The New Face of Entrepreneurism

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Economics is the study of choice. How do people choose to use their limited resources to satisfy their unlimited want? But what if the choices presented to us are changing? More than ever, it seems, America’s young entrepreneurs are exploring a different kind of business than their predecessors.

The New Yorker‘s Nathan Heller recently wrote a piece titled “Bay Watched: How San Francisco’s Entrepreneurial Culture is Changing the Country.” Heller interviews a LinkedIn employee, who says ““The word ‘entrepreneur’ has undergone a redefinition. For a while, it was like you’re either running the laundromat or the coffee shop, or you’re trying to create the next Apple. But there’s been a whole flourishing of people who are starting different kinds of businesses—who are having pride in a small business that gives them autonomy.” As Heller puts it, San Francisco has become a “three-business-card kind of town,” implying the various pursuits these entrepreneurs are pursuing simultaneously, which are often greener, more women-oriented and techie than small businesses have ever been.

These businesses seem to fall into two categories: “lifestyle” businesses aimed at making your life easier (or more beautiful, or trendier, etc.), and “marketplace” businesses, which connect buyers with sellers. An example of both would of course be Etsy.com, which every woman reading this will undoubtedly be familiar with. Etsy charges sellers who post their handmade items in shops, and with sellers making $895 million in goods last year, the company continues to post profits and grow.

Despite conservatives being purportedly pro-business, this development often seems to be met with a cultural disdain by those in the Red. A perfectly friendly investment manager (and I have no doubt who he voted for) snorted recently when I mentioned “Rent the Runway,” a website that allows women to rent luxury designer clothes for a few days or a special event.

What he perhaps did not realize is how successful this start-up venture from two Harvard MBAs has been: as co-founder Jennifer Hyman puts it, “‘Many of the boardrooms of venture capital firms or strategic investors are filled 100% by men. You can’t describe to a man why it is that women feel compelled to wear a new dress to every occasion, or why women are obsessed with living this celebrity lifestyle… it’s just something you intuitively know as a woman… So we would have to address these kind of board rooms full of men by showing them videos of our customers.”

That’s just one personal example, but there are many indications that this entrepreneurial trend towards greener, foodier and more women-friendly truly exists, and that it annoys a lot of people. Reason talks about entrepreneurial foraging as “greener-than-thou.” Conservatives are actually turned off by greener marketing tactics. Rod Dreher, a famous food writer, has several pieces in The American Conservative dissecting for that particular audience how being a foodie and valuing good food won’t turn you into an insufferable person. (Many commenters disagree: “Give me pizza for supper and I’m happy. But it damned will better be REAL pizza, not this damned New Age pizza with goat cheese and barbecue sauce or some damned fool other concoction that could only have come from the mind of a Frenchman on acid.”)

Is the cultural dissonance because so many of these start-ups are geared towards things that, if the government did them, would annoy conservatives? Or is it because, like each generation before us, there’s a certain disdain for anything that will make life too easy, or at least easier than the previous generation had it?

Either way, it seems that in this protracted period of financial despondency, the least the conservative movement could do for itself is embrace entrepreneurial people, in whatever weird birdcage T-shirt or dress they come in. One would think that a free-market philosophy would be happy that the enterprising American spirit is still alive-and-kicking, if wearing a slightly more chic-chic ensemble.