The darker side of entrepreneurs
- 3 September 2013
- From the section Business
"Oliver is by far the worst student I have had in my career at this school, but perhaps, one day, he will drive a Rolls-Royce," so said his head teacher in a school report when Olly Olsen was 10 years old.
Now 40, Mr Olsen employs 80 staff in London property company The Office Group, which provides flexible office space and has an annual turnover of £25m.
Despite a complete lack of interest in school, where he sold sweets, took bets on football matches and bunked off altogether, Mr Olsen is successful in the competitive world of property development.
"I wanted to achieve and prove I could do it. I wanted to prove to my teachers that I wasn't thick and I could go on and be a success," says Mr Olsen.
Among entrepreneurs Mr Olsen's experience is more common than you might think and new research suggests that rebellious teenage behaviour could provide valuable experiences.
To investigate that, a recent study by German and Swedish researchers used data that followed 1,000 Swedish children from one town over 40 years.
They found that, in comparison to people who did not found businesses, entrepreneurs were more likely to have displayed anti-social behaviour in their adolescence.
The sort of behaviour that qualified as anti-social included:
- staying out later than allowed
- cheating in exams
- getting drunk
- smoking marijuana
- loitering in town in the evening
But more serious criminal activity was not a predictor of later business flair.
Also, the relationship only applied to male entrepreneurs, the researchers found no evidence that trouble-making teenage girls were more likely to start companies.
Dr Martin Obschonka, from the University of Jena, one of the authors of the study, says entrepreneurs often engage in "productive rule breaking".
His research suggests mild acts of rebellion in the adolescent years could be a precursor to that useful skill.
"The data suggests that rebellious adolescent behaviour against socially accepted standards and an early questioning of boundaries doesn't necessarily lead to criminal and anti-social careers
"It can rather be the basis for a productive and socially acceptable entrepreneurship," he said.
In his report, Dr Obschonka talks about Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft.
He is intrigued by the mug shot taken by Albuquerque police in 1977.
Mr Gates, who was 22 at the time, was arrested for driving through a red light and driving without a licence.
He wonders whether the photo might confirm the stereotype of entrepreneurs as buccaneering rule breakers.
Doug Richard, founder of school for start-ups, rejects that image.
As an angel investor and a former dragon on the BBC programme Dragon's Den, he has seen thousands of people keen to start their own businesses.
"The thing that strikes me is the sheer diversity of people that I see. I have become less and less comfortable with the idealised notion of entrepreneurship, the notion that you have to have been anything to become a successful entrepreneur," he said.
"People come from so many places and end up being successful at running and growing their own businesses."
Nevertheless Mr Richard himself found his schooling in the United States completely unchallenging and persuaded the authorities to let him leave secondary school six months early to join the crew of a ship conducting ocean research.
"I was an introverted, quiet, asocial person, but in fairness to the research I also didn't pay much attention to the rules so I got into trouble. I didn't attend classes," he said.
Mr Richard went on to study psychology and law and founded successful computer hardware and software firms.
He says that a good idea, persistence and a dash of luck are the key ingredients of success in business.
And he points out that just because the research found a link between rebellious teenage years and later business success, that link does not mean one caused the other.
Prof Peter Saville has long been interested in the motivations of business people, both as a researcher in the field of industrial and organisational psychology and as an entrepreneur himself.
He is more supportive of the new research.
According to him, teenage rebellion shows "energy, and vitality" and entrepreneurs are generally "not stupid enough to commit major crimes".
His own teenage years were eventful, the highlight (or perhaps low point from his parents perspective) was a prank that got slightly out of hand and resulted in a big fire on waste land near his home.
Perhaps the final word should go to Olly Olsen, whose headmaster despaired of his woeful school performance.
He says that without his co-founder, Charlie Green, his company would not be the success it is today. Mr Green did well at school, went to university and caused his parents much less stress.