“A man thinks that by mouthing hard words he understands hard things.” – Herman Melville
One of the more benign legacies left by the Thatcher government was the raising of the profile of the entrepreneur. There is no doubt that the starting of new businesses is crucial to the health of the overall economy and that it requires a specific skillset that most people, me for one, don’t possess. However, like most things in business, it has somehow become distorted along the way. Driven by a combination of political spin, television game shows and the fact that all true entrepreneurs are naturally a bit of a chancer in the first place, that entirely appropriately raised profile has morphed into a something of a cult. Anyone who has successfully started a business (1) is now regarded as an expert in every field under the sun and called upon to bestow their opinion on us at every opportunity, regardless of whether they have any direct experience of the subject under discussion or not. As it happens Luke Johnson’s column in the FT on Wednesday 28th August (subscription required) is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about, but I want to focus on one those entrepreneurs who have been called in to advise the civil service by the current government. The previous administration hired proper industrialists like Sir Peter Gershon to advise them (although in fairness they also called upon the ludicrous John Birt and the showboating buffoon Digby Jones), but this lot have enlisted the assistance of a cohort of those whose main qualification seems to be self-promotion.
One of these entrepreneur ‘experts’ tweeted recently (and proudly it would seem) that the advice he had given to civil servants involved in procurement was that they should treat every pound they spend as if it were the last pound in their own pocket. And to me the shallowness, triteness and sheer imbecility of that advice sums up why seeking the input of people like this is pointless to the point of being counter-productive.
Firstly, it’s pompous, arrogant and patronising in the extreme to imply that those being addressed are unfamiliar with a concept (that of of spending money carefully) which the speaker alone has a special insight into. Secondly, the advice is completely vacuous. When the procurement executives are faced with a purchase requisition and think to themselves “that nice man said I should behave as if I only had a pound in my pocket” then what practical steps follow from that? I would suggest none whatsoever. It is an empty, meaningless phrase dreamed up only to sound good.
Thirdly, it’s intellectually unsound. It assumes that ‘last pounds in pockets’ are homogenous, whereas a moments reflection on the work of Abraham Maslow would indicate that this is not so. Consider a wealthy, successful man (possibly an entrepreneur even) who steps out of a nice restaurant late one night and walks towards his car. He sees a homeless man sitting on the pavement (2) and decides that a bit of self-actualisation is in order. He reaches into his pocket and finds that he only has a one pound coin, which he takes out and drops into the second man’s outstretched hand. The homeless man, who now also has just one pound in his pocket decides, in accordance with Maslow’s theory, that he would rather satisfy his physiological needs and uses it to buy some cheap cider. So which of these two are our procurement executives expected to emulate? To give the money away as charity, or to buy something that will bring illusory short term benefits but with a long term cost. That’s an essentially rhetorical question and all I will say is that if was a civil servant forced to listen to the type of sanctimonious nonsense proffered by the entrepreneur on Twitter then I’d take the White Lightning option every time.
(1) As I have written so many times that now even I am bored with it, in my opinion most of the success of most people is down to luck anyway
(2) If Leeds is anything to judge by, he will actually see quite a few