Even before dot-bomb, I’d learned that “entrepreneur” meant two distinctly different things to two distinctly different groups of people. To one group, it meant an activity; to the others it meant an identity. It’s the difference between doing what entrepreneurs have historically done (mostly inventing things) and being like entrepreneurs have historically been – or, even more cynically, appearing like they have historically appeared. Having spent more time in startups than the vast majority of those who are or call themselves entrepreneurs, I feel a great deal of kinship with the first group. The second group? Not so much. These are the folks who come across as MBA types even if they actually have technical degrees (and sometimes non-trivial technical abilities). They dress like they believe entrepreneurs should dress, whether that fashion calls for suits or pure grunge or some blazer-and-jeans hybrid in any given month. They eat at the restaurants and drink at the bars that they think entrepreneurs are supposed to. They read the books and blogs that they believe entrepreneurs should read, they put in the hours that they believe entrepreneurs should put in (even if those hours are mostly on Twitter), they gravitate toward the office locations and layouts that they believe entrepreneurs should prefer. It’s like the old saying:

Sincerity is the key. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Individuality is valued, so these folks try to cultivate it . . . but they all cultivate it the same way and end up looking more conformist than ever. Nowhere is that more apparent than in their adoption of entrepreneur jargon. Some of that jargon, such as that associated with VC/angel term sheets and such, actually has some grounding in reality. Other terms don’t, and the ones that have really been annoying me of late are “pivot” and “iterate”. I know all too well how important it is for a startup to be adaptable, but pivots and iterations are still ways of recovering from mistakes. They’re still something to avoid, not something to strive for. On average, the interval between such “about face” maneuvers should be longer than the interval between founding and whatever exit you prefer. It’s nice when a figure skater recovers from a botched landing, but if they spend their whole routine proving that ability then they’re not going to win a lot of titles. Somehow, though, many entreposeurs seem to think that being able to jump from one product idea to another is more important than being smart enough not to chase such ephemeral pseudo-markets, or executing quickly enough not to miss the boat on the first idea, or having the courage/honesty to admit that you goofed and move on to the next thing. Failure is not supposed to be a liability, right? We learn from failure, if you’re not willing to fail you’re not thinking big enough, yadda yadda . . . or maybe that was last year’s management-consultant money machine, because this year it’s apparently preferable to keep flailing around for something – anything! – that will keep the founders from having to get new business cards. After all, “founder of X” is their identity, couldn’t possibly let go of that now, could we? The irony is that I will almost certainly get comments from people who say the value is all in the team anyway, even though when the issue is inflated social-media-startup valuations those very same people will immediately forget the team and justify their paychecks solely by making up stuff about potential markets. It’s over here, no it’s over there, why cheat people out of dollars with three-card monte when you can play the same game for millions in Silly Valley?

Here’s a hint: don’t try to be an entrepreneur before you’ve generated any wealth for anybody. It doesn’t work. The way to be an entrepreneur is to have an idea you’re willing to stick with, and then build a business around it. If you have to put aside the starving-artist chic and actually work in the corporate trenches until you have some clue which ideas are actually worth pursuing (and haven’t already been done), so be it. That’s how every real entrepreneur I’ve known did it.