Defining “entrepreneur”

Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.

I love that definition. “Entrepreneur” is an overused term, but there really is nothing else that encapsulates the idea. And I’ve found no definition like the one above that so succinctly explains what it means to be an entrepreneur.

Since starting my own business almost one year ago, I find myself thinking differently. I think ahead—far ahead—and rarely think about the past. I think about my success in terms of not how many clients I have, or how much money I’m making, but what portion of the possible I’m turning into something real. And what is and isn’t possible means something very different than it did, for me, just a few years ago.

That’s what entrepreneurship is about, and that’s what this definition explains so well. What is possible and impossible is not an objective, set-in-stone list of things. Possible is an relative term. Entrepreneurs simply understand this more than do most other people.

I like to use the following illustration: Go back to an ancient Roman city. Survey the town members on the question: “Is it possible to talk with someone on the other side of the world?” I’ll bet the answer is a resounding no. But today, of course, we do this daily with our phones. It is possible, and it was never actually impossible. It was just beyond the limits of ancient people’s imagination. And probably those who did imagine such an ability, or such a technology, were considered insane.

Thank God for entrepreneurs, like Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone), who saw nothing impossible about their ambitions to change the world—who pursued an opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled or available.

For those who care, that definition was coined by Harvard Business School’s Howard Stevenson.

Is American entrepreneurship dying?

The Brookings Institution reported on Monday that the American economy is less entrepreneurial than at any point in the last three decades. See chart below:

Washington Post Chart

From WashingtonPost.com

The report continues:

…recent research shows that dynamism is slowing down. Business churning and new firm formations have been on a persistent decline during the last few decades, and the pace of net job creation has been subdued. This decline has been documented across a broad range of sectors in the U.S. economy, even in high-tech… if it persists, it implies a continuation of slow growth for the indefinite future, unless for equally unknown reasons or by virtue of entrepreneurship-enhancing policies (such as liberalized entry of high-skilled immigrants), these trends are reversed.

Given the Bush and Obama administrations’ insistence on trickle-down, faux-recovery policies that inflate asset prices at the expense of small-time entrepreneurs, these results are not surprising. But the authors of this report don’t seem privy to this elementary insight when they write:

Whatever the reason, older and larger businesses are doing better relative to younger and smaller ones.

“Whatever the reason”…not that a steady piling on of regulatory compliance costs (a la Obamacare) has anything to do with keeping young firms out of the market. But of course, these authors don’t cite such costs a single time in their report. Instead, they blame tough immigration laws (go figure). If only we had more entrepreneurial immigrants, they say, our problem would be solved. But of course, this doesn’t address the problem — it’s like your mechanic proposing a new car as a fix for your broken old car, which shouldn’t be broken in the first place.