European startups: don't overestimate the role of role models

(Note: I penned this column for The Telegraph’s excellent Tech Start-Up 100 debate series- a slightly edited version originally appeared here)

In the seemingly never-ending discussions about Europe vs. Silicon Valley – how much digital ink can be spilled on ‘why Europe will never be the next Silicon Valley’, ‘why Europe will definitely become the next Silicon Valley’ and ‘Silicon Valley and Europe: a comparative look at fauna and flora’ anyway? – I’m quite amazed by how often pundits point out we could use more role models in Europe’s tech industry.

The idea seems to be that, inspired by their story of how their startup became the next Google, aspiring entrepreneurs need only look at people who’ve built or even exited companies and became fabulously famous and wealthy in the process.

I disagree.

Europe’s tech industry needs many things, but role models simply isn’t one of them, or at least it can be found at the very bottom of the list. As any successful entrepreneur will tell you, building companies from scratch requires a certain degree of madness that few people possess.

I don’t believe people can be educated into entrepreneurs as much as I think it’s an urge that comes embedded in one’s DNA. If you have an itch to scratch, why would you wait for someone to show you how to scratch it before you set out to find out on your own?

Understand that I’m not positing that aspiring entrepreneurs shouldn’t have any role models, or find inspiration in stories about people who’ve been around the block before them. What I’m saying is that there’s currently no lack of role models, and that it’s a lousy excuse to use in arguments about the sorry state of the European tech industry.

As if another story about a Zennström and Friis duo building the next Skype, or a Mårten Mickos leading the next MySQL to a shiny exit, will somehow validate the European startup scene and spawn a whole new generation of successful entrepreneurs in these parts.

I simply don’t believe having more role models will change much about today’s landscape in the same way I don’t believe there wouldn’t be a Lady Gaga today without a Madonna.

There are a host of great business books and role models out there, respectively written and born across the globe to boot, that the next entrepreneur can study if he or she opts to learn from successes and failures from past times. Don’t underestimate those either.

A much better way to learn, however, is to get off your arse and start scratching that itch of yours. Who knows, maybe one day you will become a role model.

(Image used with permission from Flickr user Joshua Coach oh Ommen)