By Daniel Isenberg
Would you allocate more of society’s resources to giving birth to more babies or to raising children well? Now, think about enterprise creation and the challenge of economic growth. Societies’ leaders need to rebalance entrepreneurship policy towards scale, not start.
In recent years, we have been witnessing a significant global shift in attitudes towards entrepreneurship in countries around the globe. This is reflected in the dramatic proliferation of start-up programs: Start-up America, Start-up Chile, Start-up Russia, Start-up Britain, Start-up Weekend, and dozens of others. “Start-up” has replaced “Silicon” as the reigning entrepreneurship buzzword: There is hardly a country or city that is lacking a start-up program.
Unfortunately, this is being guided almost exclusively by a narrow conception of entrepreneurship as consisting primarily in the starting-up of an enterprise. Equating entrepreneurship with start-up is not wrong; it is just very incomplete. It is also problematic because of two flawed implied messages: The first is that the most difficult and important task of the entrepreneur is launching his or her venture. The second is a notion we might call “the more the merrier” — i.e., the more start-ups, the more successful the program. Quantity of start implicitly trumps quality of scale.
Both of these messages are doubtful. If we look at entrepreneurship in terms of extraordinary value creation and capture, which I do, then it is clear that value can be created and captured in a large variety of ways, and there is no a priori reason to think doing this from scratch via a start-up is the only or even the best way. Extraordinary value creation may involve acquiring, re-purposing, spinning off, or recombining underutilized or undervalued assets, or what my Stanford colleague George Foster calls “re-starts.” The Kaspersky’s, for example, founded their leading anti-virus company by spinning it out from a struggling Russian institute they worked for. Over the past decade or so, search funds have become an effective vehicle for acquiring undervalued companies to infuse with capital, management and growth. Family businesses, large corporations, R&D centers and universities — any of these can be essential in creating or freeing up assets rich with untapped potential. And yet:
Extraordinary value creation cannot occur without growth, and entrepreneurial growth post start-up has numerous challenges which can be an order of magnitude more difficult than simply starting a venture. Growth entails developing a powerful sales and marketing machine, building an organization by hiring and managing diverse groups of people, and knowing how to acquire strategic inputs such as the right kinds of capital and suppliers. Growth requires amazing amounts of energy and dedication, not to mention smarts. Forward-looking policy, as well as culture and the private sector, must support all these skills and resources more than it does at present.
Indeed, when I dig into examples of start-up programs, ranging from Scandinavia to the Middle East to both North and South America, scale-up is the far bigger challenge: After two years and $12 million, Start-up Chile’s largest resident start-up employs three people, according to Horacio Melo, the CEO. A comprehensive set of start-up programs and policy reforms in Denmark in the early 2000s led to a dramatic increase in the numbers of ventures formed, but when analyzed five years later, the vast majority had plateaued at a few employees, and fewer than 1% met the fairly modest criteria set to be considered “growth” ventures.
Chile and Denmark’s policies are not “wrong” (in fact, in Denmark this finding has provided policy makers additional impetus to strengthen efforts to crack the code of scale). The lesson is: scale-up is so much harder than start-up entrepreneurs (and policy leaders) realize. As one of my successful entrepreneur friends warns, “This is tough bloody s[***].” We need to turn the focus on growth-after-start: growth will not somehow take care of itself. To return to the imperfect analogy of my lede above, anyone who has been a parent knows that the long and complicated job of growing a healthy, educated and moral child is vastly more challenging than giving birth. I vividly remember how our first birthing class spent hours on breathing and epidurals, yet I had no clue about how to change a diaper or deal with a rash let alone be a father of teenagers! And societal resources required to formally and informally prepare parents for and support them in parenthood are immeasurably greater than for the birth process itself.
So it is just now dawning on many in business and government that when these start-up programs are successful in stimulating venture birth rather than venture scale, the tremendous challenges of growth may paradoxically become worse, not better, and can leave many stagnant or overvalued ventures that may have little real prospect of growth.
We can refocus policy on scale-up in a number of ways. One is structural: stop treating venture survival as an indicator of policy success and start looking at those that grow. It is also necessary for policy to facilitate extremely high levels of venture death and recycling in order to avoid a plethora of valueless start-ups. Focus much more attention on enriching the local labor pool, an essential aspect of an effective ecosystem. Entrepreneurs I meet with from Boston to Bangalore to Barcelona who have succeeded in obtaining market traction almost universally complain about the paucity of appropriately skilled people and managers to hire. Entrepreneurial ventures can never grow without talent, and the two basic types of talent needed — new employers and new employees — must evolve together.
Furthermore (and here is where the parenting analogy breaks down), experience and the existing data suggest that a very small number of high-growth ventures may be sufficient to generate almost all of the social and economic benefits of entrepreneurship. One venture which grows to 100 people in five years is probably more beneficial (to entrepreneurs, shareholders, employees, and governments alike) than 50 which stagnate at two. Endeavor has recently shown that just two or three unusually scaling ventures can have an utterly disproportionate impact on dozens of successors, and impact the entrepreneurship culture in a region.
Which is more important, giving birth or raising children? Obviously, birth is necessary, but it is greatly insufficient. In focusing entrepreneurship policy almost exclusively on start-ups we are favoring quantity of start-up at the expense of quality of scale-up.