Tapping Your Inner Entrepreneur

Are you a Librarian Entrepreneur? You might be. Would you answer “yes” to these questions:

I am an opportunist.
I am a creative genius (or part of a creative work team)
I am persistent
I am customer focused
I connect the dots
I am passionate
I am a risk taker

According to my research in preparation for a talk at Inspiration, Innovation, Celebration: An Entrepreneurial Conference for Librarians those are the seven core qualities of an entrepreneur; I learned a good deal about the characteristics and practices of entrepreneurs at my institution’s Center for Entrepreneur Research. Based on what I heard at various presentations delivered at the conference, at least one or more of these characteristics are indeed associated with with the work of librarian entrepreneurs. But for my closing keynote talk I raised a simple question: Is the term librarian entrepreneur an oxymoron? Considering what business and start-up entrepreneurs do how would academic librarians achieve entrepreneur status? I asked quite a few librarians if they could name a librarian entrepreneur. Ninety-eight percent could not. A few named someone entrepreneurial who created a library product or service, but who was not a librarian. If there are librarian entrepreneurs out there why don’t we know who they are?

Part of the confusion comes from the uncertainty about the work of entrepreneurs – and does coming up with an innovative idea make you an entrepreneur? In the classic business sense an entrepreneur is an individual or group that comes up with one big idea and essentially puts all their resources (time, money, energy, etc.) into pursuing it to make it happen with the intent of eventually being profitable. I shared tales of entrepreneurs who had done just that, putting everything they have into a single business idea. Clearly not the sort of thing we do in libraries. I also asked librarians to name any entreprenuer. Virtually all had no trouble answering that question; the most frequently named entrepreneurs were high visible, business people, usually technologists and wealthy (think Bill Gates or Steve Jobs). So the characteristics we associate with entrepreneurs would, for most people, hardly fit a librarian.

So even though I tried to raise some doubts about the viability of the librarian entrepreneur concept, it would be difficult to claim that librarians fail the entrepreneur test with the evidence delivered by the presenters. You can review the ideas that were shared at the conference site, and some of the presentation slides are now available. I liked the opportunism and creativity employed but the folks who developed a digital media center at SMU. Attendees were buzzing about the academic library that included an 18-hole mini-golf course in their library redesign project. At UNC-Greensboro they developed an A-Z journal finder that was eventually sold to a commercial vendor, and returned some profits to the institution. So while academic librarians rarely put everything into a single big idea with a go for broke attitude, there certainly are plenty of examples of projects that demonstrate creativity, innovation and some degree of risk.

I closed the conference with ten tips for aspiring library entrepreneurs, and a few messages about creating an entrepreneurial library from some folks who I think have proven to be particularly successful at doing just that. Those tips, messages and clips from my librarian interviews are embedded in my slides if you want to have a look (the embedded videos will run best on a mac). If you think of yourself as a librarian entrepreneur, share an example of something you’ve accomplished at or beyond your library.

6 thoughts on “Tapping Your Inner Entrepreneur”

  1. I am an entrepreneur with my own part time business as I have only a part time library job. I earn money mostly online. I think many librarians and most especially those who are struggling to find a job need to reconsider self employment.

  2. I am a former-librarian-turned-entrepreneur. I received my MSLIS from Simmons in ’97 and went on to corporate librarianship. In the dozen years since then, I’ve moved into the software sector via the information architecture route. In 2006 my husband Rob and I started our 2nd company (well, it’s Rob’s 4th), Solertium. I’m proud to say that I am the visionary founder and enjoy the daily executive responsibilities. I’m fortunate to be a part of a great team of software developers, working on such varied projects as the toolkit used to compile IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, point of sale software for the hospitality sector, and the development of an open source, RESTful content management platform.

    If you have the spark, I believe the library profession is great preparation for entrepreneurship. If anything, you learn that you must be creative in order to find the best answer to a reference question. It’s an easy leap to start applying that creativity to your own ideas and questions. Understanding that you don’t need to know everything – just how to find it – also gives great perspective. And as a corporate librarian, I was exposed to business research from all types of professions (engineers, salespeople, lawyers, execs, etc), which has not been wasted now that I’m a CEO.

    I’m looking forward to following the comments here, to learn what others are up to. And I’m kind of wishing that this topic had been broached while I was at Simmons – is it at all a part of library curriculum these days?

    Alison Heittman

  3. I can relate to some of the comments from “part time” librarians who have started businesses on the side, but I have a fundamental problem with “Librarian Entrepreneur” probably because my definition of an entrepreneur is a little different.

    In my mind, an “entrepreneur” is a person who likes to build businesses – and then build more businesses – unlike a “businessman” (or women) who builds a business to run it and grow it because that is what they want to do. A true entrepreneur – in my opinion – starts and grows a business to sell it, because they get bored running the same business for the rest of their life, but they enjoy starting new ones.

    Hard to imagine a librarian who has that mindset, but I suppose there must be some out there.

    At any rate, here’s to your success, whatever you do.

  4. Dick,

    Your description of an entrepreneur sounds more like someone with a short attention span. Planning an exit strategy is basic business, not just entrepreneurial in nature. I take exception to the idea that I have to sell off my current business & start a new one in order to continue to consider myself an entrepreneur. It is possible to continue to have vision and to innovate within the same company for years. Sir Richard Branson, Oprah Winfrey and Steve Jobs are great examples of this: they continue to envision and take risks on new lines of business within their organizations. This same spirit can be applied both in the traditional library field and by librarians (like me) who have left it.

    Wishing you much success as well (and that you come into contact with more librarians like me!).

    All the best,
    Alison Heittman

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