the_box_pdFollowing last week’s post about the importance of establishing entrepreneurship as a self fulfilling cultural norm, several people asked me what I thought was the key to jump starting this process. As I thought about the belief system of entrepreneurs vs. non-entrepreneurs, I remembered a conversation I had with an old roommate that perfectly captured the difference.

In 2000, I was starting a new company and trying to raise some angel money. One Saturday afternoon, my roommate “Joe” asked me what I had planned for the day and I told him I had to work on my business plan. He said to me, “I don’t understand. Why do you work on this stuff? It’s not like you get anything out of it.” For Joe, launching a business was simply not a viable possibility. In his mind, I may as well have told him I was training to be the quarterback of the 49ers or some other unattainable pipe dream.

More than anything, the belief that starting a company is a viable option is what separates entrepreneurs from non-entrepreneurs. Most people simply aren’t taught to think this way and don’t have accessible role models to show them the possibilities. It is essentially cultural dogma that the only viable option is to go to college, get good grades, and become a doctor, lawyer, or some other respectable professional. How many of you have had to explain to your parents why you were leaving your viable career in order to pursue what they viewed as the nonviable path of entrepreneurship? More than a few, I’m sure.

In Silicon Valley, there are so many role models of successful entrepreneurs that the decision to follow the entrepreneurial path appears far more viable than it does to someone sitting in Anytown, USA. One way to address this problem is to remove geography as a significant factor. I regularly encourage people to view their professional and social circles as being from the Internet, not from their local cities, and to build their relationships and take their cues from the people who inhabit this larger, less limited, world. Accessing entrepreneurs, investors, technology press, and other people who have made themselves available online allows you to tap into a group of people who not only believe entrepreneurship is a viable option, but a preferable one.

Beyond the basic level of accepting entrepreneurship as a viable path, is the scale of what you believe is possible. Even within the peer group of the internet world, most entrepreneurs are thinking only within the scope of “like this for that” apps and monthly underwear delivery. Read any of the tech blogs, including this one, and outside of Google’s side projects and Elon Musk you’ll rarely see any coverage of hard science or expensive to develop technology. Such things get minimal coverage because they can’t be built by two guys at Y-Combinator. Average entrepreneurs view grand ideas as nonviable so they are virtually ignored.

This is the dark side of an entrepreneurial culture that has become overly formulaic. It’s one thing to show people that starting a company is viable, everyone agrees this is a positive trend, it’s another thing to make entrepreneurship look simplistic and teach people to only reach for the lowest hanging fruit. In the grand scheme of things, the typical Internet entrepreneur sees the world through a very limited scope of possible options.

Instead of focusing so closely on Internet entrepreneurship, a trap into which I believe much of the Valley and even the greater entrepreneurial community has fallen, we need to step back and think about entrepreneurship through the larger lens of simply making it a viable and respectable path. In order to do that, we must show people that starting something from nothing, whatever that may be, is a viable possibility. Because this broader view empowers and taps into the talents and skills of a much larger cross section of people, this “viable path” cultural model is much more encompassing than the internet startup model of entrepreneurial thinking that is currently in vogue.

If we can teach people to believe they have options beyond the scope of a corporate career, entrepreneurship will become an acceptable cultural norm and people won’t have to explain to their parents, or their roommates like Joe, that starting a business is a viable option and not an unattainable dream.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]