The spirit of entrepreneurship is not a recent phenomenon but has been around from as back as the fifteenth century. Maybe even before. It’s certainly been glamorized right now in the digital age, but the glamour quotient today is nothing compared to what it was in the yesteryears too. The emotions aroused in the quest for the unknown haven’t sprung up a decade back, but the emotion for the quest of the unknown, literally saw its fruition when in 1484 Christopher Columbus approached the King of Portugal to finance his fleet for a new trade route to East Asia. These expeditions or ‘ventures’ as we denote them today, were super risky considering the hazards involved of the physical damage to the asset itself i.e. loss of ships, loss of lives of sailors, material non-discovery, etc. The decisions had to be made by the then investors, who were the kings of the nations, based purely on ‘intuition’ and didn’t have the luxury of analyzing the future cash flows by way of excel sheets, with a less-than-zero guarantee of an ROI. Just like pitching to any investor, Columbus too pitched back then to Italy, France, and England where he was rejected. Finally, he pitched to Queen Isabella the ruler of Spain, and got his funding. As we all know, Queen Isabella’s investment hit jackpot, and Spaniards conquered America. This is how we interpret success now too, by seeing what hit jackpot.
However, there were a plethora of European and English expeditions that returned with nothing of value. Many didn’t ever return. Ships hit icebergs or got destroyed in storms or fell prey to pirates. This made the Europeans wonder as to how to reduce the risk? They then turned to limited liability joint-stock setups, in order to reduce the burden on one investor. So, instead of one investor investing and risking everything, the joint-stock companies took a pool of investments from many, with no caps on profits. Even a tiny investment in such an expedition, if successful, would make you a millionaire. Fast forward that as of today, this is now common knowledge i.e. a pool of individuals pool their investments to set up a venture and invest their funds in risky start-ups. The failures of many of the expeditions back then helped shape and evolve this classic financing system. Neither the investors in these ‘failed’ expeditions were any less intuitive than Queen Isabella, nor were the leaders of these expeditions any less entrepreneurial than Columbus.
Columbus on return to Spain was given a hero’s welcome with much style and fanfare. He showed off the gold, jewelry he got back along with some kidnapped Native Americans. He was celebrated and called to dine with the rulers. He was kind of even treated like the King – a taster tasted his dish before he ate it. Many similarities in the celebration can be drawn today to the entrepreneurs who hit jackpot and VCs that hit jackpot too. The entrepreneurs who have made it big are celebrated, honored, and respected worldwide – ‘coz they have hit jackpot. The VCs/investors or the Kings who have hit jackpot are celebrated too, as entrepreneurs/explorers line up / lined up to pitch to them confirming the old adage ‘success begets success’. However little reverence seems to be paid to those who have risked it all but never made it. They are kind of like the soldiers who decided to fight for their country, fought but didn’t make it through, except for the fact that soldiers are honored but the ‘failed’ entrepreneurs are not even spoken about. What nearly killed these people made the system stronger.
Entrepreneurship is a very very risky activity and I consider it to be not less than heroic. It is necessary not only for the individual, because he has his purpose to meet, but also necessary for the economy. It forms the wheels for the whole world engine. An entrepreneur, including the ones that make it, put their hard-earned sweat and money to accomplish what others only dream about. The entrepreneurs who do make it, and hog all the limelight, provide others with the knowledge of what works. Yet those who don’t make it, and don’t get any limelight, provide others with the valuable knowledge of what doesn’t work. Both of them provide you with the best of knowledge and you get them from the horse’s mouth and not from the management textbooks. Yet one gets the fanfare and the other doesn’t. The ethos of our antiquated education system gets replicated in our real lives too. The education system applauds the academically brilliant and gives two hoots for the failures and the same gets manifested in the way we see entrepreneurship. In a book I recently read, the author is magnanimous enough to draw a comparison of a ruined entrepreneur (if I might put it this way) to that of a soldier who laid down his life, saying that since both contribute to the economy in their own ways both deserved to be honored, of course, soldiers deserve much more honor, for there is no such thing as a failed soldier. Extrapolating that perspective, there shouldn’t be a ‘failed’ entrepreneur or a ‘failed’ explorer too.
Being an entrepreneur-cum-restaurateur myself, I have always been grateful and empathize with the restaurateurs whose amazing ventures didn’t sustain for whatever reasons. I know. I know what it takes to set that shit up. I know what it took to shut that shit down. The sweat, the money, the tears, I know. And I know that just like mine, for all those that did shut down you paved way for the others and imparted that vital knowledge, the knowledge of absence i.e. what doesn’t work or what they don’t know, what you know and they don’t. As the saying goes ‘what you do not know is more important than something you already know’ and if we need to progress as a modern digital society, it’s important that we respect not only the ones that made it out, but also honor those who went down. ‘Heroism and respect are only forms of compensation given by the society for those who take risks’ I read somewhere. Behind every freedom earned lies not only those who rose up but also those that got buried in our fight for that freedom. Behind every tiny improvement lie those thousands of tiny failures. Behind every pound of strength gained lies the endurance of many moments of pain. Behind every race won lies many races lost. I don’t mean to self-eulogize here, I don’t need that. But maybe it’s time to sit up and take stock of it. Maybe it’s time, just like our soldiers, to honor those who have taken the risks and gone down. Maybe it’s time to celebrate them just like the ones who made it. Maybe it’s time to laud the tiny minuscule efforts of those who got ruined in the process but benefitted the system at large by the creation of opportunities. Maybe it’s time to give the hero’s farewell to those explorers and those expeditions that never returned. Maybe it’s time to say ‘thank you for the risks you’ve taken for the growth of the economy and contributed to even creating opportunities for others.’ In some way what nearly killed me has just made you stronger.