Deceptively simple, this question invites us to choose conceptual categories under which to describe entrepreneurship. Each category makes salient distinctions, enabling us to make comparisons and identify similarities and differences with what can be deemed non-entrepreneurship.
To understand entrepreneurship is first and foremost to choose the conceptual language in which to express our understanding. This language reflects and reveals our points of view as scholars.
In broadest terms, entrepreneurship is a human activity. In this sense, it is similar to other human activities such as gardening and reading in that it is done by humans and there is an inherent purpose to it.
eIn contrast to a non-social activity such as reading, entrepreneurship is a social activity. This suggests its meaning is derived from the social practices in which it is embedded. We therefore would expect different manifestations of entrepreneurship in different societies.
In contrast to non-economic activity such as a celebration, entrepreneurship is an economicactivity. In this sense, it is associated with production and exchange of goods and services. So far, so good.
In contrast to existing economic activity, such as the running of a business as a going concern, entrepreneurship involves neweconomic activity. This is where things get tricky. The term ‘new’ can be applied in many different ways to create a contrast between something that already exists and something new. These involve variations on the economic categories of product and market, which reflect what is produced and how and where and how it is exchanged.
The question of ‘new’ thus boils down to defining a new product and a new market. This inevitably brings us to consider the categories or types of product and market as a way of specifying whether we are dealing with a variation within an existing category or the creation of a new category (within a broader category).
We should recognise that product and market are relational categories, i.e. it is impossible to consider them in isolation from one another. Thus, to speak of something as ‘product’ is to have a sense of its practical use. That is, a product (as opposed to an undefined gadget) is something designed to perform a particular function, which in turn implicates a context of use and thus a potential beneficiary. A product is always for someone. Similarly, to speak of something as ‘market’ is to have a sense of someone’s practical need to be fulfilled. That is, a market is a context that invites technical solutions to particular problems. A market is always for something.
The combination of product and market defines a distinct value space in which economic activity becomes meaningful. Such space of meaning brings together production and exchange – one tapping into the possibilities afforded by technology, the other reflecting the values and needs of society, and the alignment of the two afforded by existing models of economic organisation. The space of meaning and value thus arises at the intersection of technology, society, and economy. It can be stretched or made new in each of these directions as we conceive of products, markets, and organising in new ways.
Let’s start with products. Designed to perform particular functions, products can be categorised by reference to the function they perform. In this sense, a bicycle and a car are both transportation products, designed to move someone or something for someone from point A to point B. In this sense, they all share the feature of having a source of energy that gets converted into motion. We can add, subtract or replace features of existing products. The question is at what point do we have the emergence of a new category?
The complexity here can quickly overwhelm us. We distinguish different categories of bicycle – children vs adult, professional vs amateur, road vs mountain – derived from who uses the bicycle and for what purpose. We can introduce new features within a category (colour, frame, tyres) as well as define new categories (e.g. city, shopping). The energy source of bicycles is human effort (pedalling). When we replace it with an electric motor, we get electric bicycles. When we replace the pedalling with pushing off the ground, we get scooters. And when we remove the human effort there, we have electric scooters. If, instead of the electric motor, we put in a combustion engine, we have a motorcycle. When the energy source is external – such as a horse – we have a horse cart, which also introduces four wheels. Replace the horse with a combustion engine and we have a car. Replace the engine with an electric motor and we have an electric car. Replace the driver and we have self-driving car. Replace the ownership of the car and we have transportation as a service (based on time or destination).
The picture is similarly complex on a market side. An existing market simply reflects the products and services that are already exchanged. To speak of new markets is to think about new exchange relationships in the light of who the existing recipients are. Here, again, we can have a proliferation of categories based on how we can draw meaningful distinctions. We can speak of industrial (B2B) or consumer markets (B2C). On the industrial side, we can speak of small, medium or large enterprises, of profit vs non-profit enterprise, of private vs government enterprises. On the consumer side, we can draw distinction in terms of location (city, region, country, world), demographics (age, gender, occupation, socio-economic status), behaviours (usage, loyalty, benefits) or psychographics (personality, lifestyle, attitude). There is no limit to the categories we can create over time, as we find creative ways to draw meaningful distinctions.
We face equal complexity when we think about organising. Boundaries and priorities are continuously re-drawn as we speak about firms, cooperatives, B-corps, ecosystems, self-employed contractors, and remote working. These change the categories under which we consider things to be economically viable.
In short, ‘new’ represents a continuously evolving space as our needs and values get differentiated, as new technologies emerge that enable us to do new things or existing things in new ways, and as we re-draw boundaries and reconsider priorities. We simply need to be attuned to the ways in which society, technology, and economy co-evolve to make existing categories obsolete or too crude. Thus, while our practical needs may not really change in some basic sense – we need food, shelter, transportation, communication, education, etc. – the forms in which they get satisfied continuously evolve.
Therefore, entrepreneurship is simply the force of the new, driven by human imagination and ingenuity. It creates and expresses new spaces of meaning and value creation within which economic activity takes place. Just as the self-sustaining process of life creates a diversity of life forms in an open-ended evolutionary process, so entrepreneurship keeps human economic activity open and ever evolving.