What do Tech Entrepreneurs do?

Interesting question I was asked on Quora. Most important in such a question is defining the word entrepreneur

Now, why does that matter so much? In a sense, though not actually, it’s a very subjective term defined differently by just about everyone and embraced but an increasing share of our economy because it’s en vogue to say you’re an entrepreneur (look back on our history with tech and you can see a progression of what it was cool to be: geek, hacker, startup founder, VC, and now entrepreneur – which by the way in the 80s generally meant you didn’t have a real job so you were an entrepreneur).

So forget what a tech entrepreneur is for just a moment to appreciate what an entrepreneur REALLY means (etymologically) as a basis for your answer. Today, lots of different types of professionals claim the word entrepreneur:

  • Founder
  • Business Owner
  • Inventor
  • CEO
  • Chairman
  • Developer
  • Director
  • Principle
  • Partner

We can agree to some extent that any one of those people might consider themselves an entrepreneur. Right?

But the problem with that is that a Startup Founder is not typically remotely the same as a Small Business Owner nor Inventor with IP/Patent but no business.

Why is that a problem? When we’re all reading books about how to be an entrepreneur, networking at meetups for entrepreneurs, looking to work with/for entrepreneurs, etc. the needs of the owner of a software development firm are not remotely the same as the founder of the next Uber. Put all those entrepreneurs in the same room, or in front of investors, or working through hires, consultants, etc. and our economy wastes an incalculable amount of time in the simplest sense as an example that the investor in one is not the same as the investor in the other.

So, are you an “Entrepreneur”? Are You Sure??

(I wrote that a couple of years ago and it remains one of my most popular articles so forgive me for linking to it, I don’t want Google mad at me for sharing some of the same thoughts here, I won’t expect you to go read it…)

The term entrepreneur was coined by an admirer of Adam Smith’s book, The Wealth of Nations (which I’m presuming, nay, hoping you know). Entrepreneur is a French word coined by the economist Jean-Baptiste Say, and usually is translated as, “adventurer”. Say studied Smith’s book and, while agreeing on all points, found that the omission of enterprising businessmen was a serious flaw. Yes, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, one of the world’s first and arguably founding works on what builds nations’ wealth, neglected to consider the entrepreneur.

Say pointed out that it was entrepreneurs who seek out inefficient uses of resources and capital and moves them into more productive, higher yield areas. Entrepreneurs seek opportunities for profit and, by doing so, create new markets and fresh opportunities.

A ha! That’s an entrepreneur. So… isn’t that fairly accurate though of new business owners, people working for dev agencies and hacking on the side, etc.? No. Those are founders, owners, etc. Entrepreneurs are those who are constantly seeking out those inefficiencies and creating new MARKETS.

Now, inherent in the idea of creating those new markets from inefficiencies is that the entrepreneurs has to be a bit of an investor (if you will). It requires taking on greater than normal risks, investing oneself (time/money), and delivering greater returns. No? If you aren’t creating a new market from a believed inefficiency, then you’re probably just starting a new business, working with a proven model, working within an established market, etc. – ergo, by its very definition, not an entrepreneur.

That’s not to discount the impact of starting new businesses! It’s that semantics matter so we don’t create misconceptions and misalignments in working with Founders vs. Business Owners vs. Investors vs. Entrepreneurs and so forth.

So what is a tech entrepreneur?

Well technology too should be defined a bit as many misconceive “Tech” to be referring to only software, the internet, laptops, etc. Hopefully you appreciate with me that that’s not accurate.

Technology is merely the innovation of products or processes to make them, over time, more efficient and less expensive.

Paper was once what we might today consider technology. That eventually became digitized and found it’s way through the internet and now we’re looking at paper being reinvented as flexible digital screens. You get the idea.

Tech is present in any traditional industry:

  • Energy industry has tech in new drilling methods, renewables, pricing analytics, etc. So while Oil & Gas is not “tech,” the tech is therein
  • Information is an industry that spans from libraries and research to algorithms and “big data”
  • Food even can be seen experiencing the impact of tech therein going back to the invention of the refrigerator (tech) and later the microwave (tech) to more recently seeing tech in Food by way of Square Payments, GMO, Mobile ordering, Deliver Services, and more while Food is still non-tech in vegetables, recipes, and meat.

Thus the tech entrepreneur is the person constantly seeking out inefficient uses of resources and capital and moving them through technology into more productive, higher yield areas. Tech entrepreneurs seek opportunities for profit and, by doing so, create new technology oriented markets and fresh opportunities.

What degrees do they usually have?

Well some of the most well-known technology entrepreneurs don’t have any. And here’s a great point at which to share some examples of the difference: Elon Musk? Tech entrepreneur. Michael Dell? Not. Bill Gates? Tech Entrepreneur. Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla, both Tech Entrepreneurs. Jonas Salk or the Wright Brothers? Not.

Note how all worked in tech and found success but only some constantly found/find new inefficiencies and create new markets. Over and over again. Some, dropped out of school 🙂

I’d argue that subtext you’ve added to your primary question is misplaced – being an entrepreneur isn’t something you learn and certify, it’s a philosophy and approach to life that some people just have.