Entrepreneurs can think big but thrive on a small stage
The question of whether entrepreneurial skills can be taught in college has vexed many a brilliant academic.
Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal, certainly doesn't prescribe to the learning at college route for entrepreneurs. Last November he launched a programme where he pledged US$100,000 (Dh367,300) each to 20 students under the age of 20 if they chose to drop out of college to spend their time developing innovative projects. Mr Thiel also runs a venture-capital fund that has invested in companies such as Facebook and LinkedIn.
"There was a generational divide where a lot of the most positive reaction was from younger people," he told the The Wall Street Journal when asked what reaction he had received to news of his programme. "Then there were other people who went to college in the 1960s and 1970s when it was basically free and don't understand what's happened now with amassing a quarter-million dollars in debt [because of college fees].
"The broader goal was to start a conversation between education and entrepreneurship; we don't think the link is automatic."
Other entrepreneurs, however, have drawn deeply on their academic backgrounds.
The Chilean entrepreneur Fernando Fischmann used his training as a biochemist to spend about six years inventing a solution that keeps water in lagoons crystal clear. He created a technology that uses a pulse system and low-energy filtration to stop water stagnating.
His company, Crystal Lagoons, has built a lagoon in Chile that holds 250 million litres of water. It is 1km long and has a surface area of eight hectares. It is the equivalent of 6,000 8 metre long swimming pools and has been credited by Guinness World Recordsas the world's biggest swimming pool. Today, Crystal Lagoons has 150 projects under way around the world, including a number in the MENA region.
Mr Fischmann says to succeed, entrepreneurs need to be driven by an inner force even when people question the logic of what they are trying to do. So dreaming of a solution is one thing, but entrepreneurs must also possess the inherent knowledge needed to make the solution work.
Conventional wisdom says entrepreneurs should try to develop a local business into a national one, then a regional operation and then an international company. Think global, act local might be a catchy phrase for an international bank, but the world is full of failed entrepreneurs who tried to spread too far geographically.
In other words, they should have remained local and been the best at what they did in the local market. This might sound like the antithesis of the growth story and it probably is. Yet local growth brings prosperity to the local economy.
Professor Michael Porter, in his 1990 book The Competitive Advantage of Nations , set about explaining how the competitive advantage of a nation contributed to its economic prosperity. Prof Porter believed that his ideas could also be applied to the micro level companies set up in inner cities in the West. That led to the creation of an inner-city entrepreneurship project called The Inner 100, first run in the UK and the US.
The Inner 100's mission was to champion enterprise-led regeneration and to promote the untapped market potential of the inner city. The scheme supported fast-growth businesses in inner cities through events, media exposure, awards, research papers, and by creating The Inner City 100 index, which the Financial Times first published in 2001.
The Inner 100 programme actively supported enterprise-led regeneration and the promotion of local markets.
The project was undertaken in the context of inner cities becoming economically deprived through a shortage of jobs. Out-of-town business parks attracted global companies, huge supermarkets that could only be reached by car sucked dry local grocers and neighbourhood businesses. The scheme was one way of trying to create localised prosperity through local enterprise.
Unfortunately, one of the criticisms of the scheme was that some of the businesses in The Inner City 100 index were so successful, with an average five-year turnover growth rate of 575 per cent, that they forced local rents and living costs up, in turn pushing out those who could not afford to trade and live in the suddenly prosperous inner city areas. This led to a new wave of wealthier individuals moving into trendy, refurbished inner-city dwellings and forcing out long-term tenants.
In Dubai, aswaaq is a neighbourhood grocery run by local people and supported by the Government.
It has cleverly created a street-market concept within a community centre environment to service the needs of suburbs across the city.
At the launch of the project in 2008, Abdul Baset al Janahi, the chief executive of aswaaq, said: "Aswaaq believes in the need to improve the socio-economic standard of the local communities [and] is committed to providing essential commodities and services to all members of the family in accordance with the co-operative society concept and innovative ideas by using modern technology in the retail industry."
I live in a part of Dubai very close to an aswaaq community centre and can see at street level the vibrancy it brings to the local community. Let's hope that successful local entrepreneurial businesses continue to think local and act local.
Rehan Khan is a business consultant and writer based in Dubai
Updated: January 17, 2011 04:00 AM