“Know what you’re good at and persevere”
Aileen Donegan chats to John Egan, serial entrepreneur from Ireland
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"When we consider youth entrepreneurship our success metrics shouldn't be based around how many succeed in their first venture but rather how many succeed in subsequent ventures"
Are you a young person who’s more interested in being an employer than an employee? Are you innovative? Would you call yourself an entrepreneur? Last week I interviewed Irish ‘serial entrepreneur’ John Egan. He’s the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Sandbox AG, a global entrepreneur accelerator for those under 30.
The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) say that young Europeans are ‘least likely to feel positive about starting up a business.’ (23 September 2013) The current European money crisis is one reason why people – young included – are afraid of taking financial risks.
If you have ever thought of opening up your own business or applying to the European Union (EU) for financial assistance, hear what Egan has to say for budding entrepreneurs.
As an Irish serial entrepreneur what would you say to a young Irish person thinking about starting out?
Be self-reflective; understand what you're good and bad at. Improve what you're good at and recruit people to do what you're bad at. Also, be aggressive: identify simply and specifically what you want to achieve and then aggressively pursue it. Persevere; it will be lonely and frustrating, but the only ones who succeed are those who sustain.
Just 17.3% of young Europeans believe they have the skills and knowledge to start a business, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (2013) (this compares to between 30%, 40% and 60% for the Middle East & North Africa, Latin America & the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa regions, respectively.) Why do you think entrepreneurial attitudes in Europe are so much less compared to other continental counterparts?
I think this question has two parts:
The first is simply that Europeans are more conservative because the legislative framework and a history of aristocratic governance have established a culture of risk aversion and less single generation movement between social classes.
The second is that 17.3% is significantly higher than the number actually capable of successfully starting a business. Very few first-time entrepreneurs succeed in their first venture, just like very few newly trained doctors are neurosurgeons.
When we consider youth entrepreneurship our success metrics shouldn't be based around how many succeed in their first venture but rather how many succeed in subsequent ventures. By acknowledging that most young companies will fail, and that this is a necessary part of the learning process we can encourage entrepreneurship without institutionalised aversion to risk.
Do you think young people are aware of what the EU is offering, e.g. funding, support and the European Commission’s Entrepreneur 2020 Action Plan?
Most people are entirely unaware of EU assistance. It seems inaccessible to them and sometimes intimidating. That said, the EU is not an appropriate funder for most small businesses and it is unlikely that a young entrepreneur would collaborate successfully with the EU unless they required very significant, multi- jurisdictional collaboration in sophisticated industry. The EU's role should be one of facilitation, not orchestration.
Do you think that the EU is doing enough to support young entrepreneurs?
The EU's role in entrepreneurship is primarily to provide the legislative framework necessary to capitalise on a larger domestic market and provide funds for academically based research and innovation projects.
Are they doing enough? Well we're never doing enough; we can always do more, but the EU has made European entrepreneurship a reality over the last 20 years regardless of age.
It's necessary to bear in mind though that entrepreneurship in the developed world is a natural tendency. The best way to encourage and support it is by reducing friction. I don't believe the EU should be concerned with individual entrepreneurs or individual demographics. Instead I'd like to see the EU focus on large-scale sophisticated technology projects in the Biotech, Nanotech, Spacetech and AI spaces. The EU's massive new Human Brain Project is a great start though.
You are quoted in the Irish Times saying:
“Dublin is an extremely active entrepreneurial centre, but the same can’t be said across the rest of the country. There are a huge number of start-ups in the capital and accelerator programmes, but when you take the whole country into account, I think there is less aspiration to be an entrepreneur.”
Do you still believe this? And why do you think this is?
Yes, I still believe that this is the case. We live in an environment where economic failure is publicly vilified and individuals are often relied on to support larger extended families. Entrepreneurship is a relatively solitary pursuit and is increasingly difficult with a larger number of dependents. It also requires urban environments to develop effectively and our only urban environment of significance is Dublin. Entrepreneurship in rural environments is difficult due to poor infrastructure, communications, access to networks, customers, etc.
Should young people consider entrepreneurship before emigration?
Well it depends on the context: If they are emigrating for a particular job that is a forward career progression then probably not; if they are emigrating due to the lack of opportunity then absolutely yes. You will learn far more starting a business than you will accepting a menial, prescriptive job in another country but you will probably not succeed. You will however significantly increase your chances of ultimately being successful.
John Egan biography
John Egan is the CEO of Sandbox AG, the foremost global community of leaders and innovators under 30. Sandbox accelerates the world’s most exceptional young leaders from the point of local impact to global influence. Sandbox’s ambition is that every person on the planet will be positively affected by the work of a Sandboxer.
John is an expert on the future of banking. He has a BComm in Finance from University College Dublin (UCD) and a MSc in Finance and Econometrics. John has worked in finance in the US and Europe and has previously started and sold businesses in the engineering sector. He is a contributor focused on banking to a number of books including ‘Next Generation Finance’ and ‘New Ideas, New Ireland’ and his e-book on the future of retail banks has been downloaded over 180,000 times.
He is the founder and benefactor of award-winning European social enterprise Archipelago and sits on University College Dublin’s Innovation Academy board of studies. Additionally, he is the Dublin curator of the World Economic Forum Young Global Shapers.