Searching for the invisible man: Entrepreneurs as a measured value.

From The Economist: Finally starting to measure the value of entrepreneurs.

The French, according to George Bush, have no word for them, economic theory has surprisingly little room for them, and it is a mystery why anyone would choose to be one of them. Entrepreneurs are the leading men of capitalism, the venturesome protagonists who move the plot forward. But economic theory gives them few if any lines to read.

Translated literally, entrepreneur means one who undertakes—one of life’s doers. To start a firm you need gumption, and to succeed you need an eye for a gap in the market. That in turn demands alertness, as Israel Kirzner, of New York University (NYU), has pointed out.

Most innovations are merely incremental improvements on something that already exists: a slightly better mousetrap, as Mr Baumol puts it. A rare few represent discontinuous breakthroughs, such as the incandescent lamp, alternating electric current or the jet engine. All of the above, according to Frederic Scherer, professor emeritus at Harvard, were introduced not by the regimented R&D of established corporations, but by scrappy new firms, twin-born with the invention itself. Mr Baumol ventures that most breakthroughs arise this way—the offspring of independent minds not incumbent companies. He has two explanations for this. First, radical innovation is the only kind lone entrepreneurs can do; and, second, they are the only ones who want to do it.

The first explanation seems paradoxical. Breakthroughs are, by definition, more difficult than routine innovations. Surely, they should be beyond the meagre means of the independent entrepreneur? But as Mr Baumol points out, building the Kitty Hawk was much cheaper, and less complicated, than upgrading the Boeing 737 to the 747. Genuinely new ideas are often breathtakingly simple. They grow more elaborate as improvements and modifications are laid on top of them. If you are the first to discover a tree, you get to pick the lowest-hanging fruit.

The second explanation is more intuitive. Revolution is a risky endeavour. Of 1,091 Canadian inventions surveyed in 2003 by Thomas Astebro†, of the University of Toronto, only 75 reached the market. Six of these earned returns above 1,400%, but 45 lost money. A rational manager will balk at such odds. But the entrepreneur answers to his own dreams and demons. Mr Baumol thinks a “touch of madness” is probably one of the chief qualifications for the job.

Economists have little to say about madness, of course. But they can point out its economic implications. If money isn’t everything to the independent inventor, he is likely to be cheap. Indeed, he will be the lowest-cost provider of the kind of risky, painstaking endeavour that lies behind the breakthrough inventions. Big firms could pursue the big ideas, but since they would be employing professionals not amateurs for these quixotic ventures, they would have to pay them in money, not love.

Thanks to Mr Baumol’s own painstaking efforts, economists now have a bit more room for entrepreneurs in their theories. But it remains a mystery why anyone would want to be one.

As for why anyone would want to be one, well that’s the easy part – as Fabrice Grinda says, what else could we be?


Those who build value are always rewarded, if only with 'freedom from the man'.