What positive steps can we take? The energy that is now expended by well intentioned, freedom-seeking individuals on the destructive course of politics can be turned into powerful steps that will have a positive effect on the future. All are moral, right and just. None require aggressing. Consider the following...
The first principle in dealing with government is: Don't be awed by it. What little the government achieves is almost always due to the voluntary participation of its citizens. Those who don't want to help the government can go their own ways without running into much trouble.
“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” says a proverb often attributed to Yogi Berra. Imagine the world of freedom, or lack of it. Who could foresee the technologies that make our lives so rewarding and convenient? The same technologies have us all under the government’s giant microscope. Thankfully, the brave have turned the microscope around.
The east coast and parts of the southern U.S. were to varying degrees paralyzed by blizzards a few weeks ago. The snow as expected rendered the roads treacherous, and in anticipation of slick streets, shoppers flocked to the grocery stores in advance.The rush into grocery stores, and its aftermath, offers worthwhile lessons in economics.First up, […]
The faces of the Detroit bankruptcy are the thousands of pensioners whose promised benefits are suddenly part of the restructure negotiation. When Motown filed for Chapter 9 last July, the city had $11.5 billion in unsecured liabilities. The vast majority of this was pension and health care benefits owed to retired city employees.The images of […]
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”As the inequality gap grows, there is an ideological battle unfolding in the West.On the one hand, there are those who think government can fix things. It must do more, tax more, […]
What do 8 of the 10 wealthiest people in the U.S. have in common?Aside from being able to fly in private jets, the common thread is that each of them has made their fortune thanks to a start-up.Let me explain…From tech titans like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison (founders of Microsoft and Oracle, respectively), to […]
In December of last year, I left my career to travel the world for one year.My plan was to visit as many countries as possible on my Star Alliance Around-the-World ticket in the first nine months, then, for the remaining three months, return back to the country that most caught my eye and my curiosity.Nine […]
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”When Capt. Jean-Luc Picard wants a steaming beverage in his ready room aboard the starship Enterprise, he just utters those words. The ship’s “replicator” then assembles the necessary atoms — including those for the cup — and produces it, ready for the drinking. Picard thinks nothing of it — it’s hardly more […]
As much as I love technology, part of me hates being so dependent on a live wall plug wherever I go. You find yourself trapped in some setting without accessible wall plugs and your phone is dying. You charge from you laptop, but that is dying too. You take recourse to your tablet, but that […]
For the last 18 months, we’ve been wrestling with a conundrum: How is it that the U.S. energy industry is unlocking vast new stores of oil and gas… and the U.S. biotech industry is discovering how to turn back our biological clocks… at the same time Washington is setting new debt records and Wall Street […]
“What are you complaining about all the time?” people sometimes ask me. “I’m just about as free as I want to be.”Here’s the problem. How can we really know what we want if we’ve never had it before? The less free we are, the less we know what freedom feels like and how it shapes […]
I’ve noticed a trend with the writings of Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine and the author of a new book on 3-D printing called Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.It goes like this. He comes out with a book, and the highbrow experts say it’s crazy, that this time he has gone too far. […]
Two years ago, I spoke to a gentlemen who had started and sold four companies. He was currently working on a new project that sounded very promising (for all I know, he has already sold that one too). We had just heard a talk in which the speaker told people that the whole key to […]
A contributing factor in the rise of Internet commerce, a feature that gave it a kick-start, was that you didn’t have to pay sales tax on what you purchased out of state. Ah, the glory days of the 2000s, when you could order anything and, for once in your life, not get hammered by the […]
Why is business so often scapegoated for all the problems of society?The term scapegoat comes from the Bible and refers to the goat cast out of the community as part of a purification ritual. Perhaps when people saw that lonely goat walk away and probably into its death, it made them feel better about themselves.Weird, […]
In 1881, Dakota Territory had never sold a bushel of wheat to anybody outside of Dakota. Six years later, it sold 62 million bushels. What happened?I recently read Garet Garrett’s The American Story, which came out in 1955. It is a well-written history of America, unusual because of its emphasis on the powerful economics that […]
For young people facing terrible job prospects and a generally bad economic environment going forward, starting a business sounds very appealing. It has advantages over embedding yourself in a big institution, taking your wages in forms of benefits, and hoping (against hope) to climb the ladder.It’s never been easier to strike out on your own, […]
There’s a jewelry store in town with a long tradition, a devoted client list, and a good record of solid profitability. But during the last year, it’s moved around like the “oldest established permanently floating crap game” from the musical Guys and Dolls.It was downtown. Then it was not. It was reestablished on the other […]
Oh how everyone (of a certain class and income) makes fun of the Twinkie, the ultimate symbol of modern food decadence and phoniness. I don’t get it. Have the critics ever tried one? They are so appealing and delicious: light, spongy, sweet, and creamy, all in a tiny package.The news that the parent company Hostess […]
I was strolling along the wharf in Bodrum, Turkey, and I was intrigued to see some natural sea sponges on a table with a merchant behind the table telling me something about them in Turkish.I vaguely recall seeing an item like this when I was a kid but I long ago dismissed them as some […]
My neighborhood is filling up with political yard signs. Vote for this guy! Vote for that guy!I can’t understand why people are willing to give up precious real estate on their front lawns, make friends mad at them, and put their own credibility on the line to back some politico who will certainly betray them […]
The web is packed with some of the greatest educational material on entrepreneurship and enterprise, material that didn’t exist a decade ago and is now within the mouse-click reach of vast swaths of humanity. Are we taking advantage of it?Doug French and I set out to collect the top 15 videos on entrepreneurship — a […]
It’s fashionable to put down commercial culture, but, when you think about it, this makes no sense. Commerce is the driving force of human progress, in more ways that we often realize. Americans in the 19th century knew this and celebrated this. Our commercial culture was a source of pride and the envy of the […]
What’s great about POM Wonderful? Sure, this pomegranate juice tastes great. POM is one of the few drinks that seems to have the same scrunch-up-your-mouth effect that you get with a bold dry red wine.When I was a kid, it didn’t exist. Like everything wonderful in this world, it comes to us because of the […]
The great recession continues in so many ways but online commerce is booming as never before, increasing in the last quarter of 2011 at the fastest rates in six years.Before you know it, the retail side alone will account for $300 billion in sales per year. We click and pay, and if it’s not a […]
The organization Campaign for Safe Cosmetics doesn’t just want you to be able to have new choices about the makeup or other products you buy. It wants the FDA to be able to ban and recall products. It will decide for you what is and isn’t safe.And it is prevailing against the industry itself, which […]
For young people facing terrible job prospects and a generally bad economic environment going forward, starting a business sounds very appealing. It has advantages over embedding yourself in a big institution, taking your wages in forms of benefits, and hoping (against hope) to climb the ladder.
It’s never been easier to strike out on your own, except for one thing: Commerce is always harder than it appears. Success means overcoming challenges that seem insurmountable and that you never expected.
People write me all the time with business ideas, asking my opinion and some guidance going forward. Such guidance is almost impossible to provide. Also, giving advice is always dangerous. If the person takes it and flops, you are to blame. If they don’t take your advice, you will probably still be blamed.
And there’s another substantial reason that it is dangerous to offer entrepreneurial advice. Decision-making in commerce depends on too many variables of time and place, and it is impossible for an outsider to know them all well enough to provide consulting.
Still, I’m going to venture some broad advice that doesn’t depend on any particulars. It is this: Originality is overrated. Instead of trying something completely new, you are far better off copying someone else’s successful idea and customizing and improving it to suit the needs of a niche that you know best. Emulation is a better path to success. In fact, it is the only proven path.
This advice grows out of a lesson from the history of invention: The idea of the sole creator, the great innovator who came up with something entirely new that shattered an old paradigm, is a romantic idea, but is actually a complete myth. In the real world, innovation takes place over the course of tiny steps through the trials and errors of many people working in the field.
One reason we believe the myth is the menace of patent records. They have names attached to particular inventions and list no credits to those who came before, those who were working simultaneously on the same invention, and those who came after and improved it to make it actually serviceable and usable. These patents records are a major reason why we believe the myth of the sole creator.
The Wright Brothers myth is the favorite American story. It’s not entirely a myth that they were the first to accomplish a manned, controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight over a substantial distance. But engineers the world over had been making progress in this direction for the better part of a century.
In fact, the most famous photograph of the first Wright Brothers flight could have been taken in many countries over the previous 50 years. For this reason, the newspapers refused to even report the now famous event because it seemed like no big deal.
The innovation of the Wright Brothers was actually quite marginal: a method for steering that allowed the maintenance of aircraft equilibrium. That’s significant, and it made a huge difference, but the patent alone would seem to imply that they depended not at all on the hundreds of others who had been making advances in manned flight.
Their patent did terrible damage to innovations in American flight after, as the litigious brothers hampered American engineers in their ability to improve the airplane, while engineers and entrepreneurs in European countries made much more rapid progress over the next 10 years. That’s the secret legacy of the Wright invention: It dramatically slowed down progress in flight technology.
The myth encourages would-be entrepreneurs to think about innovation in an entirely incorrect way. Another example of Godlike innovation that I’ve always heard is the case of Albert Einstein, whose equation E=mc2 caused the entire world of physics and philosophy to be revolutionized. Until now, I’ve never really questioned it. Maybe Einstein was, indeed, the great outlier in history, a rare case in which a single individual brought about a quantum leap.
Well, an article in The European Physical Journal says otherwise. It turns out that Einstein, too, must share credit with others. Stephen Boughn of Haverford College and Tony Rothman of Princeton University say that Friedrich Hasenohrl of Vienna deserves as much credit, given that he came stunningly close to discerning the same insight. Further, it was Max von Laue of Germany who gave the theory its legs by showing the equation was true not only for electromagnetic radiation, but for all forms of energy.
The point is not to take away from Einstein’s achievement or brilliance, but simply to observe that progress in knowledge is dependent on learning from others and hardly ever (maybe never!) takes place in gigantic leaps.
It’s the same with business. The software industry grew and improved through small increments of change. It was the same with the telephone, steel, electricity, steam power, telegraphy, printing, and every other invention. The patent trail is highly deceptive, chronicling only those who raced to the government office and filled out the right paperwork. It is not a record of those who deserve credit for the progress of humankind.
Innovation is dependent on emulation. Emulation is dependent on learning. Learning is dependent on access. And this is precisely why there is great reason to be wildly optimistic about the prospects for innovation now and in the future. Despite government regulations and ever more attempts by the powers that be to freeze the world in place and even roll back progress, progress will not be stopped.
The reason is the explosive advance in online learning and the sharing of information. This has always been the precondition for social advance. The Internet has completely revolutionized our capacity to learn from each other, which I regard as the most bullish sign for the state of humanity that I can imagine.
Consider just one learning platform: coursera.org. This platform allows anyone in the course to enroll in the world’s greatest college courses for free. If you take a minute to look through what it offers, one wonders why anyone pays for college at all, unless they absolutely have to. The education is right there, which is why in its short life, the website has already enrolled 2.4 million students who have taken 214 courses from 33 universities.
The knowledge capital of civilization is taking flight as never before.
What does this have to do with starting a business? Commerce is all about serving others. The making money part comes only after the service part is in place. To do that requires absorbing and processing information from wherever you can find it, copying those who have already done this successfully, and then making a tiny improvement that puts the enterprise over the top.
Oh, one more thing: In a world of universal knowledge distribution, you can never stop improving. Your competition is always watching and copying you. This is the life of business: total dedication to making unrelenting progress in the service of the wants and needs of others.
Contrary to what you might have heard, that’s what capitalism is all about.