In his wonderful book, The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan highlighted the perils of monoculture: "Very simply, a vast field of identical plants will always be exquisitely vulnerable to insects, weeds, and disease--to all the vicissitudes of nature." The proper alternative is not, as some would have it, all-organic agriculture, but diversity in what is planted, how it is mixed, different schedules, and so on. Where excessive monoculture has brought us is to an ever-escalating struggle with pests that has partly resulted in falling crop yields.
I was reminded of this in reading a short piece in The Economist just over a week ago that raised caution about the hype over promoting entrepreneurship that has taken hold in the United States. Home-grown companies are at the core of the idea of "economic gardening." The piece pointed out that, among policymakers who speak well of entrepreneurs, there remains linguistic confusion (thus likely indicating mental confusion) over just what qualifies as entrepreneurship. Is it brand-new companies? Young companies, somewhat imprecisely defined as those age 5 and younger? Businesses of a certain size? Government statistics give us "small businesses" as all those with up to 499 employees, another imprecise delineation. The Economist also noted that, according to Kauffman research, startups are providing less bang in terms of new jobs and growth.
Finally, it raised the possibility that too much hype over startups could end up as "the next variant of 'green jobs': worthwhile, but slightly overhyped."
Clearly, I subscribe to the idea that entrepreneurs are vital for economic growth. But there is continued uncertainty over how exactly to define the idea, and continued attempts to figure out how best to generate new companies and support their growth. Jared noted the other day that a new paper found underwhelming effects from entrepreneurship training programs. This certainly doesn't cast doubt upon all entrepreneurship programs, of which there is a huge variety, and it highlights the importance of experimentation and discovery in promoting entrepreneurship. That, after all, is how startups themselves operate.
The more important point is this: by moving entrepreneurship to the center of economic policy and lifting startups up onto a pedestal, do we actually risk hurting the very thing we are seeking to help? Can there be such a thing as startup monoculture? The risk of harm is probably low, and we are likely far from that point, but there is probably a very real possibility of low returns. That's unavoidable, and just because there will be failure and unfulfilled expectations is no reason not to try.
But the very nature of entrepreneurship is that, frequently, it is something that goes against the grain. Startups introduce new ways of doing things and challenge the status quo. This, even more than the job creation that is the raison d'etre of politicians' attention toward entrepreneurship, is why entrepreneurs matter to economic growth. They are outsiders--outsiders who displace old insiders and become the new insiders themselves, subject to another round of disruption. My colleague Paul Kedrosky, for example, likes to highlight the importance of alienation to fostering successful startups. Entrepreneurship may be sexy these days, but is sexiness antithetical to the phenomenon itself?