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You Can be an Entrepreneur, Just Find Your Context

Each year June is celebrated as Start-up month and during this time more than any other would-be entrepreneurs inevitably ask me if they can start a venture.  Stories of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship abound in the popular press today and they nervously ask, “Can I be an entrepreneur?”   They see highly successful entrepreneurs and – despite wanting to start their own venture – they think, “I’m not like them.   I can’t do what they do.”  Wrong!

You can do it.  Everyone can be an entrepreneur; believe it.  You just need to find your proper context and start. The starting is probably easier to understand than context so we’ll get to ‘starting’ later.

So, what do I mean by finding your own context?

Many people look at high flying companies that get press and get intimidated.  They think “I could never do that” or “I’m not like them.”  Perhaps.  But you can start your own venture, so long as the context is right. Some of my own research with entrepreneurs and with entrepreneurs in the corporate environment shows the importance of context or environment.  The environment in which individuals find themselves affects their behavior and actions.  This is part of the reason why corporate managers have to think and act differently than independent start-up entrepreneurs when building their internal new ventures.   For all of us, as intraprenuers or entrepreneurs, the environment or context in which we develop our venture matters greatly.

The theory behind all of this, Social Cognitive Theory, explains that there is a triadic, bi-directional relationship between an individual’s (1) personality and other related factors, (2) his behavior, and (3) his environment.  What this simply means is that all three of these factors affect one another.  A behavior change can change the environment (think of positive people who change a culture in an office to become  a better place) and the environment can change behavior (think of how differently you would behave on the trading floor of Wall Street as opposed to a regulatory meeting with the SEC).   The primary issue is that each of us acts differently in different contexts.

So how might this affect you as a budding, nascent entrepreneur?  Well, don’t get overwhelmed or intimidated by stories of successful entrepreneurs working in industries, niches, or spaces that you know nothing about.  Change the context!  Think about the things you know and the industries, markets, and other contexts you know about.  You’ll feel more comfortable and be able to recognize trends, ideas, and opportunities.  And, according to SCT you will be able to then influence and affect this environment or context, meaning: you and your venture can make an impact in the market.

Professor Saras Sarasvathy at the University of Virginia simplifies this ideal in her thoughts on effectuation which provides a simple way for would-be entrepreneurs to figure out the proper context for starting their own venture.  Just answer the following three simple questions:

  • Who am I?
  • What do I know?
  • Whom do I know?

From here you can begin to figure out what really matters to you, what you are passionate about, and what to do next.  So now that you’ve thought about the context and environment differently, how do you begin?  Len Schlesinger, President of Babson College, reminds us of one of the best ways to go about it in his two latest books, Action Trumps Everything: Creating What You Want in an Uncertain World, and Just Start: Take Action, Embrace , Uncertainty, Create the Future. You need to take small steps, test your idea as inexpensively as possible, learn, and repeat.

Following a prescription like this will not only help you find your context and feel comfortable in it, pretty soon you and your venture will be making positive changes in the environment.  Soon you will realize that you, too, can be an entrepreneur!

Andrew Corbett
Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship

Forbes blog