Entrepreneurship today is a movement, a welling-up of new economic creativity, combined with a great desire for economic freedom and the joys of self-reliance and discovery. The movement is newly empowered by enabling institutions that simply weren’t around a few years ago, including the internet and its digital economic platforms. Professor Raushan Gross is a great observer and great documenter of this entrepreneurial surge, and he joins the Economics For Business podcast to share some of his original and distinctive observations about the very human aspects of his new entrepreneurial studies.
Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights
Let’s not over-theorize and over-professionalize entrepreneurship: it’s people finding new ways to thrive by creatively serving other people.
There’s an explosion of university entrepreneurship programs, entrepreneurship research and entrepreneurship methodologies. There’s an attempt to professionalize entrepreneurship, to make it a product of business schools.
Raushan Gross sees things differently, through a humanist, subjective and ethical lens. He looks at the culture of entrepreneurship, the social movement of individuals making their way in life in a new manner, seeing new opportunities to make their lives better for themselves and their families by making life better for others.
There’s a newly emerging set of institutions and a new class of entrepreneur: the digitalpreneur.
Economists take an interest in how institutions shape behavior and economic activity. They see institutions as constraints. They sometimes call them “the rules of the game”. Professor Gross has a different take. The new institutions of entrepreneurship — the internet, digital platforms, e-commerce, digitization in general — are not constraining; rather, they are openings to a new space with new possibilities. This digital space is welcoming. There’s abundant knowledge to be shared. There are new ways to think about access to resources, about production and marketing and organization. There’s a new world of price signals, much more flexible and fast-changing, and the route to cash flow and profit is faster.
Professor Gross identifies digitalpreneurs as a new economic class: not higher or lower, not defined by their origins or background, free to move at any speed and to access any place in their relentless, unbounded pursuit of entrepreneurship.
Today’s entrepreneurs are rewriting economic history: from the invisible hand to the visible hand to the digital hand.
Adam Smith introduced the metaphor of the invisible hand — the concept that individual economic actors and firms entrepreneurially pursuing their own profit goals generate the economic system we call free market capitalism, with benefits for all of society. Friedrich Hayek expressed a similar idea as “spontaneous order”. The invisible hand guided the rapid growth in real standards of living of the industrial revolution.
Then the visible hand imposed itself: the concepts of management control, and of planning and centralization. Creativity, innovation, and rapid growth were suppressed, while bureaucracies expanded. We got “Bullshit Jobs”, in David Graeber’s locution, from which creativity and caring were expunged.
Professor Gross takes us beyond both the invisible hand and the visible hand to the digital hand, which gently guides digitalpreneurs to participate in or even create new markets. The digital hand is generative. It enables digitalpreneurs to operate their own digital platforms, to construct their own digital economy, to assemble their own economic knowledge and to find their own unique place in the knowledge economy. The digital hand opens up new pathways to economic freedom.
Digital entrepreneurship can be conducted at any scale, but watch out for the dead hand.
Where are the corporations in their embrace of digitalpreneurs? Certainly, there are the new digital corporations like Amazon and Google who seem willing to hire members of the new class and turn them loose in creative experimentation. But what about the old economy corporations who need to make the transition to the new world? Are they hiring entrepreneurs? Are they enabling entrepreneurs, freeing them from bureaucracy and from the command-and-control hierarchy? The evidence so far is that they are not.
How to integrate the entrepreneurial orientation into a corporate organization remains an unsolved mystery. How can the corporate advantages of reach and scale be leveraged to further realize the senses of purpose and meaning that drive entrepreneurship? How can corporations shift to the entrepreneurial culture?
They need to find ways to eliminate what Professor Gross calls the Dead Hand — bureaucracy, regulation, control, risk-aversion, centralization, procedures, and rules.
But corporate culture is not the only barrier to the realization of the entrepreneurial society. There are other cultural barriers to overcome.
Professor Deirdre McCloskey is famous for her analysis that the catalyst for what she calls The Great Enrichment — the 3000% increase in real standards of living in certain Western countries from 1800 to the present — was a change in how we talked about entrepreneurship. The perceptions and descriptions of the bourgeois life of commerce transitioned from scorn to admiration. Entrepreneurs came to be seen as bold and innovative, a force for good, providers of desirable services enhancing the quality of life.
Professor Gross sees a fresh need for such a change in language and cultural support for the new age of digital entrepreneurship. One example he gives is the language of venture failure. Initiatives that are concluded early or don’t hit some target or don’t attract sufficient buyers or don’t generate enough profit to be sustainable are deemed “failures”. This characterization tends to lead to erroneous conclusions about risk (as in risk of failure) and about the people who engaged in the initiatives (“failures” or, worse, “losers”).
There’s a much different and better way to frame the same data as learning, and augmenting the pool of knowledge. When we think of entrepreneurship as a flow, we can visualize how information flows from the past to the present, elevating the intelligence of every entrepreneur and every firm that’s operating today. Not only does knowledge flow, it compounds, so today’s entrepreneurs can be exponentially more informed than their predecessors.
The more we adopt this win-win cultural approach to cumulative entrepreneurial knowledge-building, as opposed to the win-lose language of failure and success, the closer we’ll come to the beneficent entrepreneurial society that Adam Smith imagined, before he was so rudely interrupted.