Dragons breathe life into entrepreneurship

Published: 22 April 2013 at 10:16

TV shows raise awareness but offer an unrealistic view, warns Anglia Ruskin Professor

Popular TV shows depicting entrepreneurial activity such as Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice should be accompanied by a health warning, according to the authors of a new report published in the International Small Business Journal.

Professor Simon Down and Professor Teemu Kautonen of Anglia Ruskin University and Dr Janine Swail of the University of Nottingham carried out research to discover whether these TV programmes are perceived as being harmless fun or whether viewers think they provide a true representation of what it is like to be an entrepreneur.

Based on the responses of 960 university students, it was discovered that those who watch “entre-tainment” programmes tend to think that the values depicted are good and are generally encouraged to consider setting up their own business, but the authors sound a note of caution by questioning whether these programmes offer a realistic portrayal of entrepreneurial life.

The research found that through observing the staged successes and failures of contestants, viewers believe they are learning effective ways of carrying out entrepreneurship, such as communicating business ideas, evaluating risk and how to negotiate effectively.

Individuals who perceive these programmes to be “socially legitimate” were more predisposed to launch their own business.  The programmes have an even stronger effect on those who think that “entre-tainment” is both positive for entrepreneurship and the UK economy, and believe that celebrity entrepreneurs – like Lord Alan Sugar – encourage entrepreneurial action.

Professor Down, Director of the Institute for International Management Practice at Anglia Ruskin, said:

“The rise of entre-tainment reflects cultural changes in the public perception of entrepreneurship, which in the past, with dodgy characters like Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses, was generally less positive.
“Today we live in a more enterprising culture where the popularity of these programmes suggests that students are more accepting of entrepreneurship as a form of work.  Becoming an entrepreneur is both more achievable and desirable than it once was.  Governments are keen to encourage people to start their own businesses, especially in difficult economic times, and programmes such as Dragons’ Den provide an insight in to the entrepreneurial world, so to speak.”

However, because these programmes are made primarily to entertain and are highly selective in the type of business activity depicted, the authors believe they misrepresent entrepreneurial life.  As a result, if “entre-tainment” is taken seriously as an educational tool, the risk is that a skewed and partial set of skills may be developed among viewers.

“What we see on television is a stripped-down, simplified version of the entrepreneur and what it’s like to run a business,”

said Professor Down. 

“Some of those students that watch Dragons’ Den and then go out to start a business are going to be in for a shock when they realise that the hours are long and the rewards far from guaranteed.
“Formulating and delivering a venture capital pitch is not an everyday entrepreneurial practice, but is the core activity in Dragons’ Den.  In addition, these programmes promote a form of entrepreneurship that focuses on high growth and profit, as opposed to the more modest income-generating reality for the majority of businesses.
“The viewer – or potential entrepreneur – is presented only a narrow window within which to view what it means to be successful.  As a result, those who are equipped with both the ‘right’ personality and idea to succeed are considered winners, whereas those who do not fit the entrepreneurial ideal are portrayed as losers, often whose lack of mastery is ridiculed.
“The reality of entrepreneurship is that individuals succeed to varying extents.  Failure is often the result of a number of culminating factors, both internal and external, which may or may not include idea viability and personal ability.”

The survey found that there were individuals who showed such enthusiasm for both the values and subsequent learning gained through these programmes, that there is a risk of producing a group of enterprising novices who may suffer a nasty shock should they actually start their own business.

Dr Swail said:

“If programme-makers are going to conflate entertaining with educating, then policymakers need to be aware of the implications of merging these activities and the messages that they transmit.  
“The risk is that with increased entrepreneurial intent these individuals may embark on entrepreneurship with a heightened sense of optimism and their own ability, which in the longer term could result in a negative effect on overall entrepreneurial activity.
“Young individuals who start their businesses encouraged by positive perceptions of ‘entre-tainment’, only to fail, might be wary of starting businesses later on in their careers when they have accrued actual, as opposed to perceived, skills by virtue of increased human and social capital.”