I first heard the phrase “entrepreneurship theater” from my friend Heather Hiscox at Moves the Needle and have been obsessed with it ever since. We were having a conversation about how tons of the entrepreneurship support we see is a complete and utter waste of time and has little to no impact, and she busted out that perfect phrase to describe what we were talking about.
Entrepreneurship Theater is any performance of building or supporting the building of new startups or small businesses without actually building anything. So, for example, a pitch competition where the focus is the pitch performance itself, not the business fundamentals and financials or an “investment fund and accelerator program” that doesn’t actually give the cash to the entrepreneurs and doesn’t actually have any curriculum tied to the accelerator program.
I bet some of you are thinking to yourselves, “Oh, come on, Cate; that can’t really happen very often, if at all.” Well, it does; and others of you are thinking, “Hallelujah; someone is actually calling this ish out!”
Entrepreneurship theater is a big problem because brand new entrepreneurs will waste a bunch of time, energy, and (sometimes) money thinking that this theater is real entrepreneurship and focusing on BS stuff like pitch competitions with $500 prizes instead of focusing on the stuff that actually matters like getting customers and building a real business. Worse still, the entrepreneurs most likely to end up wasting their time and money are those that can least afford it because they’re not already plugged into the networks and don’t have the rich uncle or millionaire mentor to guide them, keep them realistic about what’s important, and tell them to stop wasting time on nonsense that gets a lot of press but not a lot of success.
It’s also a problem because those who fund entrepreneurship fall for the flash as well and end up moving grant money from effective but low-key programs to ineffective but flashy ones that don’t produce results.
Unfortunately, those who are great at the theater part of it tend to outshine those who are great at actually doing effective work and the incentives are not set up to encourage honesty, they’re set up to encourage “playing nice” with others in the ecosystem, even if those others are wasting everyone’s time, money, and resources. That’s a post for another day though…