Breughel

There’s a narrative in the tech industry of the entrepreneur as a hero that has always made me a bit uncomfortable. As an entrepreneur myself, I certainly respect the risks that entrepreneurs take, but the grandiose self talk is a little out of control.

Recently, it occurred to me that not only is entrepreneurship not a sign of exceptionalism, but it’s actually our natural way of working.

Until very recently, at least as measured against the span of human existence, almost everyone was an entrepreneur. From weavers to blacksmiths to farmers, everybody who had the option to do so worked for themselves and they were rewarded based on the results they produced. If a weaver couldn’t make quality cloth or a farmer didn’t have a good crop, they starved. With relatively few exceptions, only the oppressed, indentured servants and slaves, spent their lives “employed” by other people. Feudal peasants paid a tax to the landlord, but they weren’t his employees. And the early forms of employment were largely structured as apprenticeships where the learner would eventually strike out on his own or take over the master’s business. If you had the blessings of liberty, it was almost guaranteed that you sought to build an independent life based on your own skills and effort.

In terms of risk, these people faced perils that we can’t begin to fathom. There was no failing fast. For that matter, failure was not an option at all, unless you were prepared to beg for food. Their very existence was a gamble against forces completely beyond their control. People were at the mercy of the weather and had to fend off illness with questionable medicine. The threat of invasion was real and the possibility of war meant being conscripted into battle. Even in times of peace there were few laws and even less enforcement. For thousands of years, people survived in a world of constant risk that a self proclaimed Internet startup pirate world-changer can’t even imagine. And still, they worked for themselves.

The concept of employment as we know it today really didn’t exist until the industrial revolution. When the means of production became too complex and costly for an individual or a family to afford, the factory, and along with it the job, was born. It was only when factories and large organizations displaced independent producers that working for someone else became the expected norm. The industrial revolution didn’t just change the way people lived and worked, but it changed what people thought was the preferred way of earning a living. In a fairly short period of time, working a job and climbing the corporate ladder became perceived as the pathway to success and entrepreneurship became something slightly outside of the norm.

A large part of the current wave of entrepreneurship is the result of structural changes in our economy. As the United States moves away from industrialization, employment is shifting from factories and large capital intensive industries toward a more fluid labor environment. New technology has made it possible for independent producers and smaller organizations to compete in industries that until recently required significant investment.

Consider the manpower and capital requirements once required to run a newspaper or even a high quality print shop. Today, an online “newspaper” can be run by almost anyone and a single person can print higher quality materials and graphics from their desktop than an industrial shop could a few years ago. The decoupling of production from large capital requirements is reversing the trends of the industrial economy in which only corporations and factory owners could afford the means. In the process, we’re seeing the rise of a new age of self employment and the return of entrepreneurship as a normal way of working.

In light of history and economic trends, the entrepreneur as a hero narrative really doesn’t hold up. Since the dawn of time almost everyone was an entrepreneur and they did it under much more tenuous circumstances than anything we face today. It’s human nature to be self-directed and choose the path and manner in which we earn a living. We’re just doing what people have always done for thousands of years.

[Image Credit: WikiSpaces]