Can *anyone* set up a business? Even with zero financial or social capital – i.e. no rich parents or connections? Is the internet changing the system and opening up new opportunities?
It’s incredibly cheap and easy to set up a business in the UK, unlike many other countries. However, if you look at most successful people, many of them did start out fairly well connected to resources through their family, friends, spouse or other connections. There’s a reason why Oxbridge graduates do well, that extends their natural intelligence and hard work to make them even more likely to succeed – they’re part of a club with combined access to huge resources. Even those mavericks who reject the club and choose to remain on the fringes gain some benefit from being part of it. So what does that mean for those outside the club – those outside all the clubs? Those with really very limited social capital, in the sense of the mainstream system and its control of access to resources?
In certain professions the power of social connections is overwhelmingly strong. Consider these two: acting and architecture. How many successful actors started with a family connection in the industry? Consider how many ‘spots’ that left for those who started with no connections. A small percentage. And many, many people fighting for them. Talent, cunning and hard work being equal, it simply reduces the probability – the luck factor – that they’re going to succeed. In architecture, consider how many people who started their own practice – or those who won a Stirling Prize – had no family money to start them off, and also had no connections to people wealthy enough to commission a project from them in the early days. Now again, consider how that skews the field for those without financial or social capital. How many spots are left at the top for sheer talent? Not many. Some other professions are more egalitarian – hard work will get you far irrespective of your beginnings, the field is more open. Some professions are simply almost closed to women and people who are not white – often not overtly or by design, but by their internal structure. In those professions, you may find a few successful women or non-white participants, but very few won’t have managed to sidestep the obstacles without wealth or connections. Competence – or even brilliance – is often not enough.
I’m interested in this question because it lies at the core of the way society operates. If we want a more equal society with a broader distribution of wealth (I’m not saying an equal distribution) then it needs to be understood. There is a reason the rich get richer and the poor get poorer (although that is not the whole picture) and why we are so very far from a meritocratic system that would accelerate progress. It’s easy to encourage young people to try to start a business or enter a profession. It is important also to help people understand their chances. Life is not fair. We have to look that unfairness square on, dissect it, understand it, and plan for it. Align ourselves to how the world actually is, as Machiavelli advised in The Prince (a must-read for any entrepreneur). Accepting how it is doesn’t mean we agree with how it is. We can disrupt it.
New technologies enable disruptive change, and the internet is the most powerful disruptive tool of our current times. I’m interested in how it opens up new possibilities for social change, particularly how some people previously excluded from accessing financial and social capital can now join the party. Set up their own business, create value in the world, gather resources, create change.
The times we are living are very like the Victorian era, when the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Empire created such a concentration of wealth and an explosion of possibilities through new technologies. A poor boy from Wisconsin could come to London and create his fortune – as Henry Wellcome did in pharmaceuticals. Not everyone succeeded of those who tried, of course, but the changing times and new technologies allowed a crack in the social system that a few lucky – and hard-working, and talented, and persistent – individuals broke through. Despite some internal mobility, the current social structure is a barrier, just by sheer numbers – you are less likely to win if you started being dealt a less good hand. You are less likely to succeed if your competitors have higher financial and social capital. That doesn’t mean you should give up – some of the biggest disruptions come from individuals outside the system because of the very nature of the obstacles they overcame – but we should urge anyone considering an entrepreneurial career (or a profession where there are limited spots at the top, which means most professions) to fully consider this question of financial and social capital. In fact, to focus on social capital. It is by far the greater factor since your financial capital is generally a reflection of your social capital, and it is by far the less understood factor.
Don’t play a game you can’t win. Analyse the factors for winning, and find one where you can improve your chances vis a vis the other players. If there is none, if it’s entirely sewn up or the odds are insurmountably stacked against you, find another game to play.
Here at Intelligent Futures we look at how technology impacts society. Our hypothesis is that the internet – with its sudden access to information, knowledge, problem-solving techniques and new ways to build your connections (hence, in a different way from before, your social capital) – has created a lot of cracks, a lot of opportunities for different people to succeed in business. Not everyone will be able to get a seat at the table, but there are some opportunities, for some people. We’re very interested to see who new gets to play (the 15 year-old hacker kid who gets a Greyhound bus to Silicon Valley and sets up a billion-dollar company, for example), and what they will create.
Our exploration is this, which we invite you to join: Can *anyone* set up a business, with zero financial or social capital – i.e. no rich parents or connections? Or with limited mobility, such as parents, people in remote locations, or people with disabilities? Just through the power of the internet. Just by committing time, by “paying it forward”, by creating value together and sharing the rewards. After all, that’s how companies and cooperatives started out in the 19th Century.
Today, the internet allows individuals and small groups to do what only governments and large corporations could do only a decade before. We believe it’s possible and we’re setting up a system that allows people to come together by committing small amounts of time, to solve problems and create value together. We’re by no means the first to try it – there are many crowd-sourcing and change-making platforms out there. But we are specifically committed to the idea of creating a new kind of Company, in the 19th Century sense, that profoundly disrupts the social capital structure by creating a viable alternative.
Join us to co-create the 21st Century Company, internet-enabled.
Let’s explore. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with subject “21st Century Company” to share your ideas, commit some time, or just to get updates on the project.