Why There's Never Been a Better Time to Be an Entrepreneur
Doctor, lawyer or businessman. The top three career paths of the western middle class in the twentieth century; the latter traditionally being something you fell into when life got in the way of your degree. Ah, the good ol' days, when graduates weren't broke, living with their parents, and applying for entry-level positions at fast food restaurants. Anyway, sometime between, let's say, 1989 and today, entrepreneurship became something young people could openly aspire to.
In other words, more and more graduates are now shunning the financial security and comfortable working hours of the corporate world for the start-up lifestyle. In fact, 22% of MBA graduates founded their own start-ups in 2014, up 4% on the previous year. Why, when endless runs of sleepless nights, huge risks and the constant threat of failure are our likely rewards? Are we, Generation Y - a generation supposedly characterised by narcissism (read: selfies) and a sense of entitlement - also subconsciously sadomasochistic?
Public image makeover
Probably. But, in truth, the answer is two-fold. On the one hand, entrepreneurship has recently undergone a public image makeover. Sometime during the '90s, perhaps earlier in the U.S., moving from a big company to a smaller one stopped being automatically associated with a career in terminal decline. Entrepreneurship is now a respectable career option. Smart employers - the companies that are worthy of working for - now value failed entrepreneurs more than someone who took the "easy" corporate route.
It seems entrepreneurship and its elusive bed partner, innovation, are becoming ever more valuable in a business context. Corporate entrepreneurship, a paradox if there ever was one, is now an actual thing. In fact, industry experts estimate that 30% of large companies now provide seed funds to finance "intrapreneurial" efforts. Ernst & Young runs “The Innovation Challenge” annually while PwC, another major consulting company, has the “PwC PowerPitch”. Major corporates are investing in start-ups, rather than just acquiring them. Take Microsoft’s “Bing Fund” for example, a new angel fund and incubator program for entrepreneurs in the mobile and web experience space. Even banks - those bastions of evil, cat-stroking villainy and greed we love to hate - are getting in on the act. Recent data suggests over 80% of major banks are investing in, partnering with or incubating financial technology start-ups.
More than this, entrepreneurship became cool. Today we idolise entrepreneurs as if they were gods, analysing their lifestyles and routines in the hope that we can replicate some of their genius - did you know Elon Musk eats the future for breakfast? It tastes like chicken, apparently. This tech elite are our rockstars, except instead of perms and eye make-up they wear baggy hoodies, beige slacks and flip flops. The fashion industry, that ever reliable mirror of society, quickly followed suit; Normcore has been "the next big thing" since approximately 8.00 a.m, February 26, 2014. Save your black turtleneck jumper for special occasions.
It may sound strange, but this is all linked to a wider socio-cultural trend about being subversive, disruptive and mastering your own destiny. Mark Zuckerberg dresses like a 13 year-old tourist because he can. This Silicon Valley brand of entrepreneurship aims to reject pretension for intellectual and business integrity. Generation Y acknowledges, more so than previous generations, that entrepreneurs achieve a far greater sense of accomplishment, position themselves for long-term success, and gain a much more realistic view of the world. If they start the right company, they may well make the world a better place. You never know: they might actually make some money. That's why it's now cool to be an entrepreneur.
Democratisation of technology
Next to this gradual shift in our perception of entrepreneurship, both in a business and sociocultural sense, there has been a serious democratisation and diffusion of technology over the last two decades. In practice, this effectively means everyday people are now capable of doing the work that was previously restricted to governments and Richard Branson. Entrepreneurs can bootstrap hardware companies such as Nest, which Google acquired for $3.2 billion, or Oculus, which Facebook bought for a cool $2 billion just two years after a crowdfunding campaign got it off the ground. The sensor-driven technologies at the heart of both these start-ups' products, self-learning thermostats and virtual reality headsets, would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars thirty years ago, yet are available for practically nothing today.
This is leading to all kinds of scenarios barely conceivable in times gone by. Entrepreneurs on shoestring budgets are building smartphone apps acting as medical assistants to detect disease; body sensors able to monitor heart and brain activity; and technologies to measure soil humidity and improve agriculture. People, actual human beings you might see buying whole milk one day, semi-skimmed the next, are designing organisms that cure disease, digital tutors that teach almost any subject, and artificial-intelligence-based apps that analyse information and improve business processes independently. Elon Musk will, one day, single-handedly fly everyone to the moon and back. I swear.
Starting a company used to require an endless list of equipment that cost millions of dollars, including desktop computers, server farms, racks of hard disks, and enterprise software - all of which required constant maintenance. Today, cheap, on-demand computing and cloud storage are like two gigantic entrepreneurial teats, nursing the world's start-ups in their earliest stages. The laptop I'm typing this on, hundreds of times more powerful than the Cray supercomputers of yesteryear, costs a few hundred dollars.
Increasingly rapid internet connections have put us a few clicks away from all the knowledge generated by mankind over thousands of years of civilisation. Add to that a friend's sofa, some leftover pizza and a barely disguisable superiority complex and you've got yourself an entrepreneur, capable of changing the world from behind a screen. The meteoric rise of the sharing economy in recent years is making things even easier for those with entrepreneurial inclinations. They can crowdsource ideas, crowd-create products, crowdfund their ventures and market globally. They can collaborate with people anywhere in the world.
I, like many graduates, assumed the perfect career opportunity would fall gracefully into my lap as I added the final, less-than-reliable academic reference to my thesis that nobody will ever read. Even if that opportunity does exist, I wouldn't have recognised it. The key is to do something, ideally in a field you are interested in, and start to learn. The best part is, today's graduates can try their hands at entrepreneurship and join a big company a year or two later if things don't work out.
I didn't plan on joining a start-up after I graduated. To be perfectly honest, I woke up one morning and found myself here. Literally. Do I feel entrepreneurial? No, but sometimes I wear a turtleneck jumper to work.