Overuse of word ‘entrepreneur’ has leached it of all meaning

People who call themselves an entrepreneur these days are likely to be anything but

Have we reached peak entrepreneur? Not entrepreneur in the sense of hugely successful people with business acumen and creativity and – oh, alright, I’ll use the dreaded, intensely overused I-word – innovation. All evidence shows we’ve no shortage, though perhaps no great increase, either, in those.

As a term for this type of person, "entrepreneur" is generally accepted to have been coined in 1803 by the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, an admirer of Scottish economist Adam Smith's book The Wealth of Nations.

But the term had been around longer, and certainly so has the general concept of a businessperson who takes risks, looks for opportunity and disrupts markets.

It is now particularly associated with the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, who focused on entrepreneurs and their role in the "creative destruction" of markets, in his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.


But you don’t care a fig about all that, do you? I’m talking about “entrepreneur” in the sense of laughable self-delusion.

In this context, the term seems to have become e most tediously overused epithet in business, ever, with the explosion of digital-based enterprise, especially in Silicon Valley, around the late 1990s.

As someone who grew up, and attended school, in what is now considered the groovy heart of the Valley, Palo Alto, and who then lived for a chunk of the 1980s and early 1990s in San Francisco, I don't recall the term being in feverish, or even in much casual, use then. Not even for early tech millionaires such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Larry Ellison, who were all pioneering technology entrepreneurs of the time.

Back then, “entrepreneur” was a word I’d have associated with history class, particularly for those (mostly) middle-class chancers who saw an opportunity and went for it in the 19th and early 20th centuries, whether it be developing railroads or selling mining supplies, creating banks or tabulating machines, cars or food-processing plants.

Gradually, in the 1990s, “entrepreneur” crept into wider usage, specifically in the tech sector. Leading up to the dotcom crash at turn of this century, an entrepreneur was the thing to be.

Slides in the office

A tech entrepreneur! The very term conjures up trendy semi-geek millionaires furnishing company offices with indoor basketball hoops and slides between the floors, and throwing company events at which charting rock bands provide the music while adults play in grown-up sized bouncy castles and drive motorised beer kegs (oh yes, like any tech journalist of the time, I was at some of those).

A world of personal jets. Of who’s-got-the-biggest-yacht competitions with other tech entrepreneurs.

And despite the crash, in which many supposedly shining “entrepreneurs” were shown to be little more than clothesless wannabe tech emperors, nothing has changed much, except this catch-all term now catches even more people within its parameters, going by people’s use of it in their LinkedIn profiles.

Based on those now self-identifying as “entrepreneurs”, we are truly in the midst of an entrepreneurial epidemic. We are engulfed in a tumbling tsunami of entrepreneurs. They rain down upon us, the last sheltering few who have put off adding “entrepreneur” to our business card.

I mean, who isn’t an “entrepreneur” these days? Start any business and you are an “entrepreneur”. Work from home as a self-employed envelope addresser, and you are an “entrepreneur”. In particular, offer your services as a business adviser or innovation expert or start-up guru and, but of course, you will self-define as an “entrepreneur”.

On the positive side, I’ve found this encroaching flood of self-appointed “entrepreneurs” to be a handy way of knowing who is not, actually, an entrepreneur. A little delving and typically one finds the person has never set up an innovative, market-disrupting company, but instead just runs what might be a perfectly nice little business.


But not an “entrepreneurial” business, in any meaningful sense of this word. Or they have a little tech start-up and, simply because it is a tech startup, they are apparently “entrepreneurs”. And even in some cases where the people actually have been successful in business – including a tech business – then they go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like “I’m an entrepreneur”.

It is people like this who have leached the word of all meaning. Self-appointed entrepreneurship is no entrepreneurship. None of the great entrepreneurs I can think of describes themselves as an entrepreneur. If you really are an entrepreneur, if you have actually earned that sobriquet, others will call you that, with respect, over time.

Now, don’t even get me started on the equally detestable, self-aggrandising term “founder”.