07 March 2007

Entrepreneurship Reaches a Tipping Point (Or, the Coming Popularization of Entrepreneurship)

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive."
- Harold Whitman

Entrepreneurs gain autonomy by changing society. When Ray Kroc gets us to change our eating habits or Little Richard get us to change our dance moves, they get rich. Getting rich is part of what gives them autonomy, letting them do what they want. Often what they want to do falls into the category of more entrepreneurship. What Ray Kroc enjoys is building a burger empire and Little Richard loves singing and playing to packed auditoriums. While some of us build model train sets, entrepreneurs actually use social trends as building blocks to “live the life of their dreams,” as the get-rich advertisements put it.

The Beatles were entrepreneurs. They changed society by creating songs about love, consciousness, and Rocky Raccoon. They challenged social conventions.

Henry Crowell was an entrepreneur. When he completed his oatmeal factory in 1882, he had a problem. His factory produced twice as much oatmeal as Americans ate. So, he invented breakfast cereal, packaging bulk meal into 24 ounce boxes labeled with the familiar Quaker Oats brand. He changed eating habits.

Martin Luther was an entrepreneur. He changed how people worship.

We are used to a small elite group playing the role of entrepreneurs. This has defined our history ... so far. Historically, elites change society and the rest of us conform to it.

Entrepreneurship is, basically, an act of social invention and I think that its path will, in some ways, follow the path of product invention. We’ve only gotten good at product invention in the last century. Today, many companies can confidently plan projects that result in patents and new products - a notion that would have seemed preposterous to the inventor in his shop in the early 19th century. There are certain principles behind product invention. We’re less clear about the principles that define social invention, but I predict that within a few decades our attempts at social invention will look more like our current efforts at product invention. That is, we’ll regularly engage in such acts and often succeed at creating new organizations and social changes that change how we live. Groups will regularly and intentionally engage in social invention. We’ll see the popularization of entrepreneurship.

You can work hard to be a better factory worker. Discipline and effort make a difference. But it makes more difference if you change the definition of work, change the system in which someone can work to be disciplined and conscientious. An engineer can produce more value in a day than can a factory worker (who, in turn, can produce more value than a farm worker). An Industrial Revolution or entering an Information Age raises productivity of the disciplined and the not so disciplined alike.

We can try to conform ourselves to the systems as they now stand. We can try to be better engineers or marketing experts or what have you. But we can be more productive if we change those roles to those of entrepreneurs – expecting employees to create new organizations that have equity value. We’ll soon come to expect teams to collaborate in social invention just as we expect today’s teams to collaborate in product invention.

The popularization of entrepreneurship will mean that the individual will come into the world less expectant of finding a place in it than of creating a place in it.

What will be examples of this? The child with the learning disability will have all his learning adapted to his strengths instead of focusing on overcoming his disability. Rather than grade the child on his performance within the educational system, we will adapt the system to the child’s passions, flaws, strengths, and society’s values and markets. (One reason that the very idea of grading is so nonsensical is that it assumes that it is the individual who needs to adapt to an organization that is usually obsolete by decades rather than adapting the organization to the child who is alive and in the world today.) And the child with learning disabilities? That is all of us. Anyone can be made stupid by the right challenge or circumstance. Organizations of all kinds - educational or corporate - will increasingly be expected to adapt to the individual.

Entrepreneurs, finally, are people who look about the social milieu and see the possibility of creating something new. The act of inventing this new organization or social practice is itself an act through which they can create their own potential. Additionally, once they’ve completed their social invention, they now have a vehicle through which they can realize their own potential. After he helps to invent rock and roll, Little Richard can continue to perform within the form.

"Realize their potential for what?" you may ask. If it is an act of successful entrepreneurship, it is the potential to create value for the community. And in this we have the most delightful paradox - the individual can do the most for the community only by changing that community so that it better conforms to the individual.

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