Entrepreneurs, real and fake

This passage from the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs has been quoted widely:

"I hate it when people call themselves 'entrepreneurs' when what they’re really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public, so they can cash in and move on. They’re unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business. That’s how you really make a contribution and add to the legacy of those who went before. You build a company that will still stand for something a generation or two from now. That’s what Walt Disney did, and Hewlett and Packard, and the people who built Intel. They created a company to last, not just to make money. That’s what I want Apple to be."

If the central point is that cashing in, as an end in itself, isn't all that admirable or ambitous, I totally get that.

Genuine or fakeBut when you think of the ways startups serve an economy of innovation, isn't it a bit peculiar to insist or assume that every new venture should look to build a business that lasts for generations?

Apple, of course, has frequently extended its speed to market through acquisitions of technologies. Some of the coolest features of the iPhone were realized from innovations from startups that sold out to Apple (the acquired technologies that come to mind from the Isaacson book are the pinching and swiping features and the voice recognition function). No doubt that in many cases, Apple improved the acquired technology and otherwise further developed it so that it could be marketable; in other cases, too, the talent acquired (the original innovators) ended up taking a leadership role within Apple to teach the bigger company things it may not have learned otherwise.

When a startup is purchased in order to be shuttered - where the aim of the bigger company is to squash a competitive threat by simply taking the upstart out of the game - then I suppose the takeaway for the startup founders and investors is whatever financial gain they may have realized from the deal; but there are usually points of experience gained, too, that surely have some value for the ecosystem.

Isn't it okay for a group of founders to want to see their technologies reach a market? If the terms are right, can't it make sense to leverage the resources or market share of a bigger company, thus mitigating the financing and execution risks of building their own Apple?

Rhetorical questions, I know, but Jobs's statement is making me think that part of building a "real" company may also include the willingness to become part of another company already on its way at a quicker pace or with greater inertia.

Photo: Michael Fleming / Flickr.


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