Are we traders or entrepreneurs?
At many a forum analyzing strengths and weaknesses of the Sri Lankan business sector or when comparing the focus, the commitment to pursue niche export and local market opportunities and the pursuit of sustainable competitive advantages the question often asked is – Are Sri Lankan business persons traders and not entrepreneurs? The book titled “Business as Unusual” authored by Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop provides an effective check list that the Sri Lankan private sector can use in answering the often asked question.

“I never set out to be an entrepreneur, I’d never heard of the word and I was not interested in its definition. But since those early days I have had plenty of experience of the ups and downs of entrepreneurship and I’ve met many other entrepreneurs I have liked and admired, so I feel I can discuss the subject with a little authority. After a quarter of a century trying to reinvent business, I’ve come to the conclusion that the qualities you need to be a natural entrepreneur include a combination – at least – of the following: -

* The vision of something new and a belief in it that’s so strong that it becomes a reality. Vision-making is also obsessive, a type of psychopathology. It is inherently crazy. If you see something new, your vision usually isn’t shared by others.

* A touch of craziness. There is a fine line between an entrepreneur and a crazy person. Crazy people see and feel things that others don’t. An entrepreneur’s dream is often a kind of madness and it is almost as isolating.

* The ability to stand out from the crowd because entrepreneurs act instinctively on what they see, think and feel. And remember there is always truth in reactions.

* The ability to have ideas constantly bubbling and pushing up inside until they are forced out, like genies from the bottle, by the pressure of creative tension. But all these ideas are nothing, of course, unless someone can expedite them, which is where you thank God, or the gods, or both, for the people who have that skill.

*Pathological optimism. Everything is possible for an entrepreneur. This extraordinary level of optimism bears no relationship to any degree of planning

*A covert understanding that you don’t have to know how to do something. Skill or money isn’t the answer for the entrepreneur, it is knowledge from books, observing or asking.

*Streetwise skills. Most of the entrepreneurs I’ve met have had an innate desire for social change. They understand that business isn’t just financial science, where profit is the sole arbitrator; it is just as much about taking part in political and social activism, using products as conduits for social change. That gives entrepreneurs enormous freedom to experiment with what they want, but it also makes them dysfunctional in hierarchies and inert structures.

* Of course it’s easy to talk about creativity, but in essence it remains a mystery to me. I have never heard or read anything that explains how people behave creatively, despite the fact that we constantly glory in human creativity. Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge’. Dali claimed: ‘You have to systematically create confusion, it sets creativity free’. Maybe creativity is magic, maybe it is bestowed by the gods, maybe it is just polished opportunism. I just don’t know and I’ll probably go to my grave not knowing.

* The ability to mix all these together effectively. For me, becoming an entrepreneur was a consequence of simply trying to blend the skills I possessed into creating a livelihood. I learned by experience. So I don’t believe you have to go to college and study at the feet of some nutty professor of entrepreneurship.

I think you have to ask questions of everyone, and never stop asking questions, and knock on doors to seek as many different opinions as exist. Then you have to make up your own mind and plough your own furrow. I have never read a book on economic theory or business theory and I don’t intend to. It’s not theories that interest and excite me – it’s the doing that keeps me going.

*Finally, every entrepreneur is a great storyteller. It is story telling that defines your differences.

The checklist certainly indicates that the common belief that Sri Lankan business persons are often not entrepreneurs but mere traders is correct. If, being an entrepreneur is not something that business schools can teach, as stated by the author then the way forward is to follow role models and for business leaders themselves and the chambers to lead others by example and hand holding.

(The writer could be reached at -

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