Entrepreneur or Profiteer?

Over the years I have become increasingly frustrated with the misuse of some terms in our business culture. It is very stylish to characterize yourself as an Entrepreneur in America today, and it seems to matter little whether you actually have started businesses of your own. I can tell you as someone that has both enjoyed the ride and felt the cut of business, that inheriting what someone else built does not make you an Entrepreneur. Even starting a business does not earn you the title, you are then simply a burgeoning entrepreneur.

Underwater scene of a businessman taking the baitI have personally known at least a hundred true entrepreneurs and I have identified a consistent character trait among them. Entrepreneurs love to build. This could be process building, customer building, construction, technology, services, etc. They love to build, but in my assessment the absolutely most distilled and pure entrepreneur loves to build people. This trait is what makes the difference between an entrepreneur and a profiteer. Entrepreneurs see people for what they can become, profiteers see dollar signs.

So to summarize my definitions:

Business Leader – Someone who runs a department or business. This is not the founder of a business and did not take the risk to start the business.

Burgeoning Entrepreneur – Someone who has started a business but is limited in experience. Essentially an apprentice. Often to grow beyond this level you need to have failed a time or two as well.

Entrepreneur – Someone who has spent a career starting businesses. They love to build things, especially people. They mentor others who are striving to be entrepreneurs. They have succeeded and failed, they have the wisdom that comes from experience.

Serial Entrepreneur – Bogus term in my opinion. Either you are or you are not. I also think this is a term for a business leader that goes from startup to startup building the business.

If you read back through decades of the Wall Street Journal or our own St. Louis Business Journal you will read story after story of the founder of a business whose business outgrew him in the minds of others. Once a business gets beyond a certain number of employees it is more difficult to continue to succeed and it is very easy to dehumanize the workforce. They can become numbers, or worse, the dreaded profit-per-employee metric popular in some industries. As a business grows it is very difficult to maintain the culture you had at the beginning. It is possible to do, but you have to be strongly committed to it.

Entrepreneurs that build people are like fertilizer to our society. In their wake they leave people who know how to build businesses and their communities. You will see these leaders involved in the personal growth of their employees and helping them move forward professionally. At times you will see them back a former employee in an entrepreneurial venture. It is exciting to me when I get the chance to encourage young professionals and advise them in the skill of entrepreneurship. It is even more exciting to see someone I mentored doing the same with others.

Unfortunately people with this kind of bent can be taken advantage of easily. Enter the profiteer. The profiteer often thinks of himself as an entrepreneur but is solely focused on business profitability and efficiency. The profiteer drives the employees hard to increase the bottom line often without regard to the well being of the employees. This is certainly what I consider dehumanizing a workforce. In my experience profiteers are typically more interested in power and prestige than building things. Far more interested in their personal portfolios and image than in universal growth.

Wall Street is notorious for driving good solid businesses out of the hands of Entrepreneurs and into the hands of Profiteers. It appears that this is continuously damaging our economy and our business community. There have been some long term effects caused by profiteering in America. Just a few:

  1. Loss of Manufacturing Jobs
  2. Banking Crises
  3. .com and other “Bubbles”
  4. Corporate Farming

As long as our society is driven by numbers as the metric for success we will struggle with the wrong people having too much power in our business culture. It can be changed over time, through mentoring others to build businesses in a healthy way. A way that is healthy for the owners to make a good profit, customers to receive a quality product, and employees to make a reasonable wage. When you see a business that is run in this way, patronize it. If you know someone who runs his business this way encourage them. Most of all challenge yourself to be someone who invests in others, we all benefit from that.