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.”


“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.

  • Robin Smith

    Mike, I think some illiterate ignoramus has hacked your blog. This piece is grammatical gibberish and I’ve counted five spelling errors. |Can you find the hacker and ask him to stop writing such utter wooly shit on your blog please?

    • Martin LeBlanc

      @Robin Smith

      Thank you for your well articulated comment and for spreading happiness and joy!

      That said, I think TC needs a contact link to the author of a post so these messages can be sent directly to them, instead of polluting the comments.

    • John

      Why are there no black superheroes?

      • herve

        You know why there are no black superhero, It’s like a lack of women superhero (I mean here of course in high-tech entrepreneurship). It’s about education, networks. I had written about it ( but there are many more interesting contributions on the topic. I do not know how many black, women, minorities graduate in engineering or business, but probably not so many, and tehre has to be a link…

      • jason

        I’m one of those few black startup folks. Did comp sci at Brown, studied graphics w/ Andy van Dam, worked for Raytheon, Apple (OpenCL), and been out here in the valley on to my second startup…

        …and not too many black folks in sight! — barely any in my degree program, and less out here in the valley.

        hopefully as the few blacks/women out there in tech start doing more stuff on a public level, it will inspire others to study engineering and follow suit.

    • Shab Touch

      yeah, you are totally right, there are lots of grammar mistakes…

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  • Fanie Oosthuysen

    Don’t think barrier creating a startup in the US is too low. Thats such nonsense. Why should there be any barriers? Her view that some US entrepreneurs should never have started their own thing is speculative and narrow in perspective. Maybe some of these should have just tried longer, maybe some of them did not study enough in their field and just jumped head first into and empty pool, sure. But why should we stop them, who the hell are we to think we always know better. You would have no innovation.

    • Daniel Valadez-Romo

      @Fanie Oosthuysen, you stole the words right out of my fingers. I would love to +1000 your comment but for some odd reason TC EU isn’t using Disqus yet.

    • Meemo

      You stole my words too, though I was writing mine and didnt see your comment :p

    • VIBrunazo

      “maybe some of them did not study enough in their field and just jumped head first into and empty pool”

      But that’s the whole point they’re trying to make. Due to poor education, some people get overexcited and don’t see the obvious in front of them. So they’re arguing that we need better education to teach the young at their 20’s that they need to be more careful and analyze their options more coldly. And make sure they’re not getting overexcited with a bad idea that isn’t going anywhere. And become successful rich employees of others instead.

      Education will not hurt innovation, that’s silly. It will only hurt bad ideas. We definitely don’t need any more bad ideas. 90% of all start ups are horrible ideas that are not going anywhere. If we could reduce that percentage and consequently increase the quality of mid level managers. Then it’s a win-win situation.

  • Meemo

    Let’s skip the poor grammar aside and talk about what has been stated.
    What is too few barriers ? This is just journalism, this means nothing economically speaking. If the barriers to enrepreneurship are very low, then people come up with projets and get funded (or not), and if the prove succesful, they get wealthy, and if they don’t, they disappear (and go back to being ‘middle managers’). The funders (banks, VCs, BAs) set the barriers, this is capitalism, and is not jeopardizing growth macro-economically.

  • Neil Cocker

    This is *really* interesting, Mike. I’ve never heard the opinion that the barriers to entry are just too low in the States, but it kind of makes sense.

    I’ve often looked at the entrepreneurial climate in the States (through rose tinted glasses? ) and thought to myself “well, if only I’d started things there someone would have waded in with $500k, and I’d have a team of amazing developers around me”….

    The grass is always greener, of course, and “Entrepreneur” isn’t a dirty word over there ( ). But maybe being a european entrepreneur is a good thing. Maybe it teaches us to be a little tougher, a little more self-reliant, having to build businesses from the ground up. I’m contemplating looking for investment at the moment just to accelerate growth in what we’re doing, but there’s certainly an argument that the slow, steady, self-funded growth that we’re currently achieving is the best kind?

  • Phil Bloom

    Americans are allowed to fail.

    Europeans are not.

    It’s a huge difference in mentality (US vs. Europe)
    More US startups fail, but with more failure comes greater success.

    In Europe, we’re not even allowed to give it a shot.
    And most VC’s in europe are just… incompetent…

    • Shab Touch

      Really, Europeans are so conservative, that there is a little chance that they will as successful startup as US’s. Look at Germany or France, the biggest companies were built 100-150 years ago(Siemens, BMW ETC.) and I’ve never heard of newer ones that have worldwide influence…

      • BR

        Arm, Symbian?

      • biztory

        SAP, Nokia, but these are exceptions…

      • Phil Bloom

        Skype… But yeah, they’re exceptions…

    • Stefano B

      US employees are exposed to many risks: sudden lay-off, be fired on the spot, inadequate health coverage, maternity discrimination, no retirement plans….. In most european countries the “system” provides a seamless welfare cocoon and elaborate job protections that shield the employee from almost any worry. Beside the good points highlighted in the article, in my opinion this too amplify the perception of risk when considering to start a company in EU.

  • dasein

    I agree for the most part. The amount of VC money being dumped into derivative, unoriginal, revenue-free start-ups in Silicon Valley is absurd.

    Millions on the most vapid of propositions. It’s obvious that many now in Silicon Valley were still in diapers during the 1999-2000 bubble, because in some milder ways it’s becoming the same dynamic over again.

  • Alex

    I’m not sure that barriers to starting a business in the UK are high. It’s extremely easy to get a ‘tech’ business going here. Incorporating, registering for VAT etc are all pretty easy but you don’t need to do any of these anyway until you’re a real going concern. Even basic shareholder agreements between two equal cofounders are readily pulled of the web for less than a tenner. That’s just the UK, of course, but getting a tech business going in your bedroom, garage or coffee shop of choice does not actually require any paperwork.

    Warning: MBA-speak ahead.

    The only barriers to entry are exit barriers. You only get into a business if you can get out of it. In the US, it’s relatively easy to get an exit, to sell your business and move on. In Europe, it seems this is a problem. Most trade sales for UK tech businesses, it seems, are to US acquirers, while IPOs are few and far between. We’ve all cheered Betfair’s flotation but how many years has it taken for them to get there?

    We talk a lot about the problem of startup capital when there is another very real issue of a dearth of exit opportunities. Until more acquisitions are made locally, we will continue to have a lack of successful startups.

  • james

    I agree with this quite a bit, in Canada it has been my experience that greed overwhelms a sales person to the point of starving out their own people resources. It’s happened twice to me, I can’t see why it doesn’t happen to many others.

    There could be very little choice except to be the lone person or super hero.

    • james

      IN other words, I agree that way too often there is someone in the organization who feels they are worthy of 99% of 3 of 4 peoples combined efforts. I’m sure it is not that drastic in many circumstances, but it is the reality, and growth never happens under those terms.

  • dasein


    These appear regularly. So much for relevant moderation. Other posts get deleted, this one seems to skate through all the time…

  • herve

    This is a great post and analysis. There is one absolute need: role models. Do they have to be heroes? Probably. The reason why we play soccer (in Europe), we go to science is linked somehow to the existence of Einstein or Zidane. But you are right all soccer players or scientists will not become heroes. But I strongly believe it is in part because we have no Apple, Cisco, Google in Europe that we have have fewer entrepreneurs today. So should bright people join teams where they would be great mid-managers. Well… it is what they have done in Europe in the last 50 years and the result is…? So you are right, there may be too-low barriers in the USA but it is why you have these success stories in entrepreneurship. Yes the success rate maybe 1 for 1000, but there is a need for critical mass. No doubt. So it’s not only the media, it’s all of us: we really need great role models. It is far from sufficient, but I think critically even if only symbolically necessary.

    • herve

      And I agree with Daniel, 1000+ to Fanie. You should add the Disqus tool to your comments

  • bcurdy

    Interesting article. A lot of food for thoughts. For some reason, I can’t believe any ecosystem will ever lack middle managers though. And I’d much rather see people fail at building startups rather than sticking to their middle management role. Also, the question of persistence vs cutting your losses is one the hardest one to crack. Again, I’d rather see people spending a bit too much time on the former rather than going straight to the latter.

    This being said, Esther Dyson’s article is definitely worth reading. She makes a few very good points around hiring, government subsidies and entrepreneurs as role models. And to answer your question, I’d say you’ll always get 1 startup/football/guitar heroes for every 10000 people entering the game. That’s life. The issue is more around the definition of success and failure. If your drivers are external (like money/glory) your chances of success are very slim indeed but if they are internal (passion/fun), they will be infinitely higher. It all depends on your definition of success. There are loads of interviews, blogs and books on that topic (Kevin Rose and Leo Laporte were discussing it in the last TWiT, for instance) and I believe anybody starting a business should spend sometimes thinking about this too.

  • robin jewsbury

    I think the barriers are the same everywhere, there are perhaps more opportunities on the US west coast. How many of those “US” entrepreneurs are really Europeans who have moved there because the streets are paved with gold. I know of one European entrepreneur who was mentioned in Techcrunch yesterday – he has been in San Fran just 2 months. He never got any mention when he lived here in London. That must be your fault Mike – you are not promoting the individuals over here, but your US colleagues are doing so.

    • herve

      I like what you say here but tehre is a slight contradiction: if the barriers were the same, the situation might be the same, or it is you do not pu cultural/psychological barriers in your barrier definition. If we do not promote enough in Europe, then we face bigger barriers, right or wrong?

  • dani

    hey, guys, did u see this interview?

    steve wozniak now is saying that kindle its his favorite product…

    • flappy patoot

      Sorry to say this, but he hasn’t been relevant for over two decades…

      What’s he done since the Apple II? Nothing, except creat a concert tour and not much else… When I read his comments, they carry about as much weight as some guy off the street, I’m afraid.

  • Ryan

    Just a quick thought. What about the consumer side of things. From what I have noticed here in the UK is that the general public, the customers, are far more cautious of new products or companies. What I’m getting at is it seems to be easier getting a US customer to use your NEW service than a UK customer, its just a mentality in the UK that I think could be holding back European start ups in European markets.

  • Jeremy

    I’d rather have a bunch of losers and a few successes and have a culture of entrepreneurship then have a culture of statism and produce only a few winners every blue moon. Even if the number of losers overwhelmingly outweigh the number of winners, we benefit from having the entrepreneurs on the “team.” It’s like St. Louis Cardinals fans, who argue that they should trade Albert Pujols. Yeah, you can replace Pujols in the lineup with some kid, but the intangibles drive everybody else on that team to be better. So maybe the Statue of Liberty should read “Give me your poor, your huddled masses, your great start-up ideas as well as your lousy start-up ideas.” Seriously, everybody benefits from a culture of entrepreneurship.

    Plus, the argument that the billions made go to a tax shelter doesn’t hold water either, and it does nothing but betray the European mindset. The only benefits to entrepreneurship, in the Euromind, is what the government can tax so that they can buy more things for the public. That’s where it starts and stops. In my mind, entrepreneurship creates a civilization of innovators, bent on improving, even marginally, what they can envision. We want to make our large businesses “more entrepreneurial,” they tell us in business school. The europeans want to make their large, state-run businesses “more competitive” with American ones.

  • Anonymous

    Mike, I was just going through your posts in TC and also your tweets and found out that you rarely review any startups. Most of the reviews are done by others at TC Europe (unlike the main TC where as MK still writes reviews himself). Your reviews (if any) were so short that one might think you just wrote them to get the startup off your back, not to really help them to be known, get more clients, validate their idea and more importantly show that there are interesting startups in EU.

    Your posts are all about funding. Who got funding, who is getting funding, who is going to get funding, who is funding. With less than 10% of startups asking, needing or getting funding during their lifespan (stats from TC), isn’t it a bit narrowing the role of tech journalism?

    Don’t you think you (and your fellow tech bloggers) can help the EU startup scene a bit more by actually helping them the way US TC, VentureBeat or GigaOM are helping them? To give them publicity, review them critically and listen to them more?

    Your tweets were also interesting: Most of them are either promoting TechHub one way or another. In the rest you’re asking your followers for help: Where is the place near old street to fix a laptop? What’s the hotel for LeWeb? etc. etc. etc.

    I suppose twitter is a powerful tool for these sort of things. You also happen to have many followers who do almost anything to get a mention in TC EU. So it works for you. You ask your readers to vote you for panels (in SXSW) or EU tech journalist titles. That’s all fine. But can we all just stand back and review YOUR contribution to the EU tech scene since you’re running TC EU?

    You keep writing about the EU vs. US debate. Don’t you think in this ecosystem, there are three players: Entrepreneurs, Investors and the Media?

    I invite you to read your own posts in TC EU for the past 12 months and see how much of it was actually about helping entrepreneurs and how much of it feeds your own desire to address “the bigger issues”? Perhaps you want to fix things from the top. I just noticed that no one in the US has adopted the same approach.

    I hope I’m wrong about you. I hope most of the entrepreneurs I talk to in private are wrong about you.

    • George Bevis

      @Anonymous – I realise your criticism of Mike is designed to be constructive rather than abusive, but this is a wholly misdirected comment so I felt compelled to respond.
      1) Nobody has done more to promote the European startup ecosystem than Mike, who is up there in the stratosphere with Seedcamp, the Kleins, and practically no-one else.
      2) Writing about funding is appropriate because (a) it’s something TC readers care about, (b) it is a good opportunity to also talk about what a company actually does, and (c) of all the various scarce resources in the ecosystem, finance is the scarcest (as you note)
      3) Promoting Techhub is totally reasonable. If you don’t use your Twitter feed to promote your business, you’re an idiot.
      4) Mike isn’t the only writer on TC EU, but he is the boss. So it’s not necessary for him to do all the startup stories, and he does have the best overview of the systemic issues so it’s useful for him to cover them.
      5) Your final sentence about entrepreneurs you ‘talk to in private’ simply doesn’t resonate with any experience I’ve had with European entrepreneurs talking about TC or Mike. He, and this blog, are hugely highly regarded. There are always things one might wish the blog to do differently, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t do a lot brilliantly on what (I imagine) is a pretty limited budget.
      6) Seriously, if you’re that fed up, just stop reading. Launch a competitor. That’s what a winner would do. Don’t just be an anonymous hater.

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  • Andrew Wyatt

    By the time any European start-up entrepreneur has grown his business, his business or his market will be controlled by Chinese business men.
    After China has colonized Africa, it is now focusing on Europe to colonize.

    Not that we are all doomed but there is little hope to grow any large enterprise in Europe.
    Maybe time to learn Mandrin or to move to a BRICK country like Brazil (need to speak Portuguese – but the climate is warmer).

  • Scott

    This is bullshit. It’s about as easy for “bad” entrepreneurs to raise money and start dumb companies as it is for academics to get grants for dumb research. But it’s not their fault, it’s the fault of the financiers.

    How about let’s talk about bad financiers and investors?

    I consider myself a good entrepreneur, yet I’ve never been successful at raising money. So maybe I’m not a good entrepreneur in that sense, but I don’t judge myself on my ability to con people into writing checks. However I have persisted and now I don’t need to raise money. So fuck em. And I live in the Bay Area!

  • jean

    You never know if an idea will work until it gets tested. Now we are supposed to asked PhDs in our fields if our ideas will work before we try them. It’s like saying, Don’t start a search engine because Google is the best. If you start such a business, you are just stupid? This is America and this is why lots of immigrants come here; they believe they can make it and they try hard enough to be successful.
    If you have an idea, don’t let people discourage you, work hard at it and give it a good try and the results will dictate your next move.

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