Ten months into 2021, and large tech companies have spent more than US$260 billion acquiring small tech firms – that’s double the previous record, which was during the dot-com boom, twenty years ago. At that time, I was told that “there’s no such thing as a merger; only acquisitions.”
Meaning, there’s always a dominant partner, but it makes everybody feel better to pretend it could be an equal partnership.
Twenty years later, the world of entrepreneurs, start-ups, ecosystems and even the culture of acquisitions has moved on. The relationship between large and small companies has evolved, with complex networks that combine aggressive competition with deep collaboration. But the mystique and excitement that attracted young people to entrepreneurship two decades ago has only grown, as has its viability as a lifelong career.
I felt this last week, during my first live networking event since the pandemic. On my left was a young lady revolutionising plant-based food in China. Walking past me, a Canadian entrepreneur with a VR headset hanging off her shoulder. On my right, I could overhear stories of CEOs crying after being immersed in profound Virtual Reality experiences…something called “serious games”?
I realised that I miss this environment.
That’s when it struck me how familiar it felt: I had inadvertently been watching this evolution of entrepreneurial society from a front-row seat, over twenty years. To be clear, I am no entrepreneur myself; but apparently some kind of voyeur. This particular event was the 2021 Summit of the G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance, and it was my 4th consecutive year offering the opening keynote; but I suddenly realised how much time I have spent at similar events, mixing with people at the cutting edge of various trends, through communities like the “Tech Pioneers” or “Young Global Leaders” at World Economic Forum summits.
It got me wondering what I’ve learned from these experiences.
Don’t be shy—entrepreneurs don’t bite
For some reason, most people in large organisations have never even spoken to an entrepreneur. They are the best of us, and the worst of us; entrepreneurs are just people. To me, the defining characteristic is their fearlessness in committing to action. Ultimately, an entrepreneur has the courage to take that initial leap. In contrast, my countless ideas to improve the world remain in “Beta mode”…and that’s being generous.
So, here’s a lesson I’ve realised: Entrepreneurs are not the only ones that can learn from their experiences; the rest of us can also learn from the experiences of entrepreneurs. But that requires making the effort to interact and listen to them.
In my research activities, I have always placed heavy emphasis on interviewing real innovators. So, for example, I am more interested in talking to the Chief Scientist of a start-up who has invented something, rather than to their “inspirational” CEO, or even to the CEO of the large, Fortune 500 company that is credited for using that invention.
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I am more interested in talking to the Chief Scientist of a start-up who has invented something, rather than to their "inspirational" CEO
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For me, the core insights will lie within the story that drives the inventor. [A secret to fellow researchers: by stringing together enough of these insights, it’s relatively easy to craft an article worthy of the world’s top journals.
My point is that whatever your job, whatever kind of organisation or sector you are in, you can benefit from talking to entrepreneurs. It helps to sense new frontiers, anticipate trends, and explore your own work in the context of different futures.
Entrepreneurs know this themselves, as evidenced by the myriad networks and communities they have created. Finding opportunities to talk to entrepreneurs will only enhance your perspectives and open new doors, yet so few people outside the start-up networks do it.
Stop faking entrepreneurial experience
For twenty years, I have listened to leaders of large businesses, governments and institutions talk about the need to boost entrepreneurship within their organisations, unleash innovation, and develop “intrapreneurship”. All wise words. Rarely followed up by real action.
The pandemic may have offered the shock to realise some of these intentions. With supply chains collapsed, workers isolated and customers distanced, companies were forced to problem-solve, to innovate, and to find their entrepreneurial spirit.
Our Business Futures research with more than 2,500 business leaders confirms that about 90% of large firms are moving away from hierarchy; they’re dispersing decision-making to improve speed and innovation; they’re moving their people and their production closer to customers. In short, the pandemic has forced them to invest in the agility they’ve been talking about for years.
The question is whether the innovative zeal discovered during the pandemic will be allowed to continue. Will such entrepreneurial behaviours be rewarded and incentivised in the post-pandemic organisation? Will leadership objectives and performance assessments measure these attributes?
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These young entrepreneurs are advancing future learning systems, tackling climate change, global health, cybersecurity and mental health
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My lesson: Rather than talking about it, display it. Show others in your organisation, especially those junior to you, that you’re willing to experiment with new approaches, and encourage that experimentation in others. Usually, there’s less to lose as an employee taking a risk within a large company, compared to doing so as an entrepreneur. Hold on to the spirit of exploration unleashed by the pandemic and allow yourself to try something different.
This is a blog, not a marketing brochure, but I can’t help pointing to Accenture’s own journey with acquisitions here. Twenty years ago, our dominant corporate culture hampered the integration of acquisitions and partnerships. That’s changed.
Accenture is now a leader in entirely new sectors through acquisitions, by carefully nurturing their distinctive cultures. When I took a tour of one of our innovation centres in Milan last week, most of the dozens of prototypes, advanced tech solutions and “cool toys” that we played with were developed with one or more partners, usually start-ups, sometimes acquisitions.
Most importantly for me, we now have a generation of leaders for whom innovation is increasingly expected, which means that the entrepreneurial culture can become more pervasive. There’s plenty of room to improve, but the transformation that we old-timers have seen is palpable.
Aim high—the world is full of problems to solve
At the end of my keynote to the entrepreneurs last week, I told them: “the world needs you more than ever.” Before the session, I questioned myself about that statement, not wanting to seem overly bombastic. Within minutes of looking at the profiles of participants, I felt reassured.
These young entrepreneurs are advancing future learning systems, tackling climate change, global health, cybersecurity and mental health…among other things. Their chosen theme for the event was “Global Renaissance”!
When I’m around them, positivity reigns. I speak about a world where renewable energy sources are becoming cheaper than fossil fuels; where multiple vaccines to a pandemic were developed and distributed within months; where 3-D printers are building sustainable, low-cost housing settlements and human organs for transplant.
But I’ve been around them long enough to know that the biggest stimulant for them is not to focus on the opportunities but to highlight the innumerable problems that the modern world is throwing at them. Because at their core, entrepreneurs are problem solvers. And at their core, young entrepreneurs are motivated to grapple with the most urgent and intractable problems of our time.
I would bet on this group to jump in and tackle the fallout from exponential technological progress, impending environmental shocks or widening social inequalities. It turns out that I genuinely believe that the world needs young entrepreneurs more than ever.
And that’s the final lesson that I’d like to learn from these young entrepreneurs: to keep our energy channelled towards solving problems with a purpose. To ensure that every new project we take on is worthy of the effort we are about to put into it.
The older I get, the more I realise how much I can learn from the young.