Americans make easy victims of 'entrepreneurship porn' because it gets right at the heart of what they believe about business and success

Paul Marotta/Getty ImagesAmbitious business people don’t want to think small. Mark Zuckerberg pictured.
  • Starting a business and keeping it small is less appealing to many Americans than launching a startup and scaling it big.
  • Morra Aarons-Mele coined the term “entrepreneurship porn” to describe the unrealistic glamorization of the entrepreneurial lifestyle. It’s the latest in a series of myths, she said, about what success looks like.
  • Aarons-Mele said entrepreneurship porn lures many ambitious young Americans into entrepreneurship as opposed to small business ownership, even if that might not be the best choice for them.

“The first word in ‘small business’ is ‘small,'” said Morra Aarons-Mele. It’s a descriptor that few Americans aspire to.

“We spend a lot of time telling ambitious people not to think small,” Aarons-Mele added. That’s why she thinks the prospect of entrepreneurship – and the desire to be the next Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg – is especially powerful in the US. “It’s a very American thing to be an entrepreneur.”

Aarons-Mele is the founder of Women Online and The Mission List. She appears to have coined the term “entrepreneurship porn” in a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, to describe “an airbrushed reality in which all work is always meaningful and running your own business is a way to achieve better work/life harmony.”

Unfortunately, the realities of entrepreneurship don’t always match the fantasy, according to Aarons-Mele and other experts. For one thing, many startups ultimately fail, sometimes due to the founders’ ignorance and sometimes due to market factors.

Entrepreneurs typically have grander ambitions than small business owners – but that comes with risk

While entrepreneurship and small-business ownership overlap, there are important differences between them. Specifically, entrepreneurs typically focus on scaling their business, while small-business owners don’t necessarily.

Rates of entrepreneurship and small-business ownership in the US can vary, depending on the data source. A report from the Kauffman Foundation shows that the rate of business owners stayed roughly the same between 2011 and 2015, but the current level of business ownership is lower than in decades past.

However, another report from the Kauffman Foundation shows that high-growth entrepreneurship has rebounded from the financial crisis and is now increasing. High-growth entrepreneurship refers to how quickly startups grew in their first five years, the share of firms reaching beyond 50 employees by their 10th year of operation, and the prevalence of firms with at least 20% annualized growth over three years and at least $US2 million in annual revenue.

It’s not clear that being an entrepreneur is preferable to being a small business owner, or vice versa. To be sure, it depends on the individual.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur or a small business owner, you’ll have to make some lifestyle sacrifices

To help disillusion aspiring founders, Aarons-Mele drew a line between the lifestyle of a successful entrepreneur and a successful small business owner in The Wall Street Journal: “Small-business owners who don’t grow beyond their community, or don’t devote their time to promoting themselves online, will not get accolades. You won’t be featured in magazines nor invited to give keynote speeches for enjoying your life and getting plenty of sleep.”

Interestingly, Gene Marks, an author who runs a 10-person consulting firm, wrote in Forbes that “many of the entrepreneurs I know prefer passion over profits.” He added that legendary entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are “out to change the world.” While they might not mind the money, they “love what they do and would do it for much, much less.”

Small business owners, on the other hand, “don’t necessarily love what they do, but are still happy doing it because it means they’re not doing it for someone else. Business owners, more so than entrepreneurs, are doing it for the money.”

Aarons-Mele sees “entrepreneurship porn” as the “latest in a string of myths that we [Americans] tell ourselves” around success, starting with the rags-to-riches tales of Horatio Alger. When it comes to starting a small business, she told me, “it’s a lot of what I think ambitious people might even want to escape versus create.”

As for her own career, Aarons-Mele has called herself a “hermit entrepreneur.” She told Lifehacker: “Over the last decade, I’ve built a life that allows me to earn enough money and find just enough recognition without driving myself crazy and sacrificing my homebody self.”

She admitted that’s meant “less success than some peers, and a slower path.” Still, she told Lifehacker, “it’s my version of success, and I love it.”

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