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The History of the Entrepreneur

With all the social media noise about being an #entrepreneur and the headline-hitting stories of billionaires pioneering everything from space tourism to self-driving cars, it’s easy to forget that entrepreneurship is nothing new. Far from being a modern phenomenon or passing trend, people have been setting out to shake things up with innovative business ideas for thousands of years.


There are plenty of lessons that us modern-day business owners can learn from entrepreneurs of the past. So, in this post, let’s take a look at how entrepreneurship began way back when and how it’s evolved into what it is today.


Entrepreneurship of Old


Even 20,000 years ago, humans were ‘doing business’ by exchanging goods. Initially, ancient tribal communities traded all kinds of raw materials with each other, yet as specialised skills developed, people started to make and exchange products like jewellery, weapons and tools. The making of such products - of seizing a fruitful opportunity to provide something that people really wanted or needed - is the very foundation of entrepreneurship.


This early entrepreneurship was based on bartering. Yet, trading this way relied on each party having something the other party needed at the exact same time. How to solve this problem? Enter money. Having an objective way to assign value to objects was a game changer. It opened up new markets, trade routes flourished, and banks began to emerge so that people could safely store their earnings.


Fuelling Industrial Revolutions


The spirit of entrepreneurship - of innovating something totally new or coming up with something that improves existing products or processes - was what fuelled multiple industrial revolutions.


In the 18th century, entrepreneurial minds got to work designing machines that reduced the need for human labour and ushered in mass-manufacturing behind factory gates. From Edmund Cartwright’s revolutionising power looms to George Stephenson’s world-changing steam engines, entrepreneurs all scrambled to male something that was quicker, faster or more efficient than ever before.


By the middle of the 19th century, mass-production was the name of the game. Entrepreneurs during this era accumulated considerable wealth by innovating and then mass-producing consumer goods for a growing middle class. It was also the age of the auto-mobile, and entrepreneurs from all corners of the globe raced to manufacture cars - some with the same iconic badges that we still see on our roads today.


Fast forward to the 70s, and electronics and computers were making waves. It was around this time when two of tech’s most recognisable entrepreneurs, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, were pioneering affordable home computing. Gates and Paul Allen founded the world’s largest software business, Microsoft Corporation, in 1975. Jobs, another visionary who changed the world as we watch, listen and know it, followed hot on his heels to co-found Apple Inc. in 1976.


Modern Entrepreneurship


The rise of eCommerce- the buying and selling of products over the internet - has provided a new platform for people to sell what they want, where they want. In 1994 Jeff Bezos saw the potential for internet shopping and started an online bookstore from his garage. Now, that same ecommerce empire - Amazon.com - is worth over 450 billion USD.


Whilst not every entrepreneur can scale the same dizzying heights of wealth, eCommerce has opened up opportunities for entrepreneurs to flourish. From huge enterprises like Net-A-Porter, the world’s first designer clothing website, to subscription-model businesses providing everything from coffee to shampoo on a monthly basis, entrepreneurs have seized the opportunity to build businesses without brick-and-mortar restrictions.


In 2023, we’re seeing innovators shake things up in emerging areas such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality and NFTs. Others are striving to drive social and environmental change. As we battle to find solutions for global problems such as global warming, housing crises and air pollution, one thing’s for sure; entrepreneurs will continue to be at the forefront of change as their innovations shape our future.


So, if there’s one thing we take away from entrepreneurship throughout history, it’s that there’s always something new. Even when it might seem like it’s all been done before, there’s always something innovative to invent, an improvement to be made, or a fresh angle to take.


So, sitting on a business idea? Why not take a chance - it could just change the world!




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