If you’ve ever played the computer game 'sneezies', you'll know how rewarding it is to get something right and have it start a chain reaction. In the game, communities of little bubbles with smiley faces bounce around the screen, often clustering together, sometimes separating out. Depending on how strategic you are, when you choose to ‘tap’ your chosen key sneezie, it basically explodes and its germy sneeze particles infect all the other sneezie bubbles who have the same reaction and so on. The aim is to infect as many as possible. In some senses, it’s quite disgusting as a concept, but also highly addictive.
Now it’s not that I'd want to compare entrepreneurs with germs - far from it. But, they do perhaps have something in common and it was the sneezie image that I couldn't help seeing when I started thinking about writing this. What kick-started my train of thought is a piece I came across by the World Economic Forum (WEF) that posed a similar question to the one in my title, asking whether entrepreneurship is contagious. The WEF article recognises that ‘environments where entrepreneurs can emerge easily are propitious to the creation of firms, to their growth and their success and, with the latter, to the success of the economy as a whole’. It goes on to describe research undertaken to explore what really drives this outcome and why typically, clusters of entrepreneurs and innovative activity seem to form in particular places, rather than a more geographically even spread, i.e. does this mean entrepreneurship is infectious and spreads faster in certain environments than others? The article is a rather dense read and there aren’t any firm conclusions except really to acknowledge that there may be a sort of domino effect where established and successful entrepreneurs inspire others to attempt to follow in their footsteps.
But it got me thinking. And I did the very predictable thing whenever curiosity gets the better of me, I turned to Google to see what others thought of this same question. Turns out, a lot of people are intrigued by this too. The piece that I liked best is written by the US university, Wharton, about research conducted by the management consultancy Bain and an organisation called Endeavour which supports high impact entrepreneurs. It’s attached below. The findings of this research seem very much to confirm that there is a domino effect but also, that you can’t force entrepreneurialism to happen, or when it does happen, you shouldn’t expect that you’ll be able to contain it or keep it in the same place. Setting up a tech city hub or introducing government–led initiatives to support startups and scale-ups doesn’t guarantee success or loyalty to that particular venue when success results. Interestingly, in the cases where success did result, more often than not, those businesses pretty rapidly packed their bags and moved to more established entrepreneurial hubs, like Silicon Valley or New York.
What’s the secret of these ‘des-res’ hubs where budding and existing entrepreneurs want to congregate? Endeavour claims that it’s the presence of ‘high impact’ entrepreneurs - those who have already beaten a path through the jungle and can help to mentor, nurture and co-invest in others who follow their lead. And interestingly, they often tend to stick around, long after their own successes are very evident. Endeavour calls these pioneers ‘multipliers’, because they are the role models successfully building up a local ‘ecosystem of entrepreneurs’ from the ground up.
Everyone on my team knows that I am currently just a little bit obsessed with and fascinated by co-working spaces – places where it seems so many of today’s bright and creative entrepreneurs are congregating and where they’re trading and bartering skills, encouraging each other and finding willing mentors and advocates. Everyone, it seems, has something that can help you. And who needs a sales team on commission when all the other businesses in the building are willing you to succeed and spreading the word just as eagerly as you’re doing for them? These vibrant, dynamic and empowering environments are fascinating and they’re springing up everywhere, across the UK and the world. You may not realise it, but you probably have one for a neighbour. (If you share my fascination, take a look at this great piece too ‘My chicken for your developer’ http://about-lhs.com/insights/my-chicken-for-your-developer/).
The business I work in, and which just underwent a very radical process of reinvention felt the domino effect too. Not from our peer group of fellow firms in the same business. But from a very diverse range of innovative and entrepreneurial businesses and founders, including Deliveroo, the unstoppable Esther Stanhope and the fantastic Passle team who were so generous with their time, shared their learnings and who showed us that ‘it’ can be done, that we should have courage in our ambitions and that whilst everyone else (especially our competition) might happily tell us we’re crazy, we should just crack on and make it happen. Whilst these role models didn’t invest financially in us, they invested belief and encouragement and real wisdom. Some of them definitely have mentor status. And they were just around the corner from us – which made it feel local and important to us all. You could say that we built our own little virtual hub community. So has their success had a domino effect? On us, most definitely. We’d have struggled to have the courage and inspiration without them. There’s no question they’ve had the same effect on countless others.
And whilst I will be shot by my long-suffering team if I divulge much more, I will risk their disapproval by confiding only that this extraordinary experience so far has triggered our own domino contribution to facilitating change beyond our own industry. These are dynamic, exciting times. When I am allowed to, I’d love to share more.
Few ideas in business conjure more vivid images of bold individualism than the do-it-yourself entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs go it alone, the mythology insists. They are swashbuckling mavericks, bucking the establishment. The image is irresistibly romantic and deeply entrenched. It is also completely misleading. We have groundbreaking evidence that the most vibrant entrepreneurship is developed by high-impact entrepreneurs when they operate in tight-knit networks, nurturing fellow risk-takers and trading know-how, capital and tough love. We’ve mapped this cross-pollination across generations and continents. And we’ve done this not by looking at the most obvious communities, like Silicon Valley, but at some of the harshest terrain for innovation.