Entrepreneurship: New Idea or Just Old-fashioned Problem Solving?

Pointe Innovation


It seems to me that every other business article written today, in one way or another, touches on entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. Many of us throw the terms around in our everyday conversations, including myself recently when I bumped into an old friend in line at a coffee shop. It went something like this:

Friend: So, what are you up to these days?

Me: (enthusiastically) I returned to private practice several years ago, and I am really enjoying working with entrepreneurs.

Friend: (not a lawyer and now squinting a bit) Oh that sounds interesting, I thought you were a business lawyer.

Me: I am a business lawyer, but lately I’ve been working with people to try to help them turn their new ideas into thriving businesses.

Friend: Oh, so you are working with young people right out of college.

Me: (hesitantly and now I’m squinting) No, most of my clients are my age or older.

Friend: But they are just starting out in the business world, right?

Me: No, not all of them – some are first-timers, but many are in established businesses.

Thankfully, my friend let me off the hook with that last reply, and we said our goodbyes. As I was fleeing to the safety of my office, I couldn’t help but replay the conversation in my mind. My friend had every right to be confused, and why was I suddenly putting a new name on my work?

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to work with small-business owners to address a range of legal issues that arise across the lifeline of nearly every business. My clients have needed help with formation and organization, contract negotiation and drafting to build relationships with developers, vendors, distributors and of course customers. I’ve also assisted them with lending arrangements, raising capital and even Intellectual Property projects to help protect their intangible assets with trademark registrations or development and licensing agreements.

What is so different about my practice today versus 20 years ago that I’m now referring to my clients as entrepreneurs? It turns out, not as much as one might think, so I began to wonder if the idea of entrepreneurship was really anything “new” or just the latest craze?

For my generation, Google holds the answers to all questions – so of course I turned there first to make sure I actually understand what an entrepreneur is. This search led me to Wikipedia’s definition of an entrepreneur as “a person who has possession of a new enterprise, venture or idea and is accountable for the inherent risks and the outcome.” Wikipedia also suggests that an entrepreneur involves the transformation of “innovations into economic goods.”

Put another way, entrepreneurship results when someone either starts an entirely new business or broadens the scope of an existing one, with a goal of improving an existing solution or solving an entirely new problem. Well that certainly sounds like every client I’ve ever worked with … and all of them, in my experience, have been doing so with hopes of making a profit. Perhaps my friend was right, this really was not anything new.

I went back to Google and as it turns out, entrepreneurship is really, really old stuff. I’ll spare you the history lesson, but suffice it to say, men like the Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon in the late 17th century and Jean-Baptiste Say in the early 18th century were already discussing men who fit our modern day definition of entrepreneurs.

So why all the buzz today? I think it is a combination of both tangible and intangible factors. Let me explain. Our current economy has resulted in a need for new ideas (we need to save resources, reduce expenses, reduce waste, improve efficiencies, the list goes on and on), and we also have many individuals who are no longer “fat and happy” in their jobs and are forced to seek other, perhaps nonconventional, opportunities in order to make a living. Let’s not forget that necessity is the mother of invention, and our current economy has resulted in quite a long list of necessities. The other intangible factor has to do with perception and, I believe, hope.

Thom Ruhe, director of entrepreneurship at The Kauffman Foundation, has said that entrepreneurship has “positive brand confusion.” He suggests that when people think of entrepreneurs, they often think about one of two extremes – either the young guys who started the tech giants Google and Facebook, or the friend or neighbor who started a local restaurant or opened a plumbing business. Whichever image you see, chances are the connotation is a positive one.

So as we celebrate existing businesses across Mississippi in this edition of Pointe Innovation magazine, let’s also take a moment to applaud these established businesses for their past entrepreneurial spirits. After all, it was all their problem-solving, improving old processes to become more efficient and using fewer natural resources, while also increasing safety features, that have led so many Mississippi businesses to places of leadership within their particular industries.

Most of these business owners would tell you they didn’t do anything special or all that different, they just did what they had to do to help their businesses not only survive, but to thrive – and maybe they had a little bit of luck on their side. In the end, no matter what catchy name we give it, isn’t that what running a successful business is all about?

Wendy R. Mullins is Special Counsel in the corporate and securities group and practices in Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP’s Jackson office. She can be contacted at wmullins@bradley.com for more information.

Republished with permission. This article first appeared in Pointe Innovation magazine in Fall 2014.