Have we reached peak ‘entrepreneur’?

Jules Evans
6 min readJan 7, 2023

A cult of the entrepreneur mushroomed in the last two decades, but there are signs the cult may have peaked.

Elon Musk, with his mother as usual

Being an entrepreneur is arguably the highest status job in the world at the moment. In the 1960s, it was the rock star. In the 1980s-1990s, investment bankers were the ‘masters of the universe’, the object of cultural fascination (and loathing), depicted in books like Bonfire of the Vanities or American Psycho. Now? No one could give a crap about investment bankers — they’re souped-up traders who bet with other people’s money and the only thing they invent are bullshit derivatives. But the entrepreneur? The ‘founder’? All kneel before their genius.

The cult began (perhaps) with Steve Jobs, perhaps around the launch of the iMac in 1997, with its slogan of Think Different. The ad campaign featured images of cultural geniuses like Albert Einstein and Bob Dylan, and the implication was, Steve Jobs was up there with those geniuses. And maybe he was. His products completely reshaped our world. Suddenly, the technology we played our music on was far cooler than the music itself. When the iPhone 6 was launched in 2014, it came with a free U2 album, and Bono joined Apple CEO Tim Cook on stage for the launch. No one gave a damn about the album or the ageing rocker. It was the tech they were queuing through the night to get.

The rise of Facebook in the last 15 years cemented the cult of the entrepreneur. Here was the perfect example of how the visionary founder creates something out of nothing. I re-watched The Social Network this week, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s 2010 film about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. The film lands lots of pot-shots at Zuckerberg’s egotism, social awkwardness and betrayal of various people. But make no mistake — he is the hero of the film. In every scene he’s in, he’s the smartest person in the room.

Aaron Sorkin is, like Malcolm Gladwell, a prophet of the ‘cult of smart’ — i.e modern meritocratic culture’s celebration of really smart, nerdy people. Think The West Wing — super-smart Clinton aides speaking with incredible speed and wit about agricultural tariffs or Middle-Eastern politics, it doesn’t matter what, because they apparently have a fully-formed and evidence-based policy view which they can deliver while also walking really fast and making charming side-gags about donuts.

But it’s noticeable that Sorkin made his name writing about whipsmart public servants (The West Wing, A Few Good Men) but then shifted to making films about whipsmart tech entrepreneurs (Steve Jobs, The Social Network). It’s also noticeable that Justin Timberlake played Napster founder Sean Parker in the film. And the character of Sean Parker is cooler than Justin Timberlake. The latter sings and dances his way to a fortune of $250 million. The former invents new software and is worth $2.6 billion. As his character says in the film: ‘You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.’

Who cares about being a rock star these days? You’ll never earn any money from Spotify streaming, or any attention on TikTok. Every pop star wants to be an entrepreneur — Dr Dre made millions from record-producing, but he made billions from Beats headphones.

About seven years ago, I taught at a place called Escape the City in London. It was a sort of school to encourage people to leave their boring city jobs and become (drum-roll)…an entrepreneur! ‘Tribes’ of 50 or so wannabe-founders took the courses, taking sessions from life-coaches and business-coaches, brain-storming, ‘finding their why’, searching for their ‘passion project’, and finally making the leap into the unknown. And members of the tribe would sometimes get on stage and share with the room: ‘I finally did it! I handed in my notice!’ And everyone would whoop and cheer — they had cast off their conventional identity and been born again, as a founder! It was like secular Pentecostalism. Now, looking back, I wonder — how did that pan out for people?

Today, everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. The most popular podcast in the UK is Steven Bartlett’s Diary of a CEO, the inside story of what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur like Steven Bartlett. What exactly did Steven Bartlett found? Social Chain, a social commerce company worth $70 million. I haven’t heard of it either. But that doesn’t matter — Bartlett is selling the dream of being an entrepreneur, and millions of people are buying it. So is Tim Ferriss, another entrepreneur-podcaster, who sells us the dream of the ‘four-hour workweek’ — you can be so smart that your companies run themselves while you concentrate on self-actualization. I spoke at an entrepreneur conference last year, and a lot of the people I met there, I wondered, are you actually a ‘founder’, or are you basically self-employed? I mean, I could call myself a ‘founder’ — I founded this newsletter!

I see signs we might be reaching peak entrepreneur.

Elon Musk was the most famous person in the world last year, with the most followers on Twitter (after Obama). He’s not just an entrepreneur, he is, or was, seen as the smartest human alive, the person who would save the human race by inventing electric cars, sending us to Mars, making us symbiotic with AI, and so on.

And there’s no doubt he must be very smart. But the more we got to see of Elon Musk last year, the less likeable he seemed, and the more like a spoilt mother’s boy who over-reached in his purchase of Twitter, and now threatened to break a toy that millions of people enjoy using. Not so much a founder as a wrecker. He’s wrecked his own net-worth as well, which apparently fell by around $200 billion in the last year — the biggest loss of personal wealth in history. Even Kanye didn’t crash that fast.

And then there’s Sam Bankman-Fried, the pot-bellied, t-shirted founder of cryptocurrency exchange FTX, who seemed to embody every stereotype, every dream, of the genius founder — the nerdy outsider who rejected conventions and went to live and work in a polyamorous tech-cult in the Bahamas, making a fortune but money doesn’t really matter to them, they’re more genius-philosophers than mere capitalists. SBF was just as famous for his support for Effective Altruism as for his cryptoexchange. Yet as we know, it was all bullshit. He stole billions of dollars in his clients’ money — all those working-class people who invested their life savings in crypto, dreaming of making it rich and going to live in the Bahamas. And it turns out SBF used Effective Altruism as a ruse to burnish his image and hide his fraud.

Everyone looks like a business genius when interest rates are at historic lows and money is incredibly cheap. But when the tide goes out, you see who isn’t wearing any swimming trunks.

The cult of the entrepreneur coincided, historically, with the absolute hegemony of superhero movies in Hollywood — especially Marvel films. In fact, Elon Musk appeared in one of the Iron Man movies, meeting Tony Stark in a moment that’s meant to suggest ‘here’s the real Tony Stark’. Like superhero movies, the cult of the entrepreneur celebrates the Nietzschean superman who creates something out of nothing through his sheer genius and will-power. This sort of hyper-libertarianism ignores the role of all sorts of other factors in success: networks, inherited wealth, luck, economic forces like interest rates, and government support. Libertarians depend on government support and government infrastructure. Tech founder types talk a big talk about how much better they could run the US, and how maybe they might just go and start up their own floating libertarian utopias…Big talk. Musk forgot that his companies depend on governments and in the last few months of his ego-mania he needlessly made a lot of enemies from politicians and regulators around the world.

But I think we may also be witnessing peak entrepreneur because people will realize they are being sold a dream, and the reality of being an entrepreneur is actually much harder than working four hours a week and then chilling in a hammock. It’s lonely, it’s tough on your mental health, and about 90% of start-ups fail. It’s not for everyone. Take it from me, as a founder.

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