Thursday, 2 February 2012

Role of The Entrepreneur

I recently made the point that, instead of looking to the state for our personal wellbeing, the buck stops with each of us personally - whether as voters, taxpayers or whatever - to ensure the wellbeing of others. Some basic, inevitable economic constraints mean the state simply can't do that job for us on any sustainable basis. This is also the difference between an entitlement culture in which we behave as passive victims of our institutions, and an empowerment culture, in which we seize control of those relationships. Ultimately, the state can only serve as a facilitator, enabling each of us to meet our fundamental personal obligation through private enterprise.

But how can we meet those obligations? Which business activities will be the winners of tomorrow? And how can the state help?

Peter Urwin's "Self-employment, Small Firms and Enterprise" very helpfully explains the role of self-employment, with and without employees, as our primary source of "genuine entrepreneurial insight". Big corporations are of little use here. Businesses don't start big. Entrepreneurs start out self-employed, either with or without staff. Yet, picking winning business ideas is impossible: while "entrepreneurship is crucial for economic growth... we have no idea where it will come from - not even in the most general terms." As a result, the best that we - and government - can do is to ensure "a climate in which enterpreneurship can thrive".

Peter lays out some interesting stat's for the UK:
  • over half of all new businesses won't exist in 5 years time - yet this is no bad thing: serial entrepreneurship seems to have a greater influence on success than academic qualifications;
  • you're more likely to be self-employed if you have dependents under the age of 16;
  • about 20% of males who are active in the labour market are self-employed (42% of those aged 65+);
  • there is no obvious impediment to being self-employed, and people who struggle for various reasons to fit the big firm mould tend to be self-employed or work for small firms;
    • small firms are easy to start, but face impediments to growth through tax and regulation, such as taking on employees - in the UK, only 6% of new firms create over half of all new jobs.
    • in particular, "the costs of compliance... are regressive, as there are economies of scale in tax compliance... product market regulation and employment protection legislation". These costs have remained constant despite efforts to eliminate red tape. However, these costs don't prevent people starting up or remaining self-employed with no employees, they inhibit expansion.

    It's suggested that there's a distinction between being self-employed for tax planning purposes, and being self-employed for 'genuine' enterpreneurial reason. But if it's impossible to pick who among the self-employed will be successful, then I don't see how you can reliably make this distinction, except with hindsight. Step one to starting your own business is to become self-employed. Perhaps you take that initial step for cynical tax planning reasons, or maybe with a view to figuring out what sort of business you might start. In either case a bigger business could emerge, with lots of employees. Life's what happens to you while you're making plans. The motives are pretty meaningless.

    However, Peter rightly points out that there's little room for entrepreneurial activity in large firms - even if self-employed people with the "skills of entrepreneurship" are involved. Those skills essentially being to provide "the central concept around which the firm is initially constituted" and "to unearth the unknown unknowns." I've worked in two start-ups, both of which are still running after 10 and 7 years respectively, and various large firms. Once a bunch of people unite around any business plan it becomes tough to change. Add more years and more people and the job gets harder.

    So it's laughable to see big corporate executives and entrepreneurs lumped into the same category, as Luke Johnson recently explained, though the CEOs still at the helm of the companies they created are in a category of their own. This latter group also prove the case for a lack of demand for genuine entrepreneurial skill in big corporations. It's the original vision of the founder that rules, and competing strategic visions aren't welcome. In fact, it's not uncommon for a business to oust its founder only to welcome him back to rescue the ship from doom (e.g. Steve Jobs).

    Ultimately, Peter is to be applauded for essentially recommending that small firms should be allowed to retain all their staff as self-employed individuals. This would allow for the rapid expansion of a business around an entrepreneurial concept as it emerges, rather than straining its resources and strangling it in red tape before it has a chance to discover whether the concept will 'fly'. Of course, firms could still choose to offer employment to staff where that is necessary in order to compete in the labour market. But given the healthy, inevitable failure of most small firms within 5 years, and the inability to predict the winners, it seems pointless to require all of them to grind through the cost and admin involved in creating and maintaining the employment relationship.

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