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A brief history of entrepreneurship: From ancient merchants to the modern startup

Entrepreneurs have been around forever. So when you’ve landed on a great idea and you’re getting ready to set up your company, you’re in a long line of innovators stretching back thousands of years.

But what can we learn from the entrepreneurs of the past, and what kind of opportunities exist for entrepreneurs of the present? Let’s take a whistle stop tour through entrepreneur history – from the hunter/gatherers through the four industrial revolutions – and see what we can take away for today’s entrepreneur.

Let’s jump in.

1. Earliest entrepreneurs
Even 20,000 years ago, tribes were exchanging goods. Evidence exists of basic trading of volcanic rock which could be used to create hunting weapons being exchanged for other goods. In its simplest form, this is about finding something which someone else wants. Not so different to today’s entrepreneur who is trying to find and solve a customer problem that has not yet been addressed.

If you have something that people need, you can exchange it – in the modern case, for money.

In the centuries that followed these earliest entrepreneurs, we start to see trade routes open up around the world and the invention of money allowing the entrepreneur to increase their potential market – no longer relying on a bartering system.

Quick take-aways
But it all starts with a great idea and then finding those customers who want what you’re selling.

2. The first industrial revolution – basic factories
So what can we learn from the first industrial revolution which began in the mid-18th century, when societies moved from basic agriculture to the early factories?

It’s all about invention. What can you come up with that makes an existing process more efficient? How can you make things work better? Or can you invent a new process entirely?

Without this kind of thinking the first industrial revolution would have been impossible. Look at Edmund Cartwright who was behind the power loom – a piece of equipment which made a huge difference in the efficiency of textile production. Then there is Sir Humphrey Davy who created a lamp that was used by miners which greatly increased safety by helping to detect dangerous gasses. And we can’t forget George Stephenson who was behind the idea of the steam engine which would help usher in the new era of railway transport.

Quick take-aways
The examples could go on forever. But what can we take away from this? In all cases, the inventions made something quicker, faster, more efficient. Ask yourself: Does your idea do that?

3. The second and third industrial revolutions – mass production and computing
Now we’re moving into mass production as the second industrial revolution takes hold. (We’ll talk about the third in a moment, which introduced a level of computing and automation into the process.)

The second industrial revolution kicked off in the middle of the 19th century, and here we see the start of mass production not just in manufacturing but also consumer goods. It’s during this period that Ford built 15 million of their legendary Model T cars. The age of the automobile was among us.

But if we skip forward a few decades, to the 1950s, then we land at the beginning of mainframe computing. It’s in this decade that both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were born, and as they reached late teenage in the 1970s their impact on the world was starting to gain momentum. Part of this third industrial revolution was moving from mainframe to personal computing, and clearly these two entrepreneurs had a huge part to play in that change, putting computers in both homes and schools.

Quick take-aways
What can the entrepreneur learn? Well, while both Gates and Jobs were essentially trying to do the same thing – create products that enabled affordable home computing, they went about it in a very different ways. As their careers move forward, Jobs in particular showed an incredible ability to pivot and try to create products quite far from his initial area of expertise.

The entrepreneur of today may sometimes feel a market is already taken. It probably felt to many that Bill Gates and the mammoth Microsoft had things covered. But it was Jobs who came at the same problem from a new angle, who emphasised a different set of customer values in his attempt to solve the same problems, and carved out not just a niche, but a revolution of his own.

4. Today: The fourth industrial revolution – IoT and cyber-physical systems
So where are we today? The fourth industrial revolution is where we find humans in working environments with robots, and where factories and warehouses form entire networks. It’s a place where the Internet of Things (IoT) takes mass production to new levels, allowing machines to predict when they will need maintenance and diagnose their own problems.

It’s this big data approach which produces insights that humans can then use to produce greater optimisation.

Quick take-aways
The opportunities here for the entrepreneur are almost endless. From artificial intelligence (AI) to virtual and augmented reality, to cloud services, to 3D printing – these may be tools you use in your own company or they may become part of your offering.

But more than that, it’s an era that is wide open. And it’s highly likely that some of the most exciting ideas (and perhaps entire sectors) have yet to be invented.

Your entrepreneur journey starts now
But whatever areas that today’s entrepreneurs venture into, their goal won’t be so different to those early tribes bartering with volcanic rock, to Henry Ford making his first cars, or Bill Gates creating an operating system that would revolutionise personal computing.

It’s about solving a customer problem, or like Steve Jobs, offering them something they didn’t even know they wanted.

The fourth industrial revolution has yet to be fully written, it’s over to you to fill in the pages with your ideas.


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