There’s no doubt there’s an army of young people that want to change the world. But is it possible millennial entrepreneurs’ marching drum is distinct from their older counterparts? That putting purpose - and making a positive impact - at the heart of a startup is somehow unique to those in their 20s?
The personal nuance of what drives entrepreneurs to work an incredible amount of hours, to put their own mental health at risk, makes defining or categorising them a herculean challenge. Indeed, the question ‘what makes an entrepreneur’ remains BusinessZone’s most popular search term.
Even in the last few weeks, we’ve featured everything from an investor who’s put decades into fighting sexism and a 23-year-old entrepreneur providing meals for those in need to a £17m Series A funding round to develop AI technologies; this is capitalism, but not always purely to generate profits.
Yet HSBC Private Bank’s recent Essence of Enterprise report suggests entrepreneurs in their 20s are more than twice as likely to say having a positive impact on the community is an important goal that those aged 50-plus (15% vs. 6%). The biggest difference in a small number of generation defining characteristics.
I also suspect that if you analysed the 100-something PR pitches we receive every day you would find more young entrepreneurs embracing Simon Sinek-style ‘start with why’ mantras (his own purpose is to “inspire people to do the things that inspire them”).
HSBC’s report notes entrepreneurs are increasingly focusing on their networks, their relationships and their reputation to propel their business forward, a trend that’s (again) most notable in the millennial generation.
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Take a recent BusinessZone column from Leon Ifayemi, CEO and co-founder of student rental property business SPCE. The 20-something co-founder claimed millennial entrepreneurs are the new normal and stressed the importance of being driven by your own sense of purpose – in a follow-up email he said his primary driver was to “make a real, long-lasting positive impact on the world”.
The overwhelmingly positive column was contradicted below the line when, unusually for our audience, an aggressive commenter called out his generation en masse:
“Most millennials aren't entrepreneurial – they are what they call ‘wantrepreneurs’. They want to take something, make a tiny tweak to it and then declare they have ‘disrupted’ an industry.”
What about people in their 50s?
There’s no shortage of peer-leading businesses started by people aged over 50 that want to make a positive impact or strongly advocate for a particular cause.
Without prompting, the first 50-something entrepreneur I spoke to about the research started describing how his business was led by a desire to do good. In five years, entrepreneur Stuart Law has built Assetz Capital to an 85-person business with plans to lend £300m this year.
The team made “a very conscious decision” to go into business finance to aid growth and employment. In addition, Law speaks extensively and passionately about the importance of people, about staff development, about investors.
What about personal wealth? “Not particularly,” says Law. “Asset CapitalI feels more like a mission. I’m a great believer in Zen.”
On the flip side, Ifayemi also admits it would be disingenuous to say personal wealth is not one of his goals. However, he believes personal wealth is only sustainable if the way in which it is generated adds value to the world around him: “A product that brings no real value to its target users will ultimately be substituted for a more socially impactful product.”
Then there’s the more subtle point of putting a personal purpose, even though it might not have the best utility for good, at the heart of your reason for starting up (lest we forget, only 15% of the 20-somethings rated having an impact on the community, which is a very specific point).
A good example is Aamar Aslam, CEO at Funding Invoice, which has eight employees. Aslam owned a business in university, but wanted build something bigger.
“For me, I wanted to build something. Throughout university, I ran a limo service, which was turning over a decent amount, but it didn’t need that much input from me, I didn’t feel like I was being tested that much.
“One of the main motivations [for starting Funding Invoice] was that I wanted to become a role model for the people that came from the same background as me; typical council estate, single parent kind of thing. When you’re a kid, that makes it feel like the whole world is against you. It's not, but you need something to tell you that,” he says.
Aslam estimates the balance between increasing personal wealth and having a positive impact as drivers for starting up is relatively equal. He wants the company to be something significant and expects the wealth to come from that.
This thinking runs parallel with a problem first mantra. The importance of putting a customer problem at the heart of what you do has been drummed home relentlessly. When you start to drill into what motivates entrepreneurs, it’s easier to think about a series of desires that start with the solving of a problem (it’s just meeting this need will often have a positive effect).
Through the looking glass
The perception of entrepreneurship is often far from the reality, particularly when it comes to the difficulty of starting and growing a business. That’s why we’ve published articles about the harsh reality of starting up part time and startups’ mental health problem.
And, that’s what I think’s causing the issue here. As per the pitches we receive, the same ones driving the articles published elsewhere, the PR agenda around new businesses started by young entrepreneurs is to focus on purpose. Couple that with the report’s own findings that young entrepreneurs are more likely to value building a name for themselves and it’s easy to get the impression that they’re somehow different from the generations that came before them. The reality is we’re just talking about it more now.
Journalist and editor with nine years' experience covering small businesses and entrepreneurship (ChrisGoodfellow.net). Follow his personal twitter account @CPGoodfellow and his events business @Box2Media. He has written for a wide range of publications in the UK, Ireland and Canada, including The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Independent and Vice magazine.