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Why the Difference Between “Entrepreneur” and “Entrepreneurial” is a Big One

Via LinkedIn : By the time I was wrapping up my PhD in the mid-90s, I already knew that a career in academia wasn’t for me. That presented a challenge — back then, it was academia or bust for anyone studying political science. But whatever the professors were saying, it seemed pretty clear that the field should matter to the private sector as emerging markets (and particularly China) were becoming much more important, and geopolitics was already becoming more unstable.

With that logic, and not much else, I made the rounds in New York, using whatever contacts I had to pitch myself to various banks and corporations. I wanted to use my training to explain how politics moved markets and impacted business, which was virtually unheard of back in 1998. While I found plenty of sympathetic ears, and had all sorts of great lunches, every meeting I had ended with some variation of the line: “That sounds interesting; but we don’t really hire political scientists.” Growing frustrated, I turned to one of these people — for the life of me I can’t remember which one—and asked him point-blank: “If I set up my own shop, would you be a client of mine?” Much to my surprise, he said yes. Others followed. And that’s how Eurasia Group was born.

I love what I do. Nearly 20 years after starting the firm, I find myself more energized than ever. But striking out on your own isn’t for everybody. You first have to ask yourself — am I an entrepreneur, or just entrepreneurial? I’m absolutely the latter. I’m not interested in the art of setting up companies, but I came to realize that I had to set this one up so that I could do what I truly wanted to do — become a global political scientist that mattered, helping shape how we understand the world.

The difference between “entrepreneur” and “entrepreneurial” is a big one. To be an entrepreneur, you have to cast as wide a net as possible. Taking lots of risks is just part of the job, and you have to be ready for the reality that most of your ideas won’t pan out. You push on with confidence that, somewhere down the line, one of your ideas will hit big. And an entrepreneur can’t be overly-invested in any single idea. An entrepreneur is an inventor of many things, one who knows how and when to move on to the next idea.

My approach was completely different, though it took me awhile to figure that out. I first had to go to a “how-to” seminar for aspiring entrepreneurs on 26th Street (aka Silicon Alley) in Manhattan, where I learned four things. In ascending order of importance, wine doesn’t taste right in a plastic cup, cheese should not be cut into small cubes, anyone starting a business needs to know what a “burn rate” is, and I’m not an entrepreneur.

My early approach depended on taking no more risks than were necessary, because I knew that Eurasia Group was the only thing I really wanted to invent. I took only those risks that wouldn’t kill the business I wanted to build. The first obstacle I had to overcome was money, or my lack thereof. I got lucky by scoring a gig offering testimony in political asylum cases that paid me $250 an hour. It turned out that being an expert on little-known former Soviet countries could actually pay the bills. Three days of work per month paid for my housing and my (admittedly not so large) expenses, and I was free to devote the rest of my time to the firm. This turned out to be a godsend — I had no pressure to quickly bring in business because my survival wasn’t tied to the profitability of the firm. This freedom allowed me to avoid short-term decisions that could have taken the company in the wrong direction and distracted me from my ultimate goal. You need the time, headspace, and financial wherewithal to figure out how to make your company work. I already had money coming in before I hired my first employee.

By the time I was wrapping up my PhD in the mid-90s, I already knew that a career in academia wasn’t for me. That presented a challenge — back then, it was academia or bust for anyone studying political science. But whatever the professors were saying, it seemed pretty clear that the field should matter to the private sector as emerging markets (and particularly China) were becoming much more important, and geopolitics was already becoming more unstable.

With that logic, and not much else, I made the rounds in New York, using whatever contacts I had to pitch myself to various banks and corporations. I wanted to use my training to explain how politics moved markets and impacted business, which was virtually unheard of back in 1998. While I found plenty of sympathetic ears, and had all sorts of great lunches, every meeting I had ended with some variation of the line: “That sounds interesting; but we don’t really hire political scientists.” Growing frustrated, I turned to one of these people — for the life of me I can’t remember which one—and asked him point-blank: “If I set up my own shop, would you be a client of mine?” Much to my surprise, he said yes. Others followed. And that’s how Eurasia Group was born.

I love what I do. Nearly 20 years after starting the firm, I find myself more energized than ever. But striking out on your own isn’t for everybody. You first have to ask yourself — am I an entrepreneur, or just entrepreneurial? I’m absolutely the latter. I’m not interested in the art of setting up companies, but I came to realize that I had to set this one up so that I could do what I truly wanted to do — become a global political scientist that mattered, helping shape how we understand the world.

The difference between “entrepreneur” and “entrepreneurial” is a big one. To be an entrepreneur, you have to cast as wide a net as possible. Taking lots of risks is just part of the job, and you have to be ready for the reality that most of your ideas won’t pan out. You push on with confidence that, somewhere down the line, one of your ideas will hit big. And an entrepreneur can’t be overly-invested in any single idea. An entrepreneur is an inventor of many things, one who knows how and when to move on to the next idea.

My approach was completely different, though it took me awhile to figure that out. I first had to go to a “how-to” seminar for aspiring entrepreneurs on 26th Street (aka Silicon Alley) in Manhattan, where I learned four things. In ascending order of importance, wine doesn’t taste right in a plastic cup, cheese should not be cut into small cubes, anyone starting a business needs to know what a “burn rate” is, and I’m not an entrepreneur.

My early approach depended on taking no more risks than were necessary, because I knew that Eurasia Group was the only thing I really wanted to invent. I took only those risks that wouldn’t kill the business I wanted to build. The first obstacle I had to overcome was money, or my lack thereof. I got lucky by scoring a gig offering testimony in political asylum cases that paid me $250 an hour. It turned out that being an expert on little-known former Soviet countries could actually pay the bills. Three days of work per month paid for my housing and my (admittedly not so large) expenses, and I was free to devote the rest of my time to the firm. This turned out to be a godsend — I had no pressure to quickly bring in business because my survival wasn’t tied to the profitability of the firm. This freedom allowed me to avoid short-term decisions that could have taken the company in the wrong direction and distracted me from my ultimate goal. You need the time, headspace, and financial wherewithal to figure out how to make your company work. I already had money coming in before I hired my first employee.

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