Is the search for the Startup Hero holding back startup teams?

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I had the privilege of joining the Monaco Media Forum in Monaco recently. It was a fairly star-studded event: opened and closed by Prince Albert, dinner at Hotel de Paris, Monte Carlo, great hotel etc. But to be honest it was the debates in the conference room that were the best thing about the event, and I had a lot of fun on my closing panel of the week: “Silicon Envy: Will Europe ever build the next new media giant?”

Now, admittedly with such a subject we had to run through the usual arguments, which I hope are now well known. Silicon Valley is the product of over 50+ years of history, Europe is only just getting going, America has one big unified market, Europe is splintered into many etc etc etc.

Luckily, however, I think my fellow panelists and I moved the debate on to what I call “New Tech Europe”. Namely, people in their 20s now coming out with agressive startups which go international from the word go and where the founders are not afraid to get out of their home markets and scale globally. In addition, they are much less afraid of failure than the previous startup generation in their mid-late 30s and 40s. Ironically this takes far less money than it used to, hence why VCs are having to adjust their model and Angel investors are being asked to step up to the plate.

I was particularly taken by one argument on the panel which was that European tech startups are going to be the multinational companies of the future: we know how to launch across borders, we’re used to cultural differences and with English as a second language (in most cases) we can deal with the large US market pretty well.

But something that also came out was this: A woman questioner stood up and said that this was a strange case of Silicon Envy in Europe, when little do we realise that many US startup entrepreneurs, although able to launch and close or exit many startups in the course of their career, are often not taking a hint and realising that they are never going to actually be a success. It seemed to her that while the barrier to launching a startup was relatively high in Europe, it could in fact be too low in the US.

Her question is at 28 minutes 30 seconds into the video of the panel:

In other words, while the European entrepreneur is often stymied by Euro-regulation and anti-entrepreneur culture, there are almost not enough barriers to entry for some pretty bad US entrepreneurs who, really, should never do a startup in the first place.

The point is well made by investor and long-time tech observer Esther Dyson today in her post “The Dangerous Myth of the Hero Entrepreneur”.

In it she argues that while the “entrepreneur as hero” mythology can be counter-productive…

“In an economy such as the United States, where start-ups are revered, people who would make perfectly good project supervisors or salespeople establish their own companies, starving the ecosystem of middle managers. Thousands of perfectly smart and highly useful people feel inadequate because they are not heroes. Many make the wrong career choices in search of glory.”

However:

“Countries that want to be successful overall, rather than merely to play host to a couple of billionaire entrepreneurs who eventually will decamp to a tax haven, must focus on building a strong educational system for all their citizens. That is where the notion of the entrepreneur as hero can be helpful – by inducing more young people to study math and science, which will help them in many ways even if they pursue a non-technical career.”

So if the barrier to creating a startup is too high in Europe, too low in the US (producing people in their 40s on their 13th failed startup for instance), what is to be done?

How do you create startup heros to inspire others without creating false hopes of success?

My answer is that it’s not that simple. We in the media love heroes because they make great stories which connect with people emotionally. You will never get rid of that. So it’s really up to the people who get singled out as heroes to turn the camera around and focus it on their teams.

That’s something I think we are all getting better at, but it’s going to take a long time.

Leave us your thoughts in the comments.

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