By Any Other Name

From entertainer to military leader, the changing meaning of the word “entrepreneur” holds significance.

What does it mean to be an entrepreneur?

Let’s examine this question in the most literal sense: the word itself and its derivations.

Looking at that wordsmith’s bible, the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s no surprise to find that that word has French origins. What is surprising is that it first emerges in two unlikely and very different arenas, music and war.

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According to the OED, the first recorded English-language usage of “entrepreneur” comes in 1475, in a description of the ancient Roman Republican consul and military leader Publius Decius as being “so hardy an entrepreneur in battle.” The dictionary defines an entrepreneur in this sense as “One who undertakes; a manager, controller, champion.”

The second definition is, “The director or manager of a public music institution; one who ‘gets up’ entertainments, especially musical performances.” In this context, the first reference appears much later, in 1878: “Concerts were started by a well-known entrepreneur of the day.”

So how did we get from the battlefield and the concert hall to today’s understanding of “entrepreneur,” defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “a person who organizes and manages a business undertaking” — and what do we learn from that journey?

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In war, successful leaders are those who can see the big picture, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of all sides in the conflict. They respond rapidly to changing conditions and new information and events, and can handle the most extreme pressure.

While launching a new enterprise is not a life-and-death situation, successful entrepreneurs certainly have to see the big picture of the market they hope to enter. They need to know where the openings are, and avoid going directly against strong, entrenched operations. Most definitely, they have to be able to respond to other changes and innovations.

Additional similarities include the ability to marshal and manage resources, and to maintain morale even when things are not going well. Note that we frequently use the military word “troops” in the business world.

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For both the military commander and the entrepreneur, strategic planning and tactical agility are essential to success. Employing these effectively will ultimately allow the entrepreneur to become, in OED’s definition, a champion.

While the link between concert promoter and entrepreneur seems more obvious, here too we might find some useful lessons. Concerts are challenging to organize, with lots of moving parts to hold together. The product — the performance — must satisfy the preferences of the consumer, and a significant amount of effort goes into building public awareness of the show. Clearly, all these requirements also apply to getting a new business off the ground.

More subtle are some of the things we associate with music itself, like artistry, emotions and the sense of shared experience that many people enjoy about listening to live music. This connection may be more applicable in the marketing of a new product or service. Building a new and better widget creates the possibility of a successful new enterprise; creating an emotional attachment, a sense of belonging for customers who buy the widget is essential to the art of advertising and thus selling the widget.

A final bit of wordplay: entrepreneur and enterprise (and for that matter, entertainment) all have roots that include the word “enter.”  This simple word is so important that OED devotes more than two pages to it. Its Latin derivation has dual meanings: “within” and “between.”

This is perfect for the entrepreneur: A successful new business exists within a particular industry or field, but finds its niche, its place between existing products or services.

In today’s usage, “enter” most simply and commonly means “to go in.” This is the most important step any entrepreneur will take: to go into the marketplace and begin competing for customers. Or as Publius Decius might have said, “Showing up is half the battle.”

Keith Twitchell  spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.



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