My piece from the Irish Times Innovation Magazine today..
If Ireland is going to build a smart economy, do we need more entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook? Many people who have seen the film “The Social Network” may have found their worst suspicions about smart economy entrepreneurs confirmed by the petulant portrayal of Zuckerberg: smart, yes, but also socially inept, ridiculing those who challenge them, and ruthless to those who get in their way.
Others – including one or two prominent journalists in this country – choose to portray smart economy entrepreneurs as white-coated scientists, buried in unfathomable and economically unjustifiable ego trips at a time of national fiscal rectitude. Yet others apparently believe such entrepreneurs are smart masters of “the stroke”, able to judiciously use “brown envelopes” to have their “wicked way” at the expense of the public at large.
If we are going to rebuild our economy around innovation, what kind of entrepreneurs do we want? We need creative people, yes, but also with the vision to see opportunity as it arises. For me, the most interesting character in The Social Network was not Zuckerberg but rather Sean Parker (and not because Parker was played by Justin Timberlake). Parker is a serial entrepreneur and, as the film explains, was an informal adviser to Zuckerberg. Parker’s vision for what Facebook could and should become inspired and drove Zuckerberg.
Parker had been involved in several ventures before he met Zuckerberg. He famously co-founded Napster (shut down by court order), then Plaxo (sold to Comcast) and Causes (later sold to Facebook). Parker had “seen the movie before” when Zuckerberg met him. He knew the steps required to build a great company and had the scars to prove it. He had a substantial contacts book of media executives, internet leaders and venture capitalists. Most of all he knew how to play to Zuckerberg’s personality and, in turn, make Zuckerberg successful.
Every time an entrepreneur starts yet another company, experience is gained and success is more likely. Every time a seasoned entrepreneur mentors and coaches another, wisdom and insights are shared, increasing the likelihood of success. Every time aspiring entrepreneurs meet somebody who has personally done it, their courage and determination become more steeled and success is even more likely.
The more entrepreneurs that create companies, the more jobs are created. The more jobs created, the more wealth is created in the economy. The more wealth that is created in the economy, the more aspiring entrepreneurs will emerge and the more immigrant entrepreneurs will enter the Irish economy. To create a substantial number of new jobs, we need a healthy growing pool of entrepreneurs. We need this “pro-cyclical action” and positive feedback – not, as in the past, in our national financial planning and budget, but in the growth of entrepreneurship and jobs.
If Ireland is to build an innovation economy, we need to foster creativity, inventiveness and ambition. Yes, Ireland also needs to significantly enhance the available pool of risk capital, particularly since our domestic banks are seemingly incapable of issuing material business loans. Yes, Ireland needs to facilitate greater links between academics and indigenous and multinational companies. Yes, Ireland needs to accelerate research discoveries into engineered products and services. Yes, Ireland needs to alter the behaviour of all aspects of our economy, so as to focus on earning the maximum income from overseas visitors and from exports. But most of all, we need the entrepreneurs, the actual leaders, who will create the jobs and wealth.
Entrepreneurs in Europe do not yet have an acknowledged focal location for innovation. If Ireland emerges as that focal point, more entrepreneurs will come into our national economy to create jobs and wealth.
Ireland already has a unique advantage over any other innovation economy: we have the best and largest pool of multinationals. Many of these are now seeking new ways to grow – by licensing under-used intellectual property, putting their non-US treasury funds to work and working with small, dynamic companies to establish new markets.
There is positive news to tell. The recent Irish Times Innovation Awards was striking for not just the variety but also the determination and potentially world-changing nature of many of the finalists.
The Innovation Taskforce made recommendations on these and other tactics to then Taoiseach Brian Cowen at his direct request. He and his administration did follow through on some of them before running out of time.
But where to now? How will the new administration nurture the innovation economy and how quickly will it actually do so? Who, specifically, will have authority and personal responsibility for delivering it? How strongly will the innovation economy feature on the new Taoiseach’s agenda?
Those who have seen the movie before often know what should come next.