‘This is the best time in history to be an entrepreneur’

The world is being transformed by the work of entrepreneurs – and individuals, communities, societies and governments all stand to gain

The first time I heard the word entrepreneur was when my father used it in the 1960s. Back then, not many people were familiar with the term. For a school project, I asked my father, who owned a chain of carpet stores in California, what he did. My dad wasn’t a lawyer or a doctor like other dads, and I was too young to understand the term “retail”. So, when I asked him he said he was an “entrepreneur – someone who takes a risk with money to make money”. That remains one of my favourite definitions of entrepreneurship.

Everyone benefits when entrepreneurs can thrive – it’s like throwing a pebble into a lake and seeing the ripples spread out

We are living in a global entrepreneurial revolution. This is the best time in history to be an entrepreneur. Be it social entrepreneurs, tech entrepreneurs – even political entrepreneurs – people in all walks of life are thinking creatively and coming up with innovative solutions to solve market needs. Many variables have coalesced to create this new paradigm. First, we had the end of the Cold War and the acceptance that capitalism works. Next, we had China, which has used entrepreneurship to bring more people out of poverty than we had ever seen before – millions and millions, in little more than a generation.

It is a movement that is capturing the world’s imagination. In Taiwan and New Zealand the spirit of entrepreneurship is remaking economies and inspiring people. What I love is that entrepreneurship is about passion, finding ideas and dreaming. In today’s world we face myriad destructive forces, but entrepreneurship is the opposite. It’s about creating something, making connections, solving problems.

The other driver of this new paradigm is the internet. The advent of new technology and the arrival of e-world have allowed anyone to be a global business. It used to be that a small business was exactly that. So if you were a shopkeeper your business was limited to your neighbourhood. But today, any business can be a global business. The internet has fuelled this entrepreneurial revolution.

It’s great for countries, businesses and individuals. There are more markets available – physical and e-markets – and there is also more knowledge. Technology has allowed people to learn how to be entrepreneurs. Before the internet it was harder to figure out how but now there is so much information available. That has also made the entrepreneurial revolution possible because people are smarter and able to tap into a new knowledge base.

The idea for my latest book Planet Entrepreneur, co-written by fellow members of the World Entrepreneurship Forum, was to showcase how different people use entrepreneurship in different parts of the world. One key finding was that charity is changing and is being replaced by social entrepreneurship. There is donor fatigue. This is because you’re just giving men fish. Entrepreneurship is about teaching a man how to fish, not just feeding him for one day. Social entrepreneurship is using the best of entrepreneurship to help people to start a business or use entrepreneurial ideas to solve problems.

Enabling environment

Everyone benefits when entrepreneurs can thrive – it’s like throwing a pebble into a lake and seeing the ripples spread out. You start with the entrepreneur, then his family is better off, then his community, then other people see it and they are inspired to start businesses. Beyond that, you create a stable society and a better tax base, so it helps everyone when entrepreneurs succeed. Which is why it is important for governments to create policies that promote and foster entrepreneurship. What’s required is an enabling environment, a tax base that isn’t too rigorous and where it is easy to start a business. In some countries, you can start a business in days, in others it can take months to satisfy the regulations.

To a lesser or greater degree, a sense of risk is in the entrepreneurial DNA. I knew I was an entrepreneur when I left a comfortable job in a law firm to set up a new business. Risk is the juice that gets an entrepreneur’s blood going. The great entrepreneurs take smart and calculated risks. Right now there is someone in a garage dreaming up the next big thing. There are also many people setting up businesses that won’t be the next big thing, but that doesn’t make those entrepreneurs any less important. The vast majority of entrepreneurs run two-, three- or five-person businesses that are the backbone of many economies.

There are startups that are going to end up big, like Facebook and Twitter, but most companies and most entrepreneurs aren’t going to create that kind of business – and that’s fine too. In the US, there are 30 million businesses and 99 per cent of those have 100 employees or fewer. It is a picture that is reflected across the world.

On the back of the financial crisis there are more ‘accidental entrepreneurs’ than ever because many people who lost jobs launched businesses. The global recession had a positive side-effect in that it created a new class of entrepreneur.

Indeed you could argue that this is the greatest time for entrepreneurship because everything is joining forces to make it easier and more affordable. There is the technology, information availability – plus it’s culturally more accepted. And with more support, it’s not as difficult as it used to be. It’s the best time to be an entrepreneur and entrepreneurs are changing the world for the better.