Cohen: Why millennials have the wrong idea about start-ups and entrepreneurship


Julia Cohen, Columnist

I have a thing for Elon Musk, and I’m not shy about it. Maybe it’s his adorable smile. Maybe it’s his subtle South African accent. Maybe those things add to it, but it’s definitely one thing overall: his penchant for big ideas, risk taking and entrepreneurial spirit. Beyond being my giant crush, Musk is a poster child for the millennial entrepreneur, and rightfully so – his ideas, such as consumer space travel, have the potential to revolutionize the way we think about major industries like tourism and technology. While role models such as Musk can teach our generation valuable lessons about entrepreneurship, they can also create a false image of what it takes to start a successful business. Our focus on the culture of start-ups, rather than ideas themselves, is harmful to not only the economy but also ourselves.

The obsession with start-ups represents a problem with the status quo, rather than a burst of ideas. 71 percent of millennials working at stereotypical desk jobs want to leave in order to start a business – but they may not have an idea of what that business should be. The logical process of starting a business is happening out of order. Instead of having an idea, developing it and then becoming an entrepreneur, people are skipping straight to the entrepreneur step and figuring it out from there. When we start a business for the sake of escaping the status quo, we are less likely to take time to develop an idea and more likely to take immediate inspiration from what already exists. As a recent article in Foreign Affairs argues, “Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, (entrepreneurs) are trying to make existing wheels go a tiny bit faster.” Rather than creating new markets, they are entering existing ones, where it is much harder to succeed. The number of people demanding an existing good or service is fairly stable. The more options people have to choose from, the less of their money will go to each individual option. It’s no wonder that 75 percent of venture-backed startups fail – they are just existing businesses in disguise.

The individual-centered startup culture is also preventing our generation from success. From Musk to Mark Zuckerberg, great entrepreneurs have achieved celebrity status perpetuated by TED talks and movies like “The Social Network.” But, as Walter Isaacson explains in his book “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution,” successful business ventures are stories of collaboration rather than individuals. But that’s not what we see in the media. Too many people think they can go into business on their own by programming websites and apps from their living rooms or by using platforms such as Etsy. While some of these ventures are individually valuable, the problem is that a one-person business can rarely expand past the short run. You can only provide so many skills, hours and funds on your own. Costs and resources are fixed, and as a result, there is little room for flexibility – the kind of flexibility that creates meaningful economic growth. Wanting to do it all on your own is natural, but it doesn’t lend itself to a successful business plan. Instead, entrepreneurs must focus on team building, long-term strategy and collaboration.

If we want to be the generation that revolutionizes the American economy, we need to tackle the problems we face in our offices instead of running away from them. A more laid-back, collaborative environment in traditional industries is one way to foster the innovation and self-worth that we seek to create through starting business. Training the next generation of workers to look for large holes in markets rather than nitpicking individual problems is another. Either way, no matter how much we daydream, we can’t all be the next Elon Musk, and I definitely can’t marry the current one.  What we can do is work to solve the problems at hand with the jobs that are making us so unhappy in the first place.

Julia Cohen is a SESP sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].