What is the history of entrepreneurship?

Few words are as abused in the lexicon of the business world, as ill defined in the management literature, and as open to multiple meanings as entrepreneurship. The concept of entrepreneurship has been in our modern society for thousands of years and in the history of economic study the word has been overused, and in some cases underused.

Carl Voigt, dean of the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, explains, “We sort of defined entrepreneurialism too narrowly as someone who wants to start their own business. But entrepreneurialism can also mean finding new business opportunities and expansion at existing companies.”

Starting with practically nothing, an entrepreneur is one who organizes a new venture, manages it, and assumes the associated risk. The term entrepreneur is broadly defined to include business owners, innovators, and executives in need of capital to start a new project, introducing a new product, or expanding a promising line of business. We include technology transfer experts, technologists at leading universities, and consultants and advisors assisting in all aspects of venturing. An entrepreneur’s principal objectives are profit and growth, and they will employ formal strategic management practices to achieve them.

Origins of Entrepreneurial Capitalism

To better understand entrepreneurship, it is useful to look back to the early development of capitalism. Capitalism depends on harnessing private motives to produce the goods and services that the public wants as efficiently as possible.

Historian Charles Van Doren leads us to the early roots of “primitive capitalism” in his book A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future. He provides insight to the ancient Egyptians, economic life before the peasant, the introduction of the merchant, the king, the rise of the labor markets.

Defined today, capitalism is a political, social, and economic system. It is characterized by the private ownership of property—not only of land and buildings but of patents, know-how, and processes that are used by entrepreneurs to create profits for themselves.

Capitalism sharply contrasts with other economic systems, like feudalism and socialism. In capitalism, entrepreneurs are responsible for such economic decisions as what to produce, how much to produce, and what method of production to adopt.

Economist Lester Thurow writes, “Entrepreneurs . . . bring the new technologies and the new concepts into active commercial use. They are the change agents of capitalism.”

Definition of entrepreneurial capitalism: private capital, investing in private start-ups, with potential for a viable harvest

The French Connection

The concept of entrepreneur is borrowed from the French words entreprendre, “one who undertakes”—that is, a “manager.” In fact, the word entrepreneur was shaped probably from celui qui entreprend, which is loosely translated as “those who get things done.” In the early eighteenth century, a group of thinkers called the Physiocrats surfaced in France around a school of new economic theory.

They were the first proponents of laissez-faire and opposed all government intervention in industry, especially taxation. Their doctrine was that the economic affairs of society are best guided by the decisions of individuals.

One of the most famous among them was Richard Cantillon. In a paper he worked on between 1730 and 1734 and that was later published in 1775 as Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en General, he introduced the concept of entrepreneur. He developed these early theories of the entrepreneur after observing the merchants, farmers, and craftsmen of his time.

Jean-Baptiste Say, a French businessman turned economist, followed Cantillon with his Trait d’economie politique in 1803. His work commented on the theory of markets and how the entrepreneur is involved in this transaction of goods for money.

Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand and Pin Production

The economic system based on the capitalism concept was completed by the Scottish economist Adam Smith. Leveraging the work performed earlier by the Physiocrats, and in particular Francois Quesnay, Smith completed his famous book, The Wealth of Nations, in 1776 at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Some believe that his main contribution to economics is centered on free enterprise. Introducing the concepts of liberal capitalism and entrepreneurial capitalism, Smith is “known as an architect of our present system of society.”

Smith concentrated on the growing manufacturing and trade industries. In particular he studied the division of labor in the manufacturing of pins, which was beginning to incorporate new machines. His central argument in The Wealth of Nations is based on the concept of what he called the “invisible hand.”

He believed that human self-interest is the basic psychological driver behind economics, and that a natural order in the universe makes all individual, self-interested endeavors add up to the social good. He also studied the competitiveness of nations and multinational trade. His major theoretical achievement was to take the first steps toward a theory of the optimal efficient allocation of resources under conditions of free competition.

Joseph A. Schumpeter and His “Creative Destruction”

Joseph Alois Schumpeter, an Austrian-American economist, was one of the first to study entrepreneurs and the impact of entrepreneurial capitalism on society. As he wrote in The Theory of Economic Development, he believed that innovation and creativeness distinguished entrepreneurs from other businesspeople. He observed that innovation and entrepreneurship are closely interwoven. He argued that the entrepreneur was at the very center of all business activity. He observed that entrepreneurs create “clusters of innovations” that are the causes of business cycles because their actions create disruptive dislocations and arrive in huge waves. In fact, Schumpeter believed that entrepreneurs deserve the credit for the industrial revolution.

Schumpeter introduced the phrase “creative destruction,” stating that the entrepreneur does not just invent things, but also exploits in novel ways what has already been invented.

He identified five types of entrepreneurial activity:

  1. new product innovation or the introduction of a new service
  2. new process innovation or new methods of production
  3. market innovation or the opening of new markets
  4. input or resources innovation
  5. organizational innovation, which is the complete restructuring of an entire industry or the breaking up of a monopoly