way) that drive large organizations like Penn State off course. The press they optimize for seems to be all that Penn State hears. The individuals that are not representative of the group are given the biggest voice and mess everything up for those around them (what else is new).

When wantrepreneurs talk about their company (or companies if they’re really annoying) they focus mostly on getting to a place where they can raise money. Raising money requires legal services, venture capitalists, and some coaching on how to pitch correctly. Finding pitch coaches on a college campus is easy, but providing legal services and finding venture capitalists is not. So Penn State has to go to great lengths to provide them, because after all that’s what the wantrepreneurs want, and Penn State can’t tell the difference. They create extensive incubator curriculums, court venture capital firms, and foot the bill for legal services, when in reality the majority of people don’t want or need any of that. By focusing so heavily on meeting the needs of wantrepreneurs, Penn State actually begins to marginalize the people that are going on to found companies; the people they are trying to optimize for with these investments.

Funding the programs these wantrepreneurs claim to need is also much, much, much (I can’t emphasize this enough) much more expensive than funding what everyone else needs and wants. The majority of students only want space, or perhaps a few bucks here and there for servers or a Udemy course. Real entrepreneurs (there I said it, ew, vom, I feel dirty) are scrappy. They don’t care about legal service, they’ll ask for forgiveness later. They don’t want venture capital, because they believe in their product and will fund it themselves or by working another job, and aren’t willing to let a VC influence their baby. These are the people that go on to generate revenue and donate back to the University. Wantrepreneurs usually don’t make it past graduation. The “entrepreneurship thing” is something they’ll remember fondly about their college self, but not something they’ll pursue later into life.

What has taken me the longest to come to terms with, is that at the end of the day I’d rather have wantrepreneurs coming into the space and trying to create something, anything really, than not. As much as I don’t like what I’m currently seeing, it is better than watching people go on to work at KPMG or Deloitte and be unhappy. Their motives for starting a company may not be the best, but at least these students are taking action and trying; and I’ve come to the conclusion that doing your own thing and not buying into the system is ultimately what I’d rather see people do. While most of these new companies are marginal tweaks to an existing product, every once in awhile someone comes along and tackles something important. If we have to suffer through posers to help encourage that one person than I’m okay with it. Realizing this makes it easier for me to listen to kids mumble buzzwords and talk about how they are the “idea guy”. I bite my tongue, point them to relevant books from the startup world canon and welcome them to the community. Not yet with open arms, but I’m making progress. (Baby steps).