Fear of failure is hard-wired into the cultural DNA of the Flemish. Although most of the Flemish agree that starting your own business may be a good career decision, successful entrepreneurs are hardly put on a pedestal and rarely shown in the media. Thus, we need a more positive entrepreneurial culture in Flanders.

Results of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor

The last five years’ research conducted by GEM (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor), the world's foremost study of entrepreneurship among the world population, shows that fear of failure is a stumbling block to entrepreneurship in Flanders. The constant rankings of Flanders over the period of 2001 - 2015 confirm that fear of failure and a lack of confidence restrain entrepreneurship.

In Flanders, one in two people who finds opportunities to start a business - sets back because of fear of failure. In 2015, only three in ten Flemish people had enough confidence in their own know-how and skills to set up their own business. 

Confidence is so low that it causes to put Flanders among the lowest scoring regions, especially when it comes to women: 79% of the women, who took part in the survey, had no faith in their own know-how, abilities and experience to start a business. It’s high time for a campaign!

Does fear of failure have any good reasons?

Which personal experiences teach the Flemish that there is no forgiveness for failure, not mentioning bankruptcy? The legal framework is clearly less severe than the normative one. What is the bad reputation caused by the planned bankruptcies, for example in the construction industry where with just a compensation to the contractor - they immediately start a new business What kind of impact do the arranged exit stories of app developers have, who – every bit the serial entrepreneur - already have their next blockbuster waiting in the wings, whilst ditching their staff and leaving them to join the ranks of the unemployed?

Are there any positive aspects to fear of failure? Overall, those who managed to win over, are seen as doing well. Although we are unable to show any evidence of a causal relation, it may be assumed that our entrepreneurs make a decision after careful deliberation.

Our female entrepreneurs for instance – the group where fear of failure has the upper hand – are successful, highly-educated, driven by opportunities (i.e. not because other job options are thin on the ground), and pleased with their work-life balance.

Are they valued for that? In comparison with our neighbouring countries, successful entrepreneurship in Flanders has little appreciation. Just 57% the Flemish population believe that successful entrepreneurs enjoy high status.

Alongside to a troubled self-perception ("I can not"), we also see that the social perception influences the decision to start business ("They are not doing a good job").  In addition, only half of the Flemish feel that sufficient media attention is paid to the success stories behind new businesses and entrepreneurs.

Media coverage

The impression that successful entrepreneurs attract only limited exposure as role models is in line with the analysis of the television news over the 2003-2014 period, undertaken by Vlerick Business School. This investigation shows that coverage of entrepreneurship is succinct at best. The bulk of news items singles out business creation (the start-up) as the only scenario for an entrepreneurial way of life.

It is rarely reported on acquisitions, and even less when it comes to so-called heterodox professional careers, where entrepreneurship and ‘employeeship’ are flexibly alternated or combined, leaving stories about intrapreneurship or enterprising employees. The entrepreneurial process is often described as a linear one, usually as a one-shot story of success or failure and not as a series of converging alternative moves, which may or may not be successful.

Is the complexity deliberately avoided?

The entrepreneur is invariably offset against a “problematic” other - the dull employee or, worse still, the unemployed. The social and ethnic background of the represented entrepreneurs is monotonous.

Only a small fraction of the role models discussed are women: 20% of the entrepreneurs interviewed for the TV news, 6.5% of the newspaper articles screened over the period of 2003-2014. Moreover, it is rare for the personal network of (successful and unsuccessful) entrepreneurs to be brought into focus. Finally, entrepreneurship is consistently reported in terms of an ideological objective: more entrepreneurship is better, in contrast to the earlier findings in the UK for instance, where more entrepreneurship is not necessarily shown as a positive political objective but rather, as a result of the economic downturn and dwindling opportunities in the labour market.

Conclusion? It is vital that media pays attention to entrepreneurs who fail, cease trading and start again, as well as showing all multifaceted aspects of developing, testing and working together.

By Tine Holvoet for Failing Forward

Senior Research Associate at Vlerick Business School 

Tine Holvoet is well known for her multidisciplinary approach. Over the period of 2012–2015, she advised the Flemish Government on entrepreneurship culture (STORE Support Centre). Her contributions to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor allowed her to build an international network and deliver annual assessments of entrepreneurial attitudes, activities and ambitions in Belgium. Since 2016, she has been focusing her attention on entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship in the financial service industry.