The Soul of an Entrepreneur: Work and Life Beyond the Startup Myth
Published by Hatchett Book Group, April 21, 2020; 320 pages; hardcover, $28
Reviewed by Chris Wendel
In a nutshell: The way entrepreneurship is viewed in today’s popular culture and what is really happening in the world are two different things.
Who’s it for? Broad audiences.
Author’s note: “When I first began thinking about this book, I wanted to focus on what it meant to be an entrepreneur. Not in an economic sense but something deeper. What did the life of an entrepreneur feel like?”
Entrepreneurship is likely one of the most maligned terms in today’s culture, claims writer David Sax, author of “The Soul of an Entrepreneur.” The book, released in April, takes a thorough look at how modern-day pop culture portrays entrepreneurship and the realities of what it actually is.
Sax begins by pointing out that in the last decade fewer people have started businesses in the United States than previously. This comes at the height in popularity of Silicon Valley upstarts that “disrupt” markets and secure venture capital (many times before even having a tangible product or service) with the dream of realizing meteoric success. Think of the TV show Shark Tank, or the holy trinity of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk, or fast rising businesses featured in business magazines, blogs, and podcasts and, well, you get the idea.
In the whole scheme of things Sax believes that this image of pitch decks, investment funding, and the pressure to grow quickly is an aberration. In reality, millennials are less likely to start a business than their parents and, up until recently, new businesses are more likely to be salons, bakeries, or brewpubs than a new phone app.
The author traces his own roots and realizes that most of his elders successfully ran their own businesses, many times out of necessity. He identifies this traditional version of entrepreneurship as the vehicle for immigrants coming to North America to feed their families and build new lives for themselves. Sax also realizes that working for oneself today is what many gravitate to in order to make ends meet and to have time to spend important moments with their families.
Sax reveals the booming entrepreneurial economy in his hometown of Toronto, where today’s immigrants look at starting a business as a way to establishing their roles in a new world. He interviews several business owners that fled to Canada from war torn Syria. Many were successful business owners prior to emigrating. Once in Canada, starting a business from scratch was the obvious choice to make a living (albeit not always one that is high paying) but the satisfaction of entrepreneurship is higher for many immigrants than working at traditional employment.
Sax’s journey takes him from interviewing Stanford students courting a startup concept to Silicon Valley investors, to a California farmer, to New Orleans-based African American women with their own successful spin on free enterprise, and others striving to make their businesses flourish. Sax, himself a freelance writer, talks candidly about the endless dread of finding new work projects and the pressure of completing them. We end up seeing a range of entrepreneurs that make up the rich mosaic of self-employed satisfaction. Some grow quickly, others remain small.
Those trained to look for a unicorn of a fast-growing business scaling to meteoric heights might dismiss businesses that provide lasting value to their owners and communities. Think of the angst one might have for their favorite neighborhood restaurant or retailer not making it through the COVID-19 “new normal.” “The Soul of the Entrepreneur” reminds us of the relevance all businesses and their owners have in today’s entrepreneurial landscape and how most companies that do make it big were initially lifestyle businesses themselves.
Chris Wendel is a Business Advisor with Northern Initiatives, a Community Development Financial institution (CDFI) based in Marquette, Mich. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org