Tag Archives: entrepreneurship

Thinking About Doing Business

By Simon Johnson

In class #1 of Entrepreneurship without Borders (at MIT Sloan) we discussed attitudes towards starting a new business.  In many countries, people want to become entrepreneurs, but they can access only limited types of opportunities.  Relatively small established elites, often with strong political connections, are able to mobilize the resources needed to build a company that can do well.  Class #2 focused on the details of the current situation in Portugal – the macroeconomy will presumably begin to improve and the basic enforceability of legal contracts seems fine, but we do yet see a breakthrough in companies being created by new entrepreneurs.  Below is a summary of the discussion in class #3.

The World Bank’s Doing Business indicators offer a rich set of data with many insights into the various barriers facing small and medium-sized business – as well as potential entrepreneurs.  These numbers provide a first-pass comparison across countries focused on (a) regulation, and (b) contract enforcement.

Singapore and Hong Kong are the impressive leaders of the pack (see Table 1.1 on page 3 of the executive summary of this report).  Countries can grow with an unfavorable environment, measured in this way, but this is more likely with a great deal of natural resources (e.g., offshore oil in Angola, ranked #172).  For most countries, it would be wise to look for a set of reforms that make it easier to do business.

Experience in Georgia since the mid-2000s is encouraging.  The government used the Doing Business indicators and related work to target their priorities – and made a great deal of progress, for example in terms of reducing the number of licenses required (for all kinds of activities) and creating a legal fast-track for applications (i.e., pay a premium and get your passport faster). Continue reading

Who Built That?

By Simon Johnson

Perhaps the biggest issue of this presidential election is the relationship between government and private business. President Obama recently offended some people by appearing to imply that private entrepreneurs did not build their companies without the help of others (although there is some debate about what he was really saying).

Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul D. Ryan as vice presidential running mate is widely interpreted as signaling the further rise of the Tea Party movement within the Republican Party – with the implication that the private sector may soon be pushing back even more against the role of government.

For most of the last 200 years, national economic prosperity has been about creating and sustaining a symbiotic relationship between government and private business, including entrepreneurs who build businesses from scratch. This symbiosis was long a great strength of the United States, something it got right while other nations failed to do so, in various ways.

Is the partnership between government and business now really on the rocks? What would be the implications for longer-run economic growth of any such traumatic divorce? Continue reading

Entrepreneurs and Risk

I planned to write about Malcolm Gladwell in this post a couple of days  ago, but I had rambled on long enough, so I deferred it until later. Well, Felix Salmon beat me to the punch, which is all for the best anyway, since the connection was going to be John Paulson, and Felix knows much more about hedge funds than I do.

The topic is Gladwell’s still-subscription-only article, “The Sure Thing: How Entrepreneurs Really Succeed,” in which Paulson plays a starring role. The sub-sub-head in the table of contents says, “The myth of the daredevil entrepreneur,” so even though I expected Gladwell to be annoyingly contrarian again, for once I expected to agree with him. The conventional wisdom, in this case, is that successful entrepreneurs get that way by taking big risks.

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Thanks, But We Can Take Care of Ourselves

Every once in a while, someone leaves a snarky comment on this blog along the lines of “Well, have you ever started your own company?” I usually leave them alone, although occasionally I can’t resist responding. In general, I just think that my experience co-founding one company in one industry does not really qualify me to say anything that knowledge and logic wouldn’t qualify me to say anyway. In particular, having been through the experience, I can say that the amount of luck you need dwarfs any other attributes you bring to the table, so starting a company is not a particularly useful filter.

But now Michael Malone has managed to aggravate me with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal called “Washington Is Killing Silicon Valley.” And Silicon Valley being one of the parts of our economy I know particularly well, I feel compelled to respond.

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Recession in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is often touted as an example of what is best about American capitalism – entrepreneurial, risk-taking, innovative, hard-working, and sometimes fabulously successful. Of course, it is also periodically criticized as a land of con men and get-rich-quick schemes.

Sequoia Capital, perhaps the most venerated VC firm in the Valley, held a “secret meeting” in October to discuss the impact of the credit crisis and economic downturn on the technology industry and startup companies. The slides have been leaked, beginning with a tombstone with the words “R. I. P. Good Times.” (By the way, those of you not from the business world – particularly those with academic backgrounds – may find the presentation amusing for the way it combines large amounts of incommensurate data with an extreme scarcity of verbs, thereby avoiding the need for a coherent argument. My favorite is slide 42. But believe me, this is far better than most business presentations.)

One of the first employees of my company has a much more original and intelligent perspective on what the recession means for Silicon Valley.

The Financial Crisis and Entrepreneurship

If anyone is looking for a silver lining, Michael Fitzgerald has a post called “Bad Times Are Good Times for Entrepreneurs,” and I couldn’t agree more. On September 14, 2001 – at the trough of the technology meltdown, at the beginning of a recession, and on a day when the stock market was not even open because of the 9/11 attacks – I quit my job and co-founded Guidewire Software. It was a great time to start a company for a number of reasons:

  • There were talented people looking for new opportunities.
  • The ordinary costs of doing business (space, equipment, etc.) were depressed.
  • As a private company, you don’t have to worry about quarter-to-quarter performance. Your investors (if you have them) will have a long-term perspective.
  • Most importantly, when you first start a company, you aren’t expected to sell anything, so the fact that no one is buying doesn’t matter. Your jobs are to research your market, research your potential customers, design your product, build your product, and (if you need it) raise money. Depending on the industry you are in, all of this can take a couple of years. Even then, if the recession isn’t over yet, you are selling to a small number of early adopters, who will not be making decisions based on the overall state of the economy. It will be even longer before you have the kind of sales volume that is susceptible to changes in the economic cycle.
  • This didn’t apply to us, but if there is enough dislocation in the economy, it is bound to create new business opportunities that can be captured by startup companies.

Guidewire today is a leading provider of software to insurance companies with customers in Russia, Brazil, Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, in addition to the United States and Canada. Seven years from now there will undoubtedly be dozens or hundreds of successful companies that were started in the wake of the credit crisis.