The Time Traveling Entrepreneur (work in progress)

“…if we look at the big hitters in the 20th century, like the Xerox machine, like the personal computer, like the pocket calculator, all of these things did something else. They weren’t contaminations of existing things. They weren’t finding a need and filling it. They created a need that only they could fill.” -Alan C. Kay

From the 18th Century to the present, the written definition of “entrepreneur,” and thus the notion of an entrepreneur’s role, has evolved from one who adds value to pre-existing phenomenons, to one that innovates that which cannot be found in past experience. This definition can actually be traced back to the collected voices of both past and present innovators. In the 18th Century, just 3 decades prior to the birth of Leland Stanford, Adam Smith defined “entrepreneur” as a person who acts as an agent in transforming demand into supply. This specific definition, the concept that an entrepreneur is the supplier, or facilitator, of what the customer wants, is in agreement to many definitions that preceded Smith. However, this was not a philosophy that remained a static definition of the practice, as proven by two 21st Century definitions offered by Roger Martin and Erik Reis. In his book, The Design of Business, Martin speaks of entrepreneurship and innovation as a way of seeing the world “not as it is, but as it could be.” The book goes on to argue that true innovation stems from the exploration of problems that can not actually be found in history, or proven by data. Perhaps in a more extreme use of language, Erik Reis offers up another take on the practice defining entrepreneurship as the act of creating something new under “extreme uncertainty.” One could clearly see, from juxtaposing the 21st Century definition of the field with the 18th and and early 19th century definitions, that entrepreneurship has evolved from a practice that supplies a demand to a profession that creates demands – but how did it get there? The dawn of the 20th century brought a new word into the definition of entrepreneurship: innovation. While not as widely accepted until the late 20th century with the birth of the internet, it is this moment in history that the role of the entrepreneur became one that focused on thought leadership, intangible discovery, and messy exploration. But how did that happen? The counter-cultural revolution of the 1960’s opened doors for the entrepreneur to focus success measures on social innovation as opposed to capital gain, but what happened In the 19th century that paved the way for the invention an mastery of unknown spaces? I argue that the moment was June 28th, 1861 – the incorporation of the Central Pacific Railroad. The invention of time as an opportunity, and the active abstraction of space by Leland Stanford.

“Once, the North American continent had taken months to cross, and the passage was arduous and perilous. In the decade before the railroad the time had been whittled down to six or seven grueling weeks, barring accidents. With the completion of the railroad those three thousand miles of desert, mountain, prairie, and forest could be comfortably crossed in under a week. No space so vast had ever been shrunk so dramatically.” – Rebecca Solnit

Stanford of course can not take credit for the invention of time itself, but he can take credit for the invention of time as an opportunity, or need. With the invention of the transcontinental railroad, the scale of the earth itself became drastically different then what any traveler in previous history could have ever perceived. Months became weeks, weeks became days, days became hours. This convenience, the fast-ness of time, yielded many new needs, and infinite room for innovation. All of a sudden it became crucial to know the time of day. Things ran on schedules. Things stayed true to those schedules. A new level of efficiency, and the desire for it, was born. As a result, the pocket-watch was invented. Stanford University, a college that strived to not only develop cultural students, but also “useful citizens” – students that could serve society in an efficient manner, is a result of this philosophy. Fast-food, the computer, the internet, mobile phones etc. were, arguably, also created on these principles. For better or worse, this mentality, the desire to do things better, faster, and cheaper, is what would go on to drive much of entrepreneurial innovation in the centuries to come, especially in the Digital Revolution to come.

While Stanford’s work with the medium of time is often associated with speed, he also showed great interest in slow-ness. To settle a bet regarding whether or not a horse’s legs were ever simultaneously lifted form the ground, Stanford commissioned Eadweard Muybridge to photograph his horse, Occident. Of course, the result was one of the most famous series of images of all time, 12 consecutive frames of a running horse. This simple bet would later establish the beginning of film and cinema as we know it today, yet again yielding unforeseen opportunity in the medium of time.

Leland Stanford’s actions almost peculiarly did not follow the definition of an “entrepreneur,” or the role associated with the practice, in his time. Just as Stanford is often credited with designing the future of the world in the West, perhaps he can also be credited with laying the groundwork for the future of innovation and business practices, thus contributing to an on-going evolution from the tangible to the intangible as a means of developing the field of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship has the potential to move towards a method that steps away from problem-solving, focusing instead on problem-making as a means to better engage with the edges of our present reality. However, although the work of individuals like Leland Stanford have helped in this massive shift, I argue that pre-conceived notions of business, and financial intentions of entrepreneurship have held back the ability for this transformation to come to fruition. This embryonic revolution begs for a new ecology of processes that can foster, and contribute to, this emerging paradigm shift in the design of business.

Resources, References, Further Reading:


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