Entrepreneurship comes from entrepreneur, anglicized from the original French word. It means someone who undertakes something. Merriam-Webster defines “entrepreneur” as “one who assumes the risk and management of business; enterprise; undertaker.” The relevant definition of “enterprise,” in turn, is “the character or disposition that leads one to attempt the difficult, the untried, etc.” Starting with basic definitions is useful because entrepreneurship is valued in American culture and has therefore come to be applied to all manner of business activities, including the running of very large corporations where the managers are not genuinely at risk, did not start the business, and are simply running things; their “undertakings” might sometimes be risky— but not in relation to total assets.
Academic students of the entrepreneurial phenomenon have emphasized different aspects of behavior in business. Josef Schumpeter (1883-1950), the Austrian economist, associated entrepreneurship with innovation.
Arthur Cole (1889-1980), Schumpeter’s colleague at Harvard, associated entrepreneurship with purposeful activity and the creation of organizations. The management guru, Peter Drucker (1909-2005) defined entrepreneurship as a discipline. “Most of what you hear about entrepreneurship is all wrong,” Drucker wrote in Innovation and Entrepreneurship (1986). “It’s not magic; it’s not mysterious; and it has nothing to do with genes.
It’s a discipline and, like any discipline, it can be learned.” Drucker argued that entrepreneurship extends to all types of organizations. Two widely cited contributors to the Encyclopedia of Entrepreneurship (1982), A.
Shapero and L. Sokol argued, from a sociological position, that all organizations and individuals have the potential to be entrepreneurial. They focused on activities rather than organizational make-up in examining entrepreneurship. In their view entrepreneurship is characterized by an individual or group’s initiative-taking, resource gathering, autonomy, and risk taking; thus, like Drucker’s their definition encompasses all types and sizes of organizations with a wide variety of functions and goals—very much in line with the observation which shows that entrepreneurship is evident in the foundation and growth of all types of organizations.
The academic approach to this subject has tended to be analytical—attempts at disassembling the entrepreneurial phenomenon in order to generate laws of business. One of Arthur Cole’s intentions, for example, was to integrate the entrepreneurial phenomenon into a general theory of economics; thus he spoke of it as one of several production factors: “Entrepreneurship may be defined in simplest terms,” he wrote in Journal of Economic History, 1953, “as the utilization of one productive factor of the other productive factors for the creation of economic goods.” Much of Peter Drucker’s work related to management, particularly the management of large organizations; not surprisingly he saw entrepreneurship in terms of a methodology of management—and methodologies can be learned.
Another way to look at entrepreneurship is by the study of history on the one hand—how enterprises came to be, with special emphasis on their beginnings—and looking at the reports of entrepreneurs themselves to see what they have to say. The historical approach is very instructive but in a surprising way. First, the actual entrepreneurial experience somewhat de-mystifies the concept (as Drucker did, but for other reasons): entrepreneurs very often stumble across opportunities, follow peculiar interests, or make something useful because they cannot find it. Second, history also highlights intangible aspects of the entrepreneurial personality (the very genes that Drucker dismissed): such individuals tend to be open-minded, curious, inquisitive, innovative, persistent, and energetic by temperament, thus showing many of the characteristics highlighted by the academics. But, fourth, the notion that entrepreneurs are risk-takers is not confirmed: rather, entrepreneurs are risk-averse but good at minimizing risk.
Paul Hawken, himself the founder of two successful businesses, provided a good view of entrepreneurship, from the entrepreneur’s perspective, in his book Growing A Business. Hawken looked at many instances of start-ups (including his own companies) and highlighted the interesting mix of personal qualities, leanings, opportunities, the incremental means by which businesses get started, and the characteristics good entrepreneurs exhibit. Hawken made useful distinctions that Peter Drucker apparently overlooked. “Entrepreneurial change,” Hawken wrote, “depends on static situations, and these are provided in abundance by government, large corporations, and other institutions, including educational ones. We need both entrepreneurial and institutional behavior. Each feeds on the other. The role of the former is to foment change. The role of the latter is to test that change.” The distinction will ring true to anyone engaged in small business—especially those who have taken it up after working in a large organization: change is difficult inside large, bureaucratic structures; it is easier to accomplish in a small firm: no committees need to make an input, no chain of command needs climbing one link after the next… Some examples illustrating the historical view of entrepreneurship: Sears and Kmart Sears, Roebuck (according to Sears Archives, http://www.searsarchives.com/history/history1886.htm) began because a railroad station agent in North Redwood, MN had time on his hands and, to fill it, did some minor dealings in lumber and coal. A jeweler in nearby Redwood Falls refused a shipment of watches in 1886. The young Richard Sears, the agent, bought the watches from the seller and sold them to other agents up and down the railroad line. This little venture having been successful, Sears bought more watches. Eventually he started selling the watches in a catalog of his own. The company was then called R.W. Sears Watch Company.
Sears needed a watchmaker to support this business and hired another young man, Alvah Roebuck, using an ad in a Chicago paper. One thing led to another. Sears was not the first catalog seller to the then predominantly rural U.S. population. One of his innovations was to make the Sears catalog smaller than that of the dominant Montgomery Ward. Sears argued that, being smaller, the catalog would always end up on top. “Small is beautiful,” you might say. Kmart also began small—as a dime-store founded by Sebastian Kresge, a category now equivalent to so-called “dollar stores.” Kresge’s innovation consisted in exploiting the low-price end of retail goods and concentrating on them.
McDonald’s The “golden arches” had their start because Ray Kroc, McDonald’s founder, sold milkshake blenders to drugstores and eateries. In 1954 he discovered that a hamburger seller owned by the MacDonald brothers was far and away the most popular in Southern California and had developed a method for serving customers in record time. Eight milkshake blenders were running at the little shop continuously. He proposed to the brothers that they open several more shops—thinking that he could sell them blenders. The brothers wondered who could open these stores for them. Kroc then said, (according to McDonald’s web site, http://www.mcdonalds.com/corp/about/mcd_history_pg1.html) “Well, what about me?” The first golden arches rose a year later in Des Plains, IL. Ray Kroc himself had, by that time, already shown his entrepreneurial spirit by investing his savings and a second-mortgage on his house into the milkshake blender distributorship—which in due time led to his fortune. In this case the desire to sell more blenders resulted in the establishment of a national and now international “fast food” category.
Apple and the Macintosh Apple began when two Steves, Steve Wozniak, the technical innovator, and Steve Jobs, the entrepreneur, got together to make circuit boards for hobbyists—who, in turn, would use them to make homegrown computers. Thus Apple did not begin as a computer maker. When Jobs attempted to sell these boards to a local computer store, Paul Terrel, the owner, told him to make finished computers and promised to buy 50 of them for $500 each. Financing was a problem, but Jobs, armed with the purchase order from Terrel, managed to persuade a electronics distributor to let him have the components on credit. Thus Apple was born—financed by a sale-in-hand. This history illustrates the limited visions of the start-up enterprise and the effect of tenacious enterprise. Jobs, however, had a vision when, some eight years later, in 1979, he toured Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Corporation (PARC) and there saw, for the first time, an experimental visual interface and the computer mouse. Xerox, clearly, was miles ahead of anyone in technological innovation, but the people at Xerox PARC could not persuade their managements to commercialize the ideas already present in physical demonstration. Apple, however, independently developed the concepts and thus created the Macintosh. Visual interfaces became standard after that—and everyone now uses a mouse. This bit of history illustrates Hawken’s notion that institutionalization stifles and entrepreneurship creates change.
Pepperidge Farm A classical case of entrepreneurship, mixing a challenge, a creative response, and persistent enterprise is that of Margaret Rudkin, founder of Pepperidge Farm, Inc. Margaret Rudkin moved with her family from New York to a farm in Fairfield, CT where sour gum or “Pepperidge” trees grew—hence Pepperidge Farm. Here one of her young sons developed an allergy to commercial breads laced with preservatives and artificial ingredients. This was the “challenge.”
The year was 1937. As the Pepperidge Farm web site reports (see http://www.pepperidgefarm.com/history.asp), Rudkin set out not only to bake wholesome bread her child could eat but “the perfect loaf of bread.”
She succeeded very well—her “creative response.”
Visitors to the home liked the bread so much they persuaded her to try to sell it. With a few loaves in hand, she approached the local grocer who, with some reluctance, agreed to try to sell them—soon he was asking for more. The business weathered the shortages created by World War II during which Rudkin sometimes suspended production rather than produce inferior product—a sign of her “persistence.” On July 4, 1947 the small business suddenly grew quite a lot with the opening of a large modern bakery in Norwalk, CT. The bread was of such quality that it commanded a price of 25 cents a loaf at a time when bread sold for a dime a loaf. The product is still on the shelf everywhere—in testimony to Margaret Rudkin’s persevering “enterprise.”
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The Entrepreneurial Personality
Scholars, psychologists, analysts, and writers continue in efforts to define that elusive something called the “entrepreneurial” personality—but while the results usually include some of the same words (creative, innovative, committed, talented, knowledgeable, self-confident, lucky, persistent, and others), actual entrepreneurs (like actual artists, scientists, discoverers, and leaders in every walk of life) come in a bewildering variety. They may be highly trained or untrained, very knowledgeable or not.
What seems certain is that the qualities entrepreneurs exhibit are not likely to be mass producible or the consequence of a well-crafted curriculum. That such people are in many ways outstanding—and in others quite ordinary—is also clear from a study of history.
Entrepreneurship, therefore, might simply be called a kind of excellence that appears sharply in organizational life—be it business or some other activity.