The many faces of entrepreneurship

When he arrived in Melbourne in 1990, Brendan Lewis did not want to tell anyone he was a West Australian entrepreneur. For good reason too.


Back then, West Australian merchant banker Laurie Connell had just died and entrepreneurs from his part of the world were notorious for their fast cash and flash habits. Connell, for example, took 150 of his closest friends to a country race meeting on a train he had hired.


Another WA entrepreneur Alan Bond, a former sign writer, struck a commemorative gold medal for guests at his daughter’s wedding. The music stopped in the late 80s when Connell’s bank Rothwells collapsed. Bond, who had built an empire that left millions of dollars in debt, was sent to jail. The Australian Government meanwhile was pursuing another entrepreneur, former television station owner and manager of the failed Qintex Group Christopher Skase who was holed up in Spain.


Lewis said telling anyone at the time that you were an entrepreneur was a bad idea.


“The West Australian entrepreneur back then was synonymous with the spiv who vanishes into the sunset,’’ Lewis says. “Back in 1990, the word had a hideous name so I just told people I had a business and hid it.”


Lewis said that started changing from about 2000 with the rise of the internet billionaires, people like Larry Page and Sergey Brin who created Google, and Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, the founders of YouTube who ended up selling it to Google in 2006 for $1.76 billion. And then of course there is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. They changed everything, says Lewis.  Entrepreneurs don’t have a bad name any more.


The entrepreneur heroes

These days, folks talk about entrepreneur heroes. People like Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar, the co-founders of software company Atlassian. Or Didier Elzinga and his Adelaide-based company Rising Sun Pictures which has created visual effects for Hollywood blockbusters like Lord of the Rings and The Last Samurai. True, there are still some who might give entrepreneurs a bad name like, for example, one-time Australian internet high-flyer Daniel Tzvetkoff, who faces 75 years in a US prison after being charged in relation to $584 million money-laundering scheme. But unlike the 80s, those sorts of people are now the exception. 


Certainly more are becoming entrepreneurs. While the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that the number of start-ups in the lead up to the 2010 election declined to 14.4% in 2008-09, down from 15.3% in 2007-08, franchising seems to be going from strength to strength to strength. The latest figures show it is actually outperforming the rest of the Australian economy.


While many small businesses were hit hard by the global financial crisis, a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey has found that franchise systems around Australia were forecasting growth of 13% for 2011, and 49% over the next three years. According to IBISWorld research, Australia is already the most franchised nation in the world on a per capital basis, with three times as many franchises per capita compared with the United States.


At the same time, different types of entrepreneurs and start-up merchants are emerging. These days, there are people who start businesses working from home, there are intrapreneurs working through their ideas in large organisation and hoping to turn them into stand alone businesses. Then there are portfolio entrepreneurs with a string of start-up businesses under their control, the armchair entrepreneurs working at arms’ length from the business and there are serial entrepreneurs.


The young guns


Lewis says one of the big differences between now and then is that today’s entrepreneurs are a lot younger than their counterparts in the 80s and 90s.


“Evan Thornley did LookSmart when he was in his 30s, Steve Outtrim did Sausage when he was in his 20s. Most of these businesses were formed by young guys with passion, not the grey haired old men who were cynically extracting value and shuffling assets.”


The word “entrepreneur” has become so popular that 21 and 22 years olds are now saying that’s what they do, Lewis says: “They wear the badge entrepreneur with pride but in fact in many cases, they make their income lecturing at uni or working for the department of lands but they have this project going on the side. That’s what they identify themselves as, it’s not their full-time job but their part-time passion.”


Lewis, a serial entrepreneur who now runs a marketing business Flinders Pacific, is teaching his children all about start-ups. They are only eight and 10 years old but he plans to set up a plants seeds business with them.


“There’s the specific goal of doubling their pocket money and the secondary goal of teaching them about entrepreneurship,’’ Lewis says.


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