The New Meaning Of Entrepreneurship – Forbesonline entrepreneur
The smartest entrepreneurs have always recognized success comes from figuring out how to change human behavior.
In recent history, arguably the best vehicle for entrepreneurship has been a company.
Companies were organized to produce profits and returns for investors. Everyone’s incentives were aligned for growth to change the behavior of as many humans as possible, in line with producing more profits and returns.
Presto. There you have the depressing reality of Facebook. And by the way, anyone who thinks that Facebook can police itself against its underlying profit incentive to please advertisers, is crazy.
But that’s an aside.
In a society that feels moribund, where the current government is sinking deeper into the morass on such huge societal problems as retirement, health care and climate, a lot of the real change has been coming from entrepreneurship. Is there any wonder, then, that agents of social change are borrowing concepts from entrepreneurship and even the word itself to describe themselves?
Entrepreneurship used to mean this: “The activity of setting up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit.”
The idea of entrepreneurship had already been evolving, as some people divorced entrepreneurship from profit. There were social entrepreneurs, who were building enterprises with double bottom lines. Now, we’re watching the concept of entrepreneurship transform, again.
This month, I interviewed an entrepreneur, Dustin Winegardner, who had divorced the idea of entrepreneurship from the concept of a company at all. The company is not his vehicle for change; rather, he is creating a company to serves as an example that he will use to cascade change throughout the apparel industry.
(I’m talking about Arvin, which makes socks. If he builds a $100 million company, he says, he won’t have achieved his goal. “The real goal is to influence other people to do it,” said Winegardner. “I’m trying to raise hell to get the big boys to do it.”)
I’ve also seen this amoeba-like definition of entrepreneurship in two recent books describing social change and social movements, by academics Leslie Crutchfield, who looked at social entrepreneurship, and Cass Sunstein.
Sunstein describes three different kinds of entrepreneurs whose primary goal is social change. Norm entrepreneurs try to change the prevailing conversation; availability entrepreneurs try to cascade change; and polarization entrepreneurs create those (mostly terrible) bubbles that keep us from experiencing a pluralistic society.
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So, stripped down, the true meaning of entrepreneurship is a process of change.
See a problem you want to solve
Feel a load of doubt, resolve to go forward anyway
Find an approach to make the problem better
Discover you were wrong, or that the world has changed on you, or both
Decide to keep going anyway because what you’re doing is important
Figure out a different way to make the problem better
Most successful entrepreneurs also find a healthy dose of luck along the way. Too many entrepreneurs have the luck of birth. (As another aside, sometimes I think my head will explode if I have to interview another Ivy League educated white man who just sold his company for a lot of money and believes that he is therefore smart, or worse, “blessed.”) Other entrepreneurs get lucky in timing, because they launched a company just as a norm was changing around them or as an innovation happened.
Is redefining entrepreneurship a good idea? Taking profits and (inherently patriarchal) companies out of the definition is likely a step in the right direction. Companies are ways for teams to work together, but we have other ways to work together. In recent years, companies have felt like pretty negative institutions. They have done a lot to bring entrepreneurs the rewards of their endeavors while shielding them entirely from the societal costs.
Here’s why I think the broader idea of entrepreneurship, and the declining importance of the company, can serve society well:
The best entrepreneurs I’ve known have always felt personal relationships between themselves, their employees and their customers. The best companies, enterprises or movements are built by people whose journeys are both internal, enabling them to be in relationships, and external, enabling them to change human behavior at scale. Great entrepreneurs know they need to seek external journeys toward growth and internal journeys toward humanity . Great entrepreneurs know at the end of the day that they need to be at peace with whatever changes they have wrought.