Scratch Your Entrepreneurial Itch

One of the most remarkable things about entrepreneurship is that it is intrinsically democratic. And most of economic life is the opposite.

There is nothing democratic about being the CEO of Goldman Sachs, or of General Electric. Those positions don't come on a vote to people who read about them and really, really want them. Similarly, having heard that McKinsey consultants are highly paid, we don't get to say, "Hey, pick me" with any real expectation of getting the gig.

And professional occupations are no better. You can't become an accredited dentist on a whim, no matter your lifelong passion for porcelain versus amalgam fillings. Nor can you get off the beaten medical track and declare yourself the world's first consulting otolaryngologist, and then watch the money roll in.

But if you want to be the founder of a new company, then ... you're it. It happens because you said it's so. It is liberating and remarkable, the core, wildly democratic nature of being an entrepreneur. This was the real message in the recent Kauffman State of Entrepreneurship event in Washington, D.C., the idea that entrepreneurship is on the rise not because of government policy, but largely because people are finally realizing that there's nothing and no one stopping them from doing it.

Of course, the company you eventually found in this fit of econo-actualization generally has to do something. If not, outing oneself as an entrepreneur becomes just an updated euphemism for being unemployed.

So, what should the business do? There are myriad websites and entire magazines devoted to this subject, and a continuous flow of earnestly helpful blog posts from entrepreneurs, VCs, and other well-meaning sorts. A simple Google search for "best business to start" gets 537,000,000 hits. If you read one a minute it would take 1,000 years to get through them all, which would in itself require a business -- a dynastic one.

My advice: Don't read any of it. Instead, scratch your own itch. Find out what pains you, what you wish the world would fix about itself, or would provide for you, but won't. That's an excellent and not-so-tentative first step toward figuring out the thing that you should be doing as an entrepreneur, where you should focus your heavy lifting. It's the itch.

The technology community figured this out a long time ago. The open source movement -- software that is generally provided freely and with access to the underlying code -- is predicated on developers building stuff that they wish someone else would build, and then often folding that back into some larger project.

The ethos of "the itch" applies much more broadly, however. Entrepreneurship isn't, at its nascent stages, an intellectual exercise, something amenable to spreadsheet analysis and dutiful magazine and blog reading. Instead it is about being unreasonable about what you want and about what you think is possible, and then forcing your unreasonableness on the world.

Data-driven sorts will be falling over themselves by now. This is, they'll splutter, introspective empiricism: Asking yourself what you want and then building it is the worst kind of entrepreneurship, they argue. What about your target market? Do they want it? Will they pay? Are there enough of those proto-customers to make it all worthwhile? Do they want it now, or two years from now? Or yesterday? Who is your competition? All excellent questions, and all the sort of thing you're taught to ask in all the best MBA programs, which is one reason why most MBAs make crappy entrepreneurs.

Don't fall into the trap -- not at first, anyway. Because you will eventually need to do all that market-segmentation-SWOT-barriers-disruption sort of stuff (better yet, hire an MBA to do it for you), but not right now. First you need to plumb the depths of your own passion, your own willingness to find something about which you can be childishly, tirelessly unreasonable, a squalling infant with an economic rash. An entrepreneurial project requires you to live with it -- with uncertainty, naysayers, and the fog of creation -- for so long that you can only do it if it's so personal you would be irritated about it anyway.

So, scratch your own itch. What maddens you about the world, and what will make you even more maddened if it doesn't change in short order? Now you're onto something -- something entrepreneurially important.