Entrepreneurship Is Our Highest And Most Productive Technology.

Technology is a means to a better life. Few would dispute the case today. Whether you think of food production or air conditioning or medical services or smartphones and computers and software, our living and working conditions are better as a result of technology. We would not want to back to pre-technology days, and most of us would not want to go back to the earlier technology days of, say, the 1700’s. There was technology back then, but it couldn’t be as useful to us as it is today.

W. Brian Arthur has written a useful book called The Nature Of Technology: What It Is And How It Evolves. At the outset, he asks the question: what is technology? How do we define it? He proposes three separate but related definitions:

  1. Technology is a means to fulfill a human purpose, a means to an end as economists phrase it. The means might be a diesel engine to power your car to get to work, or a roller bearing to reduce friction in the work of a machine. Technology is always a means to carry out a human purpose.
  2. Technology is an assembly of parts and practices. Bio-technology, for example, combines many toolboxes of individual technologies and practices such as laboratory research and injections into the human body.
  3. And technology can mean an entire collection of devices and practices available to us as a culture or a society.

Arthur illustrates the three meanings with reference to a F-35 carrier-based fighter aircraft. It’s a means to the end of displaying power and making war. The aircraft itself is an assembly of parts and practices: a jet engine, wings, avionics. Each of these is an assembly of sub-assemblies: the jet engine has an air inlet system, a compressor system, a combustion system, a turbine system, and so on. Each of these sub-assemblies has components. And they all use the practice of engineering. 

And the F-35 is part of a larger collection of devices that constitute the carrier battle group, the Navy, the armed services, and the military-industrial complex.

Then Arthur adds another element to his definition of technology. In all its forms, technology harnesses phenomena. Oil refining harnesses the phenomenon that components of vaporized crude oil condense at different temperatures. A hammer harnesses the phenomenon of transmission of momentum from a moving object to a stationary one. A humble radio receiver harnesses phenomena including induction, electron attraction and repulsion, voltage drop across resistance, frequency resonance and more. Arthur’s point is that phenomena are the indispensable source from which all technologies arise.

What this excellent author and his penetrating analytical description of technology in society misses, it seems to me, is the most productive and beneficial technology of all: entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship is technology in every one of Arthur’s definitions. It is, first, a means to fulfill a human purpose. That purpose is a better life – to bring into being a better set of circumstances, a preferable set of conditions, than exist today. Entrepreneurs pursue this end for others now, in order to achieve it (later) for themselves. 

Entrepreneurship is also assembly. In fact, economists use that very word to portray the act of entrepreneurship: assembling resources, capital, processes and people, and organizing them in teams and firms and corporations in order to achieve their human purpose. Entrepreneurship brings about lasting institutions to transmit the achievements of assembly across generations and across geographies.

And entrepreneurship is a collection of actions and practices for the benefit of society and the strengthening of culture. We study entrepreneurial history to understand how the actions of individual entrepreneurs, embracing risk and defying uncertainty, have led to civilizational advance, scientific understanding and commercial discovery. Entrepreneurship drives social evolution and technological evolution. Entrepreneurs experiment and try new approaches and build new devices so that we can all benefit from the learning that comes from both success and failure. The entrepreneurs bear the brunt of the failures and the rest of society benefits from the successes.

And what are the phenomena harnessed by entrepreneurship? The first is the most fundamental of all: the phenomenon of human action: that humans act, take decisions and make choices in order to improve their subjectively-perceived conditions of life, to make things better. And there is a special second phenomenon that is particularly harnessed by entrepreneurs, that of anticipative understanding (as Ludwig von Mises termed it): the reasoned, sensible, intuitive anticipation of that future better life, based on their tacit knowledge, their subjective understanding, their empathy and their experience. Successful entrepreneurs harness this phenomenon better than other people, though it may be available to all.

It is not the technology of the F-35 or the computer or the smartphone or of biotech that makes life better, or that advances civilization. Those are secondary outcomes of the complex human system powered by entrepreneurship. The conditions of life can be continuously improved and our human state can be continuously elevated because we have entrepreneurs who can harness the phenomenon of human action aimed at betterment. Entrepreneurship is the meta-technology, making all sub-assemblies and components possible, continually driving advances in other technologies, society, the economy and civilization.

116: Alan Payne on a Fascinating History of Competing Business Models

We can gain useful insights by winding business models back in time to see how they emerged and evolved. In the case of competing business models, we can analyze the different outcomes and perhaps assign some cause and effect analysis to interpret why one model variant performed better than another. How do we do that? Through the technique of entrepreneurial business history.

Alan Payne conducts just such a historical business model re-enactment in his excellent book, Built To Fail: The Inside Story of Blockbuster’s Inevitable Bust. It’s the dynamic story of two competing business models in one industry, a comparison of outcomes, and the resulting emergence of a new, third model.

Download The Episode Resource Consumer Value vs. Shareholder Value Models – Download

Key Takeaways & Actionable Insights

Business models are discovered by experimenting entrepreneurs.

The video cassette recorder (VCR) and playback device was a technological emergence in the 1970s. Movie studios saw the opportunity for new sales but worried about diverting revenues from the theater channel and therefore priced movies-on-cassette quite high from a consumer perspective (about $65). The experience of viewing movies at home was valuable to consumers but the exchange value was not aligned with the price. A few enterprising entrepreneurs discovered the rental option (don’t buy the cassette, rent it, and return it). The unit rental price emerged at around $3. The video rental business was born. Individual rental stores were profitable and some of the entrepreneurs started to open multiple stores and build small chains.

Capital-advantaged shareholder value-focused owners recognize emergent business models that are scalable.

Alan Payne’s story of business model evolution in the video rental industry describes a great leap in industry growth led by another kind of entrepreneur. Wayne Huizenga was an entrepreneur experienced in a certain kind of growth model. He had built Waste Management, a Fortune 500 company, from a one truck garbage collection route, largely through acquisition and subsequent expansion of local operators. He knew how to finance and run high growth expansion of a templated operating system. He bought Blockbuster for $18.5 million and sold it nine years later for $8.4 billion. That’s a huge amount of shareholder value generation.

Under Huizenga, the consumer value experience did not get better. It was frozen. We know that consumer experience is dynamic, not static; Huizenga’s Blockbuster let more and more consumers into a static experience (through geographical expansion) but was not generating new value for those or any other consumers.

More consumer-oriented businesses evolve more responsive business models.

In Alan’s story, HEB Grocery was a different kind of entrepreneurial business that approached consumer value in a different way. Alan describes the company as “obsessed with being the best” at meeting the ever-changing preferences of food shoppers. An effective grocery retailer must be highly responsive to changing consumer needs and adept at providing selection and value at low cost, with operational excellence in inventory management and customer service.

HEB decided they could offer video rental service in-store and brought their grocery operations skills to bear on designing a consumer-preferred experience. They tested different value propositions – Alan called their stores laboratories for the video rental experience – and let the consumer decide which were the best. They experimented with inventory (number of movies available), the in-store selection of new releases versus classics, different pricing schemes for different movies, different return dates for different products, and offering snacks alongside movies, among other variations. The result was a differently-tuned business model, one that built a more satisfied and loyal user base and generated more revenue and more profit per store than Blockbuster.

Business models are tools for economic exploration and advancement, so long as there is managerial and organizational flexibility to learn and improve.

When Alan Payne went to work for Blockbuster as an executive to run a panel of franchised stores, he transferred the learnings from the HEB video rental business model. He demonstrated that the model could be applied successfully in this new environment, achieving similar levels of growth, profitability and consumer satisfaction and loyalty in his panel of stores.

The issue for Blockbuster was not business model transferability, but the managerial, organizational and decision-making environment into which it was transferred. Blockbuster was a top-down hierarchy in which knowledge flowed one way — from the top of the hierarchy to the stores in the form of commands. When there was learning at the store level about new and better ways to organize, to manage, to operate, to please consumers and to make profit, it was impossible to transmit it upwards and share it. Blockbuster lost money and entered bankruptcy even while a significant number of stores in Alan’s franchised panel were operating profitably and were growing.

Alan eventually raised the money to buy the franchised stores from Blockbuster and operate them independently, which he did successfully and profitably for over 20 years. Blockbuster never was able to learn any of his techniques, nor modify its business model to the more successful version that was in plain sight.

Sometimes, an outsider from the industry comes along to seize the opportunity of the next business model evolution.

Alan makes it clear that technological change did not kill Blockbuster or the video rental model. When DVDs were introduced to (eventually) replace video cassettes, Alan’s franchised stores thrived by offering both side-by-side and thus appealing to two sets of consumers in one store.

Netflix was able to anticipate a future in which the digital data stored on DVDs became streaming data downloaded at home by consumers. This was not so much an act of prescience as one of exploration. The next new video-at-home experience began to emerge and Netflix captured much of the consumer value.

There is more value to be captured today because the consumer finds new experiential benefits in streaming, and the accompanying data analytics deliver insights that a consumer-centric firm like Netflix can utilize to further improve the experience. The same opportunity would have been available to Blockbuster, but their lack of business model agility and their failure to build learning channels from the consumer back to the corporation meant that they could not take it.

Additional Resources

Built To Fail: The Inside Story of Blockbuster’s Inevitable BustBuy it on Amazon

“Consumer Value vs. Shareholder Value Models” (PDF): Download PDF

For A New Entrepreneurial Organization Of Our Economy.

Biologists tell us that life is not the result of the carbon-based matter of which we are composed but of the organization of that matter. For example, none of the atoms or molecules or neurons in our brains are conscious, but the ways they are connected and organized results in consciousness as an emergent property.

Biological systems and economic systems have many shared characteristics, and the influence of organization on system outcomes is one of them.

The organization of firms in our system of economic production may be becoming dysfunctional. Instead of a network of highly productive entrepreneurial innovators driving betterment and economic growth, some sectors of the economy are witnessing  new forms of more concentrated organization in which dominant large corporations command outsize shares of transactions, revenues and profits.

Why is this a problem? We can identify at least two consequences of this trend. One is the emergence of what Ludwig von Mises called in Human Action “a salaried managerial oligarchy”. Such an organization is the opposite of what drives innovation and growth.  What Mises calls “the marvelous achievements of corporate business” are determined by the entrepreneur who decides “without any managerial interference” where to employ capital and how much capital to employ. These are “the essential decisions which are instrumental in the conduct of business. They always fall upon the entrepreneur”.

The second, related, consequence is the build-up of bureaucracy in large corporations. These bureaucratic structures are counter-productive – i.e. their purpose is not to increase productivity but to constrain it. Much of the bureaucracy results from a response to or is a requirement of government intervention. A lot of the bureaucratic activity falls under the heading of compliance, i.e. confirming the corporate subordination to government regulation and interventions.  The rest of the “woke” HR internal policy making is similarly driven by government requirements for demonstrated alignment with so-called social justice policies.

A more entrepreneurial organization of the economy around smaller, innovation-focused firms could result in less waste of resources and people by eliminating or reducing the total incidence of bureaucracy. We could also expect less lobbying for government favors (another form of wasted resources and effort), and less corporatism (the tendency for government and corporations to converge in counter-productive activities such as surveillance and anti-competitive lawmaking).

On the positive side, we could also expect that more entrepreneurial organization will produce a shift back to consumer sovereignty, the positive feedback process whereby consumer perception of value determines what goods and services are produced. Government and their corporate allies would rather believe that they know better what consumers should value, and would like to enforce their superior knowledge by limiting consumer choice. Healthcare and health insurance are a good example: an unholy alliance of big corporations and big government leaves consumers with an artificially narrow set of choices at artificially high prices. The energy sector is analogous to healthcare; the recent Texas blackouts provided an example of regulated corporations in alliance with their government controllers reducing the available options to the degree that the constrained power supply was unable to meet demand at a critical time. Entrepreneurs exist to ensure that supply meets demand, and the government-corporate failure in Texas was a particularly egregious example of how this feedback loop can break down.

The economy is a network of trust relationships. We can’t create complex, durable networks of cooperation unless the contracts between the customers and firms who are cooperating are fair and inclusive and engender trust. People are beginning to suspect that the contracts with big business corporations are unfair. Facebook, Google, and others take individuals’ personal data and re-sell it in different forms without compensating the individual who generated it in the first place. Amazon offers a platform to third-party sellers then uses the learning obtained to under-price them or undermine them through the use of corporate economic power. Energy providers conspire with government to limit user choices and drive up prices.

In an entrepreneurially organized economy, we’d base exchange on fairer contracts that are more innovative, more dynamic, and more inclusive in terms of sharing the gains of growth, and we’d create positive networks or positive feedbacks, where fairness and inclusiveness lead to more cooperation in the system. We’d put simpler – less corporately bureaucratic – pieces together to generate responsively dynamic behavior in economic systems. The crony capitalism of big government-entangled corporations has damaged the idea of fair economic contracts and thus has actually harmed the positive consumer feedback loop. This reduces trust, thereby reducing capitalism’s capacity to innovate and reducing capitalism’s capacity to create progress. Instead, it has created a system that rewards rent-seeking and value extraction rather than value creation.