Everything That’s Wrong with the Modern Entrepreneurship Culture

by Rob Stam

If you haven’t seen the show, Funderdome is a entrepreneurship pitch contest hosted by Steve Harvey in which two people pitch their business ideas, and the audience decides which one gets $50,000. Just before the award is given, however, the show gives the contestants a chance to hit a buzzer and accept a lower amount to avoid risking being on the losing side of the audience vote and getting nothing. It’s gimmicky, mildly entertaining, and, just like the plethora of other TV shows that Steve Harvey hosts, America loves it.

You can tell by the title of this article that I am not one of those people who loves it. Sure, I enjoy it, but as one who makes his living in the field of entrepreneurship, I find that it perpetuates a dangerous mindset that has crept into our culture over the last decade. It misrepresents what it is to be an entrepreneur, and as a result, is misguiding aspiring entrepreneurs.

Funderdome is just the top of the mountain of a series of pitch competitions that happen across America every day. I watch locally as organizations give away $5,000 and $10,000 prizes to some of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen… but someone has to win, right? Otherwise what’s the point of the competition? For me, it’s embarrassing to the field of entrepreneurship. I’ve even heard late night comics make fun of the word “Entrepreneur,” using it as a synonym for “unemployed.” Oh how far we’ve regressed from the days when an entrepreneur was the one society looked up to in awe. Being an entrepreneur used to mean being the inventor, the job creator, innovator, the world-changing risk-taker. Now, it’s the kid with the dumb idea who doesn’t want to get up and go to work every day.

Entrepreneurship is not about good ideas, and it’s not about getting free money. It’s about driving an idea into commercialization no matter what the risk. Contrast Funderdome to the grand daddy of all pitch competitions, Shark Tank. At least in Shark Tank there’s no guarantee that anyone is going to win anything. It’s not a popularity contest. And, the money is invested by real people, not given by the producers of the show.

But all of these pitch platforms, Shark Tank included, can steer the entrepreneur off track. I see too many talented aspiring entrepreneurs waste years of their life thinking that getting money is the goal, when in actuality, the real entrepreneurs of our society are the ones who risk everything and figure out how to build the business despite not having capital.

When we perpetuate this pitch-driven mindset, we are robbing entrepreneurs of learning that the greatest level of innovation does not come from having an idea, it comes from figuring out how to commercialize the idea. That’s what separates the ideas that last from those that fail. Pain is our greatest motivator. If you want to see something succeed, it’s going to require at least one person at the helm who’s had to sacrifice to get it there—someone who personally loses if the business loses. Forget about your cute idea winning a contest. Will you do whatever it takes to get people to actually buy the idea?

I’m not suggesting that capital investment shouldn’t be a part of entrepreneurship. I’m just suggesting that it shouldn’t be the catalyst of it. Idea + Powerpoint should not = investment.

One of the elements I love about Shark Tank is that they are always asking about sales and sacrifice, rather than being obsessed with the cleverness of an idea. (It’s a bit ironic to me that a panel of investors who didn’t have a platform like Shark Tank when they started their businesses would participate in one, but I do applaud them for at least asking the right questions.)

My question for the aspiring entrepreneur today is one of commitment. What if you lose the pitch competition? Was that your ticket to success? If so, give up now. Money is not the missing ingredient to success. If you’re willing to do whatever it takes, and along the way you can snag a free $5,000, why not? It’s commitment to your goals and hard work to do whatever it takes to get you there that will ultimately bring you success.