FOR all its current economic woes, America remains a beacon of entrepreneurialism. Between 1996 and 2004 it created an average of 550,000 small businesses every month. Many of those small businesses rapidly grow big. The world’s largest company, Wal-Mart, was founded in 1962 and did not go public until a decade later; multi-million dollar companies such as Google and Facebook barely existed a decade ago.
America was the first country, in the late 1970s, to ditch managerial capitalism for the entrepreneurial variety. After the second world war J.K. Galbraith was still convinced that the modern corporation had replaced “the entrepreneur as the directing force of the enterprise with management”. Big business and big labour worked with big government to deliver predictable economic growth. But as that growth turned into stagflation, an army of innovators, particularly in the computer and finance industries, exposed the shortcomings of the old industrial corporation and launched a wave of entrepreneurship.
America has found the transition to a more entrepreneurial economy easier than its competitors because entrepreneurialism is so deeply rooted in its history. It was founded and then settled by innovators and risk-takers who were willing to sacrifice old certainties for new opportunities. American schoolchildren are raised on stories about inventors such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison. Entrepreneurs such as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford are celebrated in monuments all over the place. One of the country’s most popular television programmes, currently being recycled as a film, features the USS Enterprise boldly going where no man had gone before.
If anything, America’s infatuation with entrepreneurialism has deepened further of late. People like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have all the upsides of Carnegie and Ford without the downsides—the useful products and the open-handed philanthropy without the sweatshops and the massacres. Preachers style themselves as pastorpreneurs. Business books sell in their millions. “When I was in college, guys usually pretended they were in a band,” comments one observer. “Now they pretend they are in a start-up.”
American companies have an unusual freedom to hire and fire workers, and American citizens have an unusual belief that, for all their recent travails, their fate still lies in their own hands. They are comfortable with the risk-taking that is at the heart of entrepreneurialism. The rewards for success can be huge—Google’s Mr Brin was a billionaire by the time he was 30—and the punishments for failure are often trivial. In some countries bankruptcy spells social death. In America, particularly in Silicon Valley, it is a badge of honour.
America also has several structural advantages when it comes to entrepreneurship. The first is the world’s most mature venture-capital industry. America’s first venture fund, the American Research and Development Corporation, was founded in 1946; today the industry has an unrivalled mixture of resources, expertise and customers. Highland Capital Partners receives about 10,000 plausible business plans a year, conducts about 1,000 meetings followed by 400 company visits and ends up making 10-20 investments a year, all of which are guaranteed to receive an enormous amount of time and expertise. IHS Global Insight, a consultancy, calculates that in 2005 companies that were once backed by venture capitalists accounted for nearly 17% of America’s GDP and 9% of private-sector employment.
The second advantage is a tradition of close relations between universities and industry. America’s universities are economic engines rather than ivory towers, with proliferating science parks, technology offices, business incubators and venture funds. Stanford University gained around $200m in stock when Google went public. It is so keen on promoting entrepreneurship that it has created a monopoly-like game to teach its professors how to become entrepreneurs. About half of the start-ups in the Valley have their roots in the university.
The third advantage is an immigration policy that, historically, has been fairly open. Vivek Wadhwa, of Duke University, notes that 52% of Silicon Valley start-ups were founded by immigrants, up from around a quarter ten years ago. In all, a quarter of America’s science and technology start-ups, generating $52 billion and employing 450,000 people, have had somebody born abroad as either their CEO or their chief technology officer. In 2006 foreign nationals were named as inventors or co-inventors in a quarter of American patent applications, up from 7.6% in 1998.
Amar Bhidé, of Columbia University, suggests a fourth reason for America’s entrepreneurial success—“venturesome consumers”. Americans are unusually willing to try new products of all sorts, even if it means teaching themselves new skills and eating into their savings; they are also unusually willing to pester manufacturers to improve their products. Apple sold half a million iPhones in its first weekend.
America faces numerous threats to this remarkable entrepreneurial ecology. The legal system can be burdensome, even destructive. One of the biggest new problems comes from “patent trolls”—lawyers who bring cases against companies for violating this or that trumped-up patent. Because the tax system is so complicated, many companies have to devote a lot of time and ingenuity to filling out tax forms that could be better spent on doing business. And the combination of the terrorist attacks on America on September 11th 2001 and rising xenophobia is making the country less open to immigrants.
Today more than 1m people are waiting in line to be granted legal status as permanent residents. Yet only 85,000 visas a year are allocated to the sort of skilled workers the economy needs, and there are caps of 10,000 on the number of visas available for applicants from any one country, so the wait for people from countries with the largest populations, such as India and China, is close to six years.
Illustration by Nick Dewar
Yet despite these problems, America plays a vital role in spreading the culture of entrepreneurialism around the world. People the world over admire its ability to produce world-changing entrepreneurs, such as Bill Gates, wealth-creating universities, such as Harvard and Stanford, and world-beating clusters, such as Silicon Valley. Simon Cook, of DFJ Esprit, a venture-capital company, argues that Silicon Valley’s most successful export is not Google or Apple but the idea of Silicon Valley itself.
Foreigners who were educated in America’s great universities have helped to spread the gospel of entrepreneurialism. Two of Europe’s leading evangelists, Sir Ronald Cohen and Bert Twaalfhoven, were both products of HBS. Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs, who cut their teeth in Stanford and Silicon Valley, are now returning home in ever larger numbers, determined to recreate Silicon Valley’s magic in Bangalore or Shanghai.
America is putting hard financial muscle behind this soft power. The Kauffman Foundation spends about $90m a year, from assets of about $2.1 billion, to make the case for entrepreneurialism, supporting academic research, training would-be entrepreneurs and sponsoring “Global Entrepreneurship Week”, which last year involved 75 countries. Goldman Sachs is spending $100m over the next five years to promote entrepreneurialism among women in the developing world, particularly through management education.
The other two of the world’s three biggest developed economies—the EU and Japan—are far less entrepreneurial. The number of innovative entrepreneurs in Germany, for instance, is less than half that in America, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), a joint venture between the London Business School and Babson College. And far fewer start-ups in those countries become big businesses. Janez Potocnik, the EU commissioner for science and research, points out that only 5% of European companies created from scratch since 1980 have made it into the list of the 1,000 biggest EU companies by market capitalisation. The equivalent figure for America is 22%.
This reflects different cultural attitudes. Europeans have less to gain from taking business risks, thanks to higher tax rates, and more to lose, thanks to more punitive attitudes to bankruptcy (German law, for example, prevents anyone who has ever been bankrupt from becoming a CEO). When Denis Payre was thinking about leaving a safe job in Oracle to start a company in the late 1980s, his French friends gave him ten reasons to stay put whereas his American friends gave him ten reasons to get on his bike. In January last year Mr Payre’s start-up, Business Objects, was sold to Germany’s SAP for €4.8 billion.
European egalitarianism, too, militates against entrepreneurialism: the EU is much more interested in promoting small businesses in general than in fostering high-growth companies. The Europeans’ appetite for time off does not help. Workers are guaranteed a minimum of four weeks’ holidays a year whereas Americans’ vacations are much less certain. Europeans are also much more suspicious of business. According to a Eurobarometer poll, 42% of them think that entrepreneurs exploit other people’s work, compared with 26% of Americans.
These cultural problems are reinforced by structural ones. The European market remains much more fragmented than the American one: entrepreneurs have to grapple with a patchwork of legal codes and an expensive and time-consuming patent system. In many countries the tax system and the labour laws discourage companies from growing above a certain size. A depressing number of European universities remain suspicious of industry, subsisting on declining state subsidies but still unwilling to embrace the private sector.
The European venture-capital industry, too, is less developed than the American one (significantly, in many countries it is called “risk” capital rather than “venture” capital). In 2005, for example, European venture capitalists invested €12.7 billion in Europe whereas American venture capitalists invested €17.4 billion in America. America has at least 50 times as many “angel” investors as Europe, thanks to the taxman’s greater forbearance.
Yet for all its structural and cultural problems, Europe has started to change, not least because America’s venture capitalists have recently started to export their model. In the 1990s Silicon Valley’s moneybags believed that they should invest “no further than 20 miles from their offices”, but lately the Valley’s finest have been establishing offices in Asia and Europe. This is partly because they recognise that technological breakthroughs are being made in many more places, but partly also because they believe that applying American methods to new economies can start a torrent of entrepreneurial creativity.
Between 2003 and 2006 European venture-capital investment grew by an average of 23% a year, compared with just 0.3% a year in America. Indeed, three European countries, Denmark, Sweden and Britain, have bigger venture-capital industries, in relation to the size of their economies, than America. Venture-capital-backed start-ups have produced more than 100 “exits” (stockmarket flotations or sales to established companies) worth more than $100m since 2004. Tele Atlas, a Dutch mapping outfit, was recently bought by TomTom for $4.3 billion.
The success of Skype, which pioneered internet-based telephone calls, was a striking example of the new European entrepreneurialism. The company was started by a Swede and a Dane who contracted out much of their work to computer programmers in Estonia. In 2005 they sold it to eBay for $2.6 billion.
Several European universities have become high-tech hubs. Britain’s Cambridge, for example, has spawned more than 3,000 companies and created more than 200 millionaires in the university. The accession of ten eastern European countries to the EU has also tapped into an internal European supply of scientists and technologists who are willing to work for a small fraction of the cost of their pampered western neighbours.
The Japanese can hardly be accused of aversion to long hours. Big Japanese companies have an impressive record of incremental improvement, particularly in the electronics business. But for the most part the Japanese have been less successful than the Europeans at adapting to entrepreneurial capitalism. The latest GEM global report gives Japan the lowest score for entrepreneurship of any big country, placing it joint bottom with Greece. The brightest people want to work for large companies, with which the big banks work hand in glove, or for the government. Risk capital is rare. Bankruptcy is severely punished. And the small-business sector is wrapped in cotton wool, encouraging “replicative” rather than “innovative” behaviour. Over the past quarter-century the rate at which Japan has been creating new businesses has been only one-third to half that in America.
This article appeared in the Special report section of the print edition under the headline “The United States of Entrepreneurs”