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There's Something Happening Here: Entrepreneurship and the Decline of Corporate Appeal

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There's somethin' happenin' here, what it is ain't exactly clear;
Young people speaking their minds, gettin' so much resistance from behind...

- Buffalo Springfield

I am thoroughly enjoying spending the majority of my time with entrepreneurs. I find that their enthusiasm, dedication, willingness to take huge risks and desire to make a dramatic impact quite inspiring. This is especially true in light of the fact that the majority of start-ups fail. While there are some statistics that say that entreprenuership overall is roughly holding steady (See, for example, Kauffman Foundation's Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity), inside the high technology arena it seems far different to me.

I consistently run into young adults who have quickly turned away from traditional jobs at great companies to try their hand at a start-up. I believe that some of this stems from the desire to strike it big like Mark Zuckerberg, but I also believe it is because starting a company has become far cooler than working in one. In talking to founder after founder, I've heard almost visceral reactions to working for companies, even very cool ones with great things to work on and lots of opportunity, like Facebook, Google, or consulting firms.

As I said, I admire the entrepreneurial spirit, and I love the intellectual challenge of deciding which ideas and which founders I want to bet on. The winners will have degrees of freedom (economic, career, etc) beyond imagination. Of those who do not reach this pinnacle the first time, many are wired to keep trying. Lately though, I have begun worrying about the economic impact of these serial (moderately successful or unsuccessful) entrepreneurs both on their families and on society at large.

In my career, companies were cool. Many had very driven, innovative leaders, and they did truly meaningful work. But something in many of today's companies is not resonating with our young adults. I remember when being a "a company man" was a badge of honor; today in Silicon Valley it may brand you a loser or, in the best case scenario, someone afraid to take risks. Ten years ago, if you saw a resume that had multiple jobs in ten years, you would be worried about the capability of the individual. Not so now.

I have a friend who was leaving a great company after serving in large roles and accomplishing much over his twenty-year career there. I was thrilled that he was willing to consider joining LiveOps (a much smaller company) in a major role. I introduced him to the VC and management team, but many were against hiring because despite all of his stellar experience, he had built most of his career at only one company. I backed away from hiring him. Some months later, I asked him to do some consulting work with the exec team and board. Everyone that met him in his capacity as a consultant thought he was brilliant and that I should try to hire him. "Awesome!" I thought, "I finally can get him to join!" But nope -- he enjoyed being a freelancer so much he decided to keep consulting.

I believe there is a massive shift happening in the number of people who want to work for themselves versus "the man," and that companies have some serious changes to make in order to recapture the hearts of our young adults. Some of these changes include migration from a paternalistic (parent-child) relationship to an adult-adult one, where employees are managed by outcomes, and companies work to become the employer of choice for their people every day. I think companies should let people have much more flexibility in deciding when and where they work, and that they need to find ways to inspire people to work for them, rather than serve as merely means to capital.

I think it is quite telling that self-employed people are far more passionate about their work than folks who are working for a corporation. As the Deloitte Center for the Edge found in a 2010 study, passionate workers are much more likely to be self-employed than their colleagues who work for corporations (47% passionate vs. 21% passionate).

It would be my hope that we give the next generation tons of opportunities to fulfill their destiny -- both in start-ups and in corporations -- because for every Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg, we need thousands of people to help them transform the world.