I grew up being told to follow my dreams. I took calculated risks and set off down a path far from the beaten track. While I didn't end up anywhere remotely close to where I thought I would, mostly those risks paid off, and I've been enormously grateful for the amazing professional experiences I've had throughout my career.
Some of my more hare-brained ideas, however, have (understandably) been less successful. I learned fairly early on that sometimes it doesn't matter how hard you work or how brilliant you think your idea is, no one is immune to the possibility of failure.
Such is the life of an entrepreneur. While the numbers vary across industries, the vast majority of start-ups fail. Given the amount of work, investment, sleep deprivation and stress that goes into starting a new company, you'd think the failure statistics (some estimates suggest that as many as nine out of 10 start-up businesses will fold in the first five years) would put people off. Instead, more and more people are opting to become entrepreneurs.
It's easy to see why. Success stories about wild ideas that suddenly became multi-billion dollar businesses abound in the age of tech disruption. The creation stories of Facebook, Google, Uber, Tinder and the like have become modern-day parables, promising riches and glory if you have a creative idea and work hard enough to bring it to life.
In reality, entrepreneurial success is much more of a fairy tale than a logical career move. That hasn't stopped an entire industry dedicated to encouraging entrepreneurs to never give up (regardless of how dire the chances are of them ever achieving success – or, indeed, paying their rent) from developing and thriving.
Seminars, paid mentors and coaches, expensive networking sessions, incubators, university programmes, and any number of apps and websites have proliferated over the last few years. There are now a number of successful entrepreneurs who have made their fortunes by selling hope, delusion and affirmation to desperate people.
As someone who has started a business (that hasn't yet folded four years down the track – touch wood), I'm no stranger to the trials and tribulations of entrepreneurship. I know the "What the hell am I doing?" feeling well. I have worked many 18-hour days and had the odd moment when I wondered whether I could carry on. As the child of two entrepreneurs, I've been around entrepreneurship my entire life. I understand the need for encouragement and support.
But I cannot get behind an industry that gives people false hope. Sometimes, as the saying goes, you have to be cruel to be kind. No one likes to hear that their idea is a dud, impossible or poorly executed. Or – even worse – that they are incompetent.
Yet it is infinitely more compassionate to gently and honestly communicate with wannabe entrepreneurs about the problems with their ideas, products and/or companies than to encourage them to throw away years of their lives, take on debt they have no hope of paying back and miss out on other work opportunities that they may be better suited to. If you're going to fail, failing fast is the best option.
It may be painful to hear, but entrepreneurship isn't for everyone, and for every entrepreneur that was told they would fail and then went on to achieve enormous success, there are many thousands of entrepreneurs who found themselves bankrupt, bereft and broken. The steep and perilous road to sparkling, glittering triumph is littered with the detritus of millions of shattered dreams.
And then there are the sobering mental health statistics. Researchers at the University of California found that entrepreneurs are about twice as likely to suffer from depression than the general population, six times as likely to suffer from ADHD, and 10 times as likely to suffer from bipolar disorders. Which, to me, makes the entrepreneurial false hope industry all the more irresponsible. It's one thing to sell false hope, it's another thing to peddle it to vulnerable people.
Failure can have an enormous impact, particularly when it's regarded as an evil to be avoided at all costs. As such, a number of entrepreneurs avoid acknowledging it, opting instead to tread water clinging on to dead-end ideas. The sting needs to be removed, and the start-up sector needs to emphasise that there should be no shame in abandoning an idea that's going nowhere, to start something new, or in exiting the start-up game entirely in favour of traditional employment.
That, however, would have an impact upon a valuable stream of revenue. Encouraging struggling entrepreneurs to continue to flog their dead horses is far more profitable to the false-hope industry than helping them to make peace with their failures and make decisions that could get them back on track financially and professionally.
In the Wild West of the entrepreneur-encouragement industry, it's easy to see how the profits of services created to support founders and start-ups could win out over providing their clients with a much-needed dose of reality.
Hard work, dedication, bloody-mindedness and resilience do precede success – but not always. Entrepreneurs should absolutely be encouraged to follow their dreams, but they should also take such encouragement with a grain of salt – particularly when it's delivered by those whose profits are derived from the dwindling reserves of entrepreneurial hopefuls.