I’ve always enjoyed working for myself. In fourth grade, I mowed lawns. In high school, I expanded into window washing. Later on, I started a janitorial company and an outdoor advertising company. Eventually, I raised money from venture capitalists and started a business to sell marketing supplies online. Supposedly, all of that was a single kind of activity called “being an entrepreneur.”
“Entrepreneur” however, is a stretched out word. It may have been a perfectly good word at one time, but it isn’t very useful any more. A fellow who owns a McDonald’s restaurant is called an entrepreneur, and so is Mark Zuckerberg who started Facebook. The word has come to mean something like a “businessperson” who takes “risks” to make money.
I am not sure how much risk is involved in opening a McDonald’s or dropping out of Harvard — maybe because I’ve never done either. But launching Facebook seems fundamentally different than opening the 14,000th McDonald’s. We need more nuanced definitions to describe these varied activities so that we can see the differences.
Originality, not risk
There is certainly risk in starting any new business, just as there is risk in investing in any business, no matter how large or well-established. But the essence of entrepreneurship in its most exhilarating and important sense has to do with originality, not risk. There is greater value in the discovery of new things than in the refinement of the known. That is why cooks and bakers proudly guard their newest recipes, while the best of the tried and true are free online.
Oftentimes, when we’re speaking admiringly of successful entrepreneurs, what we’re really talking about are what I’d call imagineurs (thanks, Walt Disney, for the inspiration). Imagineurs bring to the table not just a desire to build, but a desire to create — whether their creation is a new gadget, a new idea or a new business model.
This act of invention is what differentiates starting up Facebook from starting up a new McDonald’s. Both require the riskiness of basic entrepreneurship, but only one requires doing something no one else has done before.
New life into an old field
To see the potentially tremendous value in thinking up something completely new, consider a field that’s incredibly old: music. People have always wanted to be able to listen to the music of their choice at the time and in the place of their choosing.
Over the past 150 years, our ability to do so has changed and improved dramatically. Each great leap forward depended on imagineurs, be it Thomas Edison and his phonograph, or Nobutoshi Kihara and his Walkman, or Steve Jobs and his iPod and iTunes store. Each imagineur’s efforts enhanced our ability to listen to the music we love.
Imagineurs don’t have to be technological wizards or tinkerers in the lab. Walter L. Jacobs started America’s first rental car business with 12 Model T Fords; today that company is called Hertz.
Reed Hastings upended the video rental business by sending discs through the mail on a monthly subscription basis and started Netflix.
Imagineurs are architects, designers, creators and seers of the unseen. Through curiosity, ingenuity and discovery they contribute a founding insight without which, neither they nor any other business builder can proceed successfully for very long. They find a way to give customers what they’ve always wanted, but better, faster or cheaper than before.
Just as every great inventor had a mother, every great invention began with an imagineur.
Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. Reach him at [email protected]