On Becoming an Entrepreneurship Industry User

October 18, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sixteen years ago, I went to hear what I guess you’d call a motivational speaker. He was trying to motivate the thousand or so people in the auditorium buy his course on getting rich, and to do that he had to first make us feel that we could be wildly successful if only we changed the way we thought about money. And he did. He was really good. Motivational, even inspirational. We really did feel as though some gigantic prize were within our grasp.

The way to unlimited wealth, he said, is of course, to have your own business. If you work for someone else, whatever your monthly salary or (God forbid) hourly wage, your income is limited; there are only twelve months or twenty-four hours.

I remembered that talk as I was listening to the latest episode of the Sociology Annex podcast (here). Joe Cohen’s guest was Rasums Koss Hartman, and I realized that my motivational speaker was part of what Hartman calls  calls the Entreprenership Industry. Hartman teaches at a business school (Copenhagen — all his degrees are from there too), but his take on the Entrepreneurship industry and the entrepreneurs took me back to my intro sociology course six decades ago where we read Outsiders and Theory of the Leisure Class.  

Most people who try to become entrepreneurs run into a variety of setbacks — they have problems getting their business to work properly, they get rejected by potential investors, they lose money, they go into debt, and all these can compromise their relationships and mental health.

But the Entrepreneurial Industry is there to persuade them that all these experiences are normal and possibly necessary steps to eventual success. Becoming an entrepreneur in the 2000s is much like what Becker described in “On Becoming a Marijuana User” for jazz musicians in the 1940s. The crucial challenge is to learn to define as pleasurable and good what others might see as unpleasant. Becker’s musicians had their own hip culture (it was  the 1940s, so probably their “hep” culture). Hopeful start-ups have the Entrepreneurial Industry. In fact, Hartman calls the entrepreneur’s transformational learning “the Beckerian Distortion.”   

There are differences of course. Pot was legally and socially condemned; entrepreneurship is highly praised. The hepcats didn’t charge for their help, and nobody went broke. Nor did they strive to smoke  unlimited quantities of pot or try to figure out how to be a mega-hophead. Being a pot user was not the core of their identity.

But in the US, we lionize the successful start-up billionaire, so being an entrepreneur is a valid and valued identity. As Hartman says, “If you’re a young person and you’re underemployed, if you’re a college-educated barista, it’s socially preferable to be the ‘founder and CEO’ of a company even though it might not succeed.” Spending your money on the goods and services the Entrepreneurial Industry sells is a kind of conspicuous consumption, signaling to others that even if you are not the next Steve Jobs, at least you are doing something everyone admires. And so we have what Hartman calls “The Rise of the Veblenian Entrepreneur.”

In both these papers, Hartman begins with what my motivational speaker omitted: that the graph of entrepreneurial success is a highly skewed power curve. The typical venture ends up as a “Muppet” (I’m not sure why he borrows that term): “An economically marginal, under-sized and poorly performing enterprise.” Maybe that’s still better than being a barista.

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