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The Evolution of “Entrepreneur”

2020 will be remembered as one of the most remarkable years in human history for a host of reasons, least of which is how the state of our economy, and need to work from home, has thrust us all to appreciate what it means to be online at the same time that many are exploring starting a business of their own.

Never before has the landscape of our workforce changed so dramatically while circumstances have millions considering entrepreneurship.

That made me curious about the history of that word, entrepreneur. That made us consider what more we can do to help.

The History of the Entrepreneur

  • 1734.  Irish-French economist and author Richard Cantillon penned Essai (Essay on the Nature of Trade in General), considered the first complete formal work on the subject of economics. In Essai, Cantillon explored the early economics idea of cause and effect, considered monetary theories, and identified the entrepreneur as a risk-bearer.  “Entrepreneurs are non-fixed income earners who pay known costs of production but earn uncertain incomes.” Cantillon divided society into two principal classes — fixed income wage-earners and non-fixed income earners; and while it’s considered that Jean-Baptiste Say coined the word “entrepreneur,” it’s Cantillon who first used the word, in that classification.
  • 1803. Say, a favorite study of mine, studied Cantillon and Adam Smith, and noted that the entrepreneur is distinct in being the person who unites all means of production to uncover new opportunities. “By selling the product in the market he pays rent of land, wages to labour, interest on capital and what remains is his profit.” The entrepreneur shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into areas of higher productivity and greater yield.
  • Early 1900s. Nikola Tesla introduced the notion of a “world wireless system” and visionary thinkers such as Paul Otlet and Vannevar Bush conceived of mechanized, searchable storage systems of books and media – in the 1930s and 1940s.  This, of course, gave rise to the the internet on which we all find ourselves today and is notable to our history of entrepreneurs as this technology has enabled everyone, everywhere, to try.
  • 1934. Joseph Schumpeter helped establish that entrepreneurs disrupt, leading us to the notion popular today of disruption. Entrepreneurs are innovators who use a process of shattering the status quo of the existing products and services, to set up new products, new services. Schumpeter brought a unique perspective to bear on the power of market-creating innovation to improve human well-being through his widely read work, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy.
  • 1961David McClelland is credited with developing Achievement Motivation Theory, commonly referred to as “need for achievement” or n-achievement theory. He himself, an energetic and a moderate risk taker, claimed that motivation is “a recurrent concern for a goal state or condition as measured in fantasy, which drives, directs and selects the behavior of the individual”. He focused on three particular motives: the need for achievement (N-Ach); the need for affiliation (N-Aff); and the need for power (N-Pow). N-Ach is the desire to excel in relation to a set of standards. It is the drive to succeed. N-Pow is the desire to be influential and affect an organization. N-Aff is the desire for close personal relationships. The Achievement Motive has been closely studied for impact on development of economies and entrepreneurship.
  • Early 1960s. MIT’s J.C.R. Licklider popularized the idea of an “Intergalactic Network” of computers; work that became ARPANET and in turn, the internet.
  • 1964. Management consultant and economist Peter Drucker noted that the entrepreneur searches for change, responds to it and exploits opportunities. Innovation is a specific tool of an entrepreneur and that it, combined with Marketing, creates the most value in the work that businesses undertake.
  • 1971: Peter Kilby studied the critical role of the entrepreneur in developing economies in his work Entrepreneurship and Economic Development. Kilby distinguishes the imitator entrepreneur who doesn’t innovate but imitates technologies innovated by others; helping usher in the recognition of 2nd mover advantages and how being first to market isn’t usually the best place to be.
  • The 1970s. Scientists Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf developed Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP, a communications model that set standards for how data could be transmitted between multiple networks. 
  • 1975Howard H. Stevenson of Harvard Business School notes that entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled, reinforcing the early distinction of the entrepreneur as the risk taker in uncertain circumstances and comfortable with fluid income.
  • 1975. Albert Shapero reminded us that Entrepreneurs take initiative, accept risk of failure and have an internal locus of control. His paper, The Displaced, Uncomfortable Entrepreneur resonates even more in 2020 than perhaps before.
  • 1990s. Computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Often confused with the internet, the web is the most common means of accessing data online in the form of websites and hyperlinks. 
  • 2005. Elinor Ostrom’s work Unlocking Public Entrepreneurship and Public Economies ties entrepreneurship to public and private sector, noting that unlocking human potential requires a rich network of institutional arrangements in both private and public spheres. Her work solidified the need for economic collaboration on behalf of everyone; positing that opening entrepreneurship and the complex market organization involved is a key to increasing the level and quality of private goods available to consumers.
  • 2013. Ronald May [PDF] clarifies that an Entrepreneur is someone who commercializes his or her innovation.
Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice

Entrepreneurs are Online

What I’ve observed in that history and the shift of our economy to be driven by the internet is that being online is, today, a determination of entrepreneurship.

Now, granted, sure, some entrepreneurs will still find success entirely offline but the fact remains that every business is now and forever dependent on the internet. And I’m not, here, implying that entrepreneurs are only “internet” oriented founders nor that our work in [online] media determines one to be an entrepreneur; what we should note is that every entrepreneur, investing effectively and efficiently, will be doing so with marketing and innovation – and the work they might be doing in ANY industry (banking, healthcare, CPG, insurance, or otherwise), means that they’ll be online.

The world has been for decades recognizing that every company is a media company. An online media company.

And that notion isn’t dissimilar from the notion that there is no “tech industry” (because every business today is a tech company, in some form or fashion): all companies are media companies and all companies are technology companies.

Everyone, particularly now, is online, and we might add to the distinction of “entrepreneur” that they are too.

Paul O'Brien

Silicon Valley technology and startup veteran, Paul O'Brien is affectionately known as SEO'Brien for an extensive past in the search industry. Today as CEO and Founder of MediaTech Ventures, O'Brien works in Venture Capital Economic Development, serving the investment and venture capital economies directly, through thought leadership, consulting, and startup development. More, a regional Director of the Founder Institute incubator and mentor in DivInc, Galvanize, and various startup Accelerators.

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