What exactly do we mean when we use the term entrepreneurship? The theoretical definition is the intentional pursuit of new economic value. Intentional means people – entrepreneurs – do it, either as individuals or teams or in an institutional setting like a firm, or a business or a corporation. Value means that there are other people who benefit as recipients, and become better off. Pursuit means that the people who conduct the process are not guaranteed a successful outcome every time, and may take a while to establish the right recipe and the best practice. New means continuous innovation and improvement for those recipients of value. And economic means it’s an ever more efficient use of the resources available to us, free from politics, that mean and vicious fight over dividing the pie that the entrepreneurs have so generously baked.
Yet, beyond this definition that comes from economics, there is something even greater and more expansive. Entrepreneurship is a social force for good – the greatest such force that has emerged from the long and checkered history of civilization. And if we employ the entrepreneurial method that makes it a force for good, we can achieve greater and greater levels of community, collaboration and societal advance.
Innovation and improvement
To continuously improve people’s lives, we need new things. We need people to invent things that haven’t been thought of before. And we need innovators, people who improve those things and find new purposes for them or new ways of producing and distributing them. And we need entrepreneurship, the marshalling of resources to produce these better things faster and more efficiently and get them into more people’s hands.
Entrepreneurs are those unique people who organize the marshalling of resources, and who risk their own capital and their investors’ capital in this pursuit of a better future for all.
When entrepreneurs undertake this act of discovery, and especially when they succeed, they trigger cascading development. One innovation and entrepreneurial initiative leads to another. They are all aimed at making people’s lives better – easier, more convenient, more affordable, more efficient. And, eventually, knowledge spreads, and people’s lives are transformed, so that Indian peasant farmers can check produce prices on their smartphone and get the best offer from the market. Development cascades from individual to individual, firm to firm, market to market and country to country. It’s never-ending improvement.
Long termism and ethical behavior
The outcome is long term uplift and benefit for all. Entrepreneurs are long term thinkers. They are focused on the lifetime of their company and their products, and perhaps to passing them on to the next generation. (Politicians are the opposite – they can only think in election cycles.)
Entrepreneurs don’t want to just make a short term profit and then leave the market. They want long term revenues and long term profits. That means creating reliable, returning customers who love the entrepreneur’s product. That requires delighting those customers, serving them impeccably, never letting them down or breaking a promise. There are few, if any, institutions that are constituted in this way.
This long termism is ethical. Entrepreneurship is ethically driven.
A small firm can trade on a global stage, and if they can, they will. It’s easier than ever before in the digital era. New and better ideas quickly spread around the world. But it has always been the case, since the earliest of times. Politicians establish borders to divide people, and then violate them in invasions and wars. Entrepreneurs see no borders between people. Political borders can’t divide markets.
Entrepreneurship achieves more for social good than any other institution. Entrepreneurial innovation in goods and services enhances life and opens up new possibilities. Customers flock to entrepreneurs because of the tremendous service they deliver. The constant improvement delivered by entrepreneurs constitutes civilizational progress. The competitive pressure to improve quality and utilize resources more efficiently generates more and more value for the world.
It’s an error to see business as extractive – extracting and using up resources. Business is generative, putting life-changing inventions at the disposal of the global population. What’s seen is the dirt and smoke left over from mining or manufacturing. What’s not seen, and often unappreciated, is the huge amount of good that comes into the world via entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurship is the application property rights at every scale
It’s another error to think of entrepreneurship as small business or young and immature business. Ray Kroc of McDonald’s was a great example of an entrepreneur who worked out how to operate a hamburger restaurant at global scale with continuous improvement. Entrepreneurship requires property rights; people need to have control over their property in order to transform it into marketable innovations and services. But that does not limit the scale of entrepreneurship. Property rights are a principle that supports global scaling.
The entrepreneurial method
Probably the best way to define entrepreneurship is as a process or a method. It’s akin to – and as important to civilization as – the scientific method, but different. They both involve trial-and-success, coming up with ideas and testing them. The scientist tests against reality, looking for a law, a repeatable outcome that will never vary. The entrepreneur tests against consumer approval, looking for acceptance that might be repeatable until conditions change, such as new competition arriving. Entrepreneurs can’t predict the future as scientist can, and they can’t exert control in the form of unchanging laboratory conditions. Yet they still are challenged to build a business that lasts.
Can we nurture this institution?
Yes. In school, via literacy and entrepreneurially-oriented education, teaching young people about profit, and uncertainty and the requirement for supportive environmental elements such as property rights and flexible labor laws, and the value of trying multiple different initiatives before discovering a winning proposition. We might not be able to teach successful entrepreneurship, but we can create the conditions for learning.