Before we can start to look at the different forms of entrepreneurship that are needed in the 21st Century we need to make sure that we understand what we mean by the word.
Of late the term entrepreneur has been inextricably linked to the people involved with starting Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and many other such companies. Now, whilst I agree that the people that started such companies can be deemed to be entrepreneurial in the beginning, I am not sure that today one can call the companies that they formed entrepreneurial companies.
I well remember a presentation where it was pointed out that a well known household products company had not had a major innovative product since the 1960s. What the company had majored on was refining the existing product line with a series of minor improvements.
Is that not similar to Apple, Microsoft, Amazon etc. today? At the time of writing there is feverish anticipation of Apple’s next iPhone. Regardless of when I finish writing this book we will all probably be awaiting a new Apple iPhone! But is the new telephone likely to be an entrepreneurial breakthrough or is it a refinement on an existing product? More importantly, will it simply contain new features, not to solve a real need, but to justify bringing out a new model.
I do not deny that Apple are probably the cleverest marketeers in the commercial world, or that they were impressively entrepreneurial when they started up. However, I now see them as a company with a small number of products in its product line and which is still the leader in marketing such products.
I certainly don’t see Apple going to the wall any time soon, but equally I do not expect anything really entrepreneurial coming from them either. The nearest thing to entrepreneurship will come from the people outside of Apple that write the applications that work on iPhones and iPads.
This view I have of such businesses also covers those who deliver software. I was working in IBM when Microsoft came on the scene and the entrepreneurial way that they removed the physical storage limit of the PC through Microsoft Windows was certainly entrepreneurial. However, we are now several releases on and we are in the enhancing rather than creating arena.
The same applies to some extent to applications like Facebook. When it was created it served a purpose. However, the social media platform has now been clouded by a plethora of applications such as Messenger WhatsApp, Instagram, Pinterest etc to the point that there is a danger Facebook will destroy itself! It has almost become like a chocolate manufacturer who has too many similar products and none of them ends up selling enough to make them profitable!
Another company that I once saw as entrepreneurial was Amazon. However, even there they have become just another distributor, albeit bigger than most. Now we see the possibility of using drones to deliver goods. Is this really entrepreneurial, or is it just a tweak of the old system of delivery drivers, and where is the option for dealing with out of line situations such as the person not at home. More importantly, what is the problem that Amazon is trying to solve? Is it Amazon who want to deliver faster or is the consumer really saying that getting something next day isn’t fast enough!
With all of these technological products and services I have a consistent view that what started out as an entrepreneurial idea has developed into technology for technology’s sake without clear consumer demand or consideration of the consequences of what they are doing.
I make no apology for going back to the iPhone as it is a commonly known product. However, I wonder just how many of the app icons on most people’s phones are ever used! More importantly, I wonder how many of these apps actually enhance the owner’s life. I also wonder if Apple ever consider the social effect that their product has.
While it is easy for manufacturers to blame the individual if they spend mealtimes looking at their phones instead of talking to others, the companies clearly develop and encourage development of applications that imply that one should be instantly available at all times! I wonder how many honeymoon couples are interupted by a tweet coming through!
So while I would see the early stages of these and many other companies as entrepreneurial, I see them today as much more mainstream companies that prefer not to wear suits!
If these are not entrepreneurial then what is my definition? The first step on the path to defining an entrepreneur is to have a real problem that needs solving. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have to do it! So all forms of entrepreneurship require a problem that needs solving as a starting point.
Often such problems can be solved by conventional means and hence they will not lead to entrepreneurship. However, if the best solution is innovative then it is likely that one is on the path to entrepreneurship.
A further parameter to consider when trying to find a definition of entrepreneurship is the extent to which risk is involved. Often innovative solutions, by their very nature, will be risky. However, being risky on its own is insufficient to define something as entrepreneurial. For that to be the case then the risk has to have been assessed and considered to the point where it is defined as manageable even though there may be a possibility of failure as well as of success.
Having got a potential solution and having assessed the risks involved to the point where a business or enterprise is considered worth going for then the real key to being entrepreneurial is to go ahead and do it.
We label people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as entrepreneurs. They only became entrepreneurs once they took the leap from idea to implementation. Sitting and dreaming up solutions does not make you an entrepreneur any more that doing fifty leadership courses makes you a leader.
So, for me, entrepreneurship is about someone who has an innovative solution to a real problem, who has assessed the risks and has taken the step of implementing the solution.