Change The World

Naeem Zafar: Entrepreneurship for the Better World

Editor’s Note: Naeem Zafar is the president and CEO of Bitzer Mobile, a company that simplifies enterprise mobility. On November 15, 2013 Oracle announced it has acquired Bitzer Mobile. As a member of the faculty of the Haas Business School at the University of California Berkeley, he teaches Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the MBA program. He is the founder of Startup-Advisor, which focuses on educating and advising entrepreneurs on all aspects of starting and running a company. His entrepreneurial experience includes working directly with six startups, and he has extensive experience in mentoring and coaching founders and CEOs.

Mr. Zafar holds a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from Brown University (magna cum laude), Rhode Island, and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Minnesota. He is a charter member of TiE .He is also a charter member of OPEN where he serves as the Board member.

You can read his full bio from here, here and here.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Naeem Zafar recently to gain his ideas and insights about StartUp, social business and entrepreneurship for better world which is given below.

Q: You’re a successful entrepreneur. As a member of faculty of the Haas Business School at UC Berkeley, you teach entrepreneurship and innovation in the MBA program. At the beginning of our interview can you please tell us what exactly is entrepreneurship?

A: Entrepreneurship is a state of mind. It is a way to look at a situation and see how could you make a profitable venture out of it. It is very innate. People, educated or not in urban or rural setting, are just as likely to spot an opportunity and drive it to commercialization.  The likelihood is there just as it is for a Silicon Valley hotshot startup guy. So it transcends all boundaries of education, race and gender. It is a state of mind.

Q: You believe that entrepreneurship can be a powerful tool to alleviate poverty and extremism of the world and social businesses can fill the gap where public institutions often fall short. Can you please tell us more about that?

A: If you think about the definition of a business….its objective is to maximize shareholder return. So the shareholder who invests in the company has an expectation that the management should do whatever it can to maximize return; that is perfectly fine. We have seen tremendous companies and innovation come out of that model. But if there were a concept of setting up a company with the sole purpose of not  maximizing shareholders return but to address its social ill….. that can work for alleviating poverty.

It can be something as simple as the city doing lousy job of collecting garbage. Let’s say the garbage is not being collected on time which is very unpleasant as we know. We can set up a company so that there speedy pick up and disposal of garbage. The purpose of that company is to address this social ill. It is not to maximize shareholder profit. Imagine setting up the company with that objective and shareholders putting in money. This company’s objective is for this social ill to be addressed and not to maximize profit. Now, it is still a for profit company. It still pays market wages and hires the best people to address the issue but it is not trying to maximize profit.

This model which can be very rewarding for the shareholders as it is a new way of looking at solving many of the problems which governments are not well suited to solve. That’s called social business. I think the concept is a powerful one. It’s put forward by the Nobel laureate, Muhammad Yunus, in his 3rd book and I think it is a tremendous way for communities to organize and address issues which plagued them without having to wait for government to show up.

Q: How do you connect these three dots: social entrepreneurship, alleviating poverty and making a better world?

A: If you look at my previous answer I just connected the three dots for you.  Making a better world is about alleviating poverty and giving people a chance to participate in economic growth and well-being. Social businesses and entrepreneurship is a way for them to have that opportunity.

In the country that I grew up in you look for government to give you a good job. However, the government is not well equipped to provide a job for everybody. On the other hand, the private sector is well positioned. As we have seen in US, the private sector produced even submarines, bombs and fighter jets. This was quite shocking to me when I came to this country.

The government’s job is not to produce goods. Its job is to set policies and systems so that companies and entrepreneurs can thrive.

Q: How did you find the idea for Bitzer Mobile? Can you please briefly tell us about Bitzer Mobile?

A: Bitzer Mobile’s technical founder, Ali Ahmed, was working as a software architect for large companies in insurance and oil verticals for many years. He continued to recognize that people were struggling to allow employees mobile access to data.

Ali was having to solve the problem for every company in a unique way. So the idea was, why not come up with the way so that the employees can easily and securely access corporate data and be productive from wherever they happen to be. And that gave birth to Bitzer.

Q: As far as I believe for changing the world, we need to find complex, interesting  and  big problems of the world and then have to build great organizations that will sustain in the long run to keep solving those problems as well as to keep contributing for the betterment of the mother earth. Can you please tell us how can we find interesting, complex and big problems of this world?

A: First of all, I don’t agree with your definition. It is not about solving big problems. It is about solving problems. Problems of all sizes. Sometimes all you have to do is look around you. There are problems in your community, where you live, where you work. Solve those problems. Big ideas come from people trying to solve small problems which turn into great movements. So looking for the great problems to solve is not the only way and may not be most efficient way to do it either.

Q: What are your suggestions on finding interesting ideas and bringing the ideas to life to solve?

A: Interesting ideas to solve come from deep domain knowledge. It’s very difficult for entrepreneurs when they are young to come up with ideas as they can be light weight. The average age of an entrepreneur in America is 37. This means that many people are older than 37 when they start their company. So only if you worked in the industry for 5-10 years you really understand what issues are, what the problems are, and then you can see how you can solve them. So my advice is:  look around you, work in some industry, learn the hard skills. Then you will see the problem and you will be well equipped to solve them. This is how you address this issue.

Q: What are your takes on finding the right business model and identifying early customers?

A: To find the right business model and early customers is simple. You should be able to answer these two fundamental questions: what problem are you solving and who has this problem.  If you cannot concisely answer these two questions you don’t have clarity in your head. I insist that people should talk to 5 to 10 actual users and buyers of whatever product they’re planning to buy and try to understand what their pain is. If you cannot clearly articulate what pain your customers have do not start the company. Then discuss with customers what you are planning to do and if this would be interested in it. If you cannot generate this early customer interest, do not start the company.

And stop worrying about confidentiality. People have other problems to solve in their lives. They are not running to copy your idea. It is the execution of your idea that is the hard part. By bouncing these ideas off suitable customers and users and consistently getting positive feedback, you may be in a position to start the company and then they likely will buy it. Everything else will clarify itself during the course of this process.

Q: Can you please tell us about the legal process of starting a company?

A: Legal process depends on in which country you are starting the company in, what the local regulations are.  My book which is a legal guide for entrepreneurs goes into fair amount of details: What is the process, what options you have in the United States. So read the book. It’s available at naeemzafar.com.

Q: As you’ve seen during Internet bubble, there were so many companies founded and were committed to change the world. But with the changes of time around 90% of them got obsolete. And we ended up having some great companies. Now, there are also so many startups working with cloud computing, big data, wearable technologies, space, robotics and so on. The data shows most of them will also get obsolete as the success rate of startups is very low. But there are always some common characteristics, values,  philosophies and ideas that  keep some startups alive and helps to sustain in the long run. You have profound experience of seeing all the trends as you have been advising companies and working with great entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. What are your suggestions on building the next big organization?

A: Aspect of building the next big organization is about solving a big problem. It is easy to spot what are the problems that need to be solved. All the trends you mention have tremendous potential.

Big data and business analytics can pinpoint precisely if you put a restaurant in the corner of this street and that street. They tell you what will be your monthly sales when you put it in the corner of that street and that street. So, the way businesses will be making decision could be based on not intuition but actual data.

If you read the book or watch the movie called Moneyball, it is about applying statistics to baseball. It is about how a mediocre team became the number one team by using big data. And that is applicable to every single business. So look for a big idea around you and build a great team with high caliber people. If you can put together a right market with the right team, you can build a lasting company too.

Q: How do you think about hiring remarkable people and let them scope to work on achieving vision that will change our world for good?

A: I think it’s good idea to hire remarkable people. You should do that. It’s not easy to do that. Remember the good people  will follow somebody which they can respect and whose vision they share. If you don’t have the passion and vision yourself why would A people, A players, best players follow you. Best players want to follow someone that they believe in. If you have that you shall attract the right team. And yes, you will be able to do great things. So step up to the stage and stage could be yours.

Q:  Whenever we talk about changing the world, thing that always comes first is changing ourselves. After changing our own life, we can go and change our family, then our society and then our country and then we can have a mission of changing the world to make it a better place to live in. But changing the world is hard, complex, challenging and hurting. You have come a long way and have already left a body of works to make this  world a bit more special. Can you please tell us about what your life has thought you in this amazing journey?

A: What my life has taught me is that it’s not a sprint. It is a marathon. So you have to create your own brand. You have to be genuine and honest and people will follow you . If you have  a vision that attracts people, you will have easy time attracting them.

So my advice to myself and other people around me is that if you’re a genuine person and a truthful person and you have a strong vision and can articulate it, you will have people willing to follow you. Once you have people willing to follow you then there is no challenge you cannot take tackle, no matter how big it is.

You will be able to overcome it over time and there are plenty of problems to follow around the world. But be true to yourself and always look for the team who is willing to follow you.

Q:  Last but not least, can you please give some advice to entrepreneurs who are on the mission of changing the world?

A: Changing the world is important and changing the world sometimes happens. But that is not the goal to start with. It is too big goal. It is too audacious and maybe even too arrogant to have this goal.

Martin Luther King did not have the goal of changing the world. He was just trying to change some laws so that black people could have equal rights. When Steve Jobs was starting Apple he wanted to do a music iPod. He was not trying to change the world. So I’m a little bit suspicious of your question because changing the world has come up multiple times.  Forget about changing the world. Do something meaningful for the people around you and your community. If you’re lucky enough it will have a big impact.  So think more practical and try to make local change. Stop worrying about changing the world – that will come later if you’re so lucky.

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Further Reading:

1. Peter Klein on Entrepreneurship, Economics and Education

2. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

3. F. M. Scherer on Industrial Economy, Digital Economy and Innovation

4. Diego Comin on Entrepreneurship, Technology and Global Economic Development

5. Stephen Walt on Global Development

6. Juliana Rotich on Social Entrepreneurial Innovation

Peter Klein: Entrepreneurship, Economics and Education

Editor’s Note: Peter Klein, is Executive Director and Carl Menger Research Fellow of the Mises Institute and Associate Professor in the Division of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Missouri. At Missouri he also directs the McQuinn Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, and he holds adjunct faculty positions with the Truman School of Public Affairs and the Norwegian School of Economics. His research focuses on the economics of organization, entrepreneurship, and corporate strategy, with applications to diversification, innovation, food and agriculture, economic growth, and vertical coordination. Klein has authored or edited five books and has published over 70 academic articles, chapters, and reviews.

He taught previously at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Georgia, and the Copenhagen Business School, and served as a Senior Economist with the Council of Economic Advisers. He is also a former Associate Editor of The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek. He lectures regularly at the Mises University and other Mises Institute events.

Klein received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Berkeley and his B.A. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He co-founded the popular management blog Organizations and Markets.

To learn more about him, check out this this this this and this.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Peter Klein recently to gain insights about entrepreneurship, economics and education which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Peter, thank you so much for joining us in the midst of your busy schedule. We are very thrilled and honored to have you at eTalks.

Peter: It’s my pleasure to participate!

Niaz: You are the prominent researcher, speaker, author, analyst and think tank in the field of entrepreneurship, innovation, economics, and education. At the very beginning of our interview can you please tell us about Entrepreneurship? What is entrepreneurship to you? What are the different contexts of entrepreneurship?

Peter: The terms “entrepreneur,” “entrepreneurship,” and “entrepreneurial” are used in many ways, not always consistently! On the one hand, entrepreneurship is often used to mean self-employment: an entrepreneur is a person who starts or operates a small business. On the other hand, we also use the term “entrepreneurial” to refer to something broader, a mindset or way of thinking that emphasizes novelty, creativity, and initiative. Obviously one can be entrepreneurial in this sense without being a small-business owner.

In the academic literature, things get even more confusing. Originally the word entrepreneur was identified with decision-making, risk-bearing, and responsibility: entrepreneurs were the business people who organized production, transforming resources into valuable products and services for consumers. That usage goes back to the 18th century. More recently, scholars have identified entrepreneurship with narrower activities or functions such as alertness to profit opportunities or the introduction of new goods and services or new ways to make existing products. In my academic writing I adopt the concept developed by the American economist Frank Knight and the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises which emphasizes judgmental decision-making under uncertainty.

This variety of concepts and definitions causes problems, both in academic and in popular discussions. I sometimes think it would be better if we avoided the language of entrepreneurship altogether! As an exercise, I require my PhD students writing about entrepreneurship to describe their dissertation topics without using the word entrepreneurship or any of its cognates. If a student is writing about venture capital and IPOs, then call it “new-venture funding,” not entrepreneurship. If she is studying how people evaluate and compare new business models, then call it “business-model evaluation,” not entrepreneurship. I typically find that if people struggle to explain a particular phenomenon or research question without using the language or entrepreneurship, they probably don’t really understand what they’re doing!

Niaz: Can you please define what an entrepreneur is?

Peter: As discussed above, there are many definitions floating around in the academic and practitioner literature. I prefer to define entrepreneurship as judgment, the act of combining and recombining heterogeneous resources under conditions of uncertainty. But arguing about definitions is often counterproductive. I prefer to think in terms of the research question to be answered, or the practical problem to be solved. Defining entrepreneurship as self-employment or technological innovation or opportunity recognition may be useful in some contexts, but not others. Let’s focus on the phenomena and relationships of interest, even if we disagree about the labels!

Niaz: Why do you think entrepreneurship is the fundamental stand of understanding economics? And how?

Peter: Unfortunately, most people see economics as a dry, technical subject that involves poring over charts and graphs and writing equations to describe the “equilibrium” behavior of hypothetical actors. But economics is a logical, deductive, human science about real people acting in the real world, with all the dynamism, unpredictability, and creativity that entails. Markets aren’t static, lifeless mathematical constructs but lively, vigorous spaces where people interact and coordinate. Firms, markets, and industries don’t just come into existence by themselves, they have to be created and operated by real people with real responsibility. These people are entrepreneurs, what Mises called the “driving force” of the market economy. That’s one reason I’m attracted to the “Austrian” approach to economics, which has always placed the entrepreneur at the front and center of production and exchange—not an incidental actor who steps in to introduce novelty then fades into the background as the “normal” market process resumes. Entrepreneurship, as decisive action under uncertain conditions, is at the very heart of a market economy.

Niaz: At eTalks, we believe entrepreneurship is a great tool that helps building sustainable economy. We also believe entrepreneurs are the rock starts those who work to keep economy growing. Both entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs are the driving forces and instrumentals to build strong economy. Now, how do you connect these three dots: entrepreneurship, economic growth, and development of a country?

Peter: If we think of entrepreneurship is the broad sense of judgment under uncertainty, then economic development and growth can not exist without entrepreneurship! It is the entrepreneurs who invest the capital necessary for productivity growth, who organize production into firms and industries, who compete and cooperate to create and distribute goods and services to consumers in the most efficient and profitable manner. If we think of entrepreneurship more narrowly, as small business or startups or venture funding, then the story is more complex. To be sure, smaller and newer firms are often disproportionately responsible for employment growth and, in some contexts, the introduction of new products and new technologies. At the same time, large enterprises can also be innovative, and capital accumulation is often critical to achieving economies of scale and scope, even in today’s “knowledge economy.” And not every individual wants to be responsible for owning and operating a small business. Unfortunately, large firms are typically more adept at securing for themselves special political privileges and protection against competitors, though small firms play this game as well. Ultimately, I am agnostic about what mix of small and large, new and mature, and high-tech and low-tech firms is best for economic growth; I prefer to let competition in free markets sort it out.

Niaz: As you know, America is a great country having being built all big and great corporations. In the last two decades we have seen the structural and revolutionary contribution of the most exciting companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon in American economy. But things are not happening in the same ways throughout the world. In some points, things are happening more devastatingly. Some countries are taking optimum advantages of cutting age technologies, disruptive innovation, and digital economy. On the other hand, most countries are lacking behind and economic condition is becoming worse. According to you what drives entrepreneurs to build great organizations? And what are the role of culture and entrepreneurial environments in that endeavors?

Peter: Clearly culture and environment are critical for the success of entrepreneurs, however defined. Unfortunately, there is little consensus in the research literature about the precise mechanisms by which culture, including social norms and beliefs, affects economic behavior. We have a general sense that cultures in which experimentation and creativity are rewarded, and failure is tolerated, are more conducive to the kind of risk-taking that entrepreneurship requires. At the same time, there are plenty of counterexamples—the Nordic countries, for example, are relatively egalitarian and homogeneous, while still being highly entrepreneurial.

When it comes to the legal and political environment, the evidence is clearer. Countries with strong property-rights protection, a well-functioning monetary system, and minimal government intervention in the economy provide the best environment for entrepreneurship and economic growth. There is a strong temptation among many government planners to try to micro-manage entrepreneurial activity through targeted subsidies, infrastructure spending, tax and regulatory codes that favor one type of firm or location over another, and other attempts to create geographic or industrial clusters of innovation. Everyone wants the next Silicon Valley in his country or region. But entrepreneurial clusters like Silicon Valley emerge, endogenously, from the bottom up; they cannot be established from the top down. To be sure, strong “anchor” entities like research universities and established companies are important for kick-starting local entrepreneurial activity. But most attempts by government planners to target particular areas or activities for an entrepreneurial boost have fallen flat. The policy environment should also allow the “freedom to fail”—no bailouts and subsidies for unsuccessful ventures! Monetary and fiscal policies designed to “stimulate” the economy are also harmful, as they tend to generate asset bubbles and other forms of price inflation that make it more difficult for entrepreneurs to plan and invest.

Niaz: Why don’t we see big organizations getting formed in other countries? What are their core challenges?

Peter: Well, we do see large-scale enterprise around the world, but it often takes different forms such as diversified business groups, keiretsu, chaebols, and the like. Often these large groups are nominally private, but closely connected to the state, which tends to extend them special privileges that make it more difficult for them to innovate and compete internationally. Size is great when it results from superior performance on the market, but not so good when it comes from subsidies and political connections.

Niaz: How can they overcome those challenges?

Peter: Newer and smaller organizations looking for sustained growth have to find a balance between doing the things that made them successful in the first place—acting with boldness and imagination, being willing to experiment, finding the right niche—and developing routines and capabilities that keep it going. Often there is a change in mindset; in the early stages, founders feel like outsiders, Young Turks shaking up the establishment with little to lose.  Over time, the competitive landscape changes, and the outsider becomes the incumbent. This creates two problems: the team may still be in startup mode, still fighting the old battles, or it may become complacent, unaware of the potential competitor around the corner.

Complacency is a common problem for any successful organization. Clay Christensen has shown how large companies—and, I’d add, other large organizations like universities—struggle to adapt the newest and latest technologies. They are often too successful at what they already do, too effective at serving their existing customers using existing methods, too reluctant to disrupt their existing revenue streams. Of course, large and successful companies can also be innovative, typically by delegating decision authority to subunits, providing strong incentives for performance-enhancing innovations, setting up “skunk works” and internal corporate ventures, and other strategies. But it is not easy, and many large firms fail to adapt to changing circumstances.

Niaz: What other countries can learn from Silicon Valley and from its culture, environment, attitude, and innovativeness?

Peter: As noted above, Silicon Valley is a unique case and difficult to duplicate. What we see there, as in other successful innovative clusters, is strong anchor entities (e.g., Stanford University, Fairchild Semiconductor in the 1950s and 1960s, Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s and 1980s), a concentration of highly skilled and highly mobile workers, local venture funding, and a dose of serendipity. Economists have been studying agglomeration—the benefits of locating similar or complementary activities in geographic proximity—since Alfred Marshall’s work in the 1890s. Paul Krugman’s academic reputation rests partly on his elaboration of Marshall’s insights (not, incidentally, for anything Krugman wrote on macroeconomics!). Once a cluster emerges, it can exploit economies of scale: skilled workers, attractive firms, and aggressive funders want to be located close to each other. The trick is to get the cluster started in the first place. Nobody knows exactly how—otherwise we’d have Silicon Valleys all over the place.

However, it’s also important to recognize another force, what we might call economies of diversity. The late Jane Jacobs masterfully demonstrated that the growth and vitality of cities stems not from the way they cluster similar or complementary people and activities, but how they bring together a wide variety of dissimilar, and seemingly unrelated ones. Exposure to new ideas and new ways of thinking is more likely in a diverse, heterogeneous environment. So maybe we should care less about same-industry clusters, and think more about how to encourage interactions among firms and industries doing radically different things.

Niaz: In this information age, now we seriously need to redefine, rebuild, and redesign our Higher Education to help us in pursuing entrepreneurial, actionable, and effective knowledge to learn, grow, and work to contribute in global economy. What are your suggestions to change and build an effective education system?

Peter: That’s a huge question. I can’t speak authoritatively on primary and secondary education but I have strong opinions on the structure of the higher-education industry in the US and Europe. Basically, the established universities are the privileged incumbents who tend to be swept away by the disruptive innovation Christensen talks about. Most are highly inefficient, slow to embrace new technology, and highly dependent on public subsidy. Technology has encouraged many new entrants, mostly at the low-quality end of the market. The incumbent universities have responded by discouraging people from consuming these entry-level products—“Those online, for-profit universities are fly-by-night organizations, they don’t offer real degrees like we do!”—but I do not think this strategy can succeed in the long run. At present the established universities are coasting on their reputation for quality. Reputation lags are long, so it may take time for consumers to begin voting with their dollars and feet for more innovative, lower-cost competitors.

In short, the higher-education industry is poised for a new generation of entrepreneurs, in both the for-profit and non-profit spaces, to experiment with new forms of educational content, new production and delivery methods, new ways to package information, and a range of further innovations we cannot yet foresee. MOOCs are but one highly visible manifestation of this. I find it ironic that the established universities are struggling to embrace the MOOC, seeing it as a way for them to leverage their brands and extend their market shares. They assume that, in the future, students in the developing world will be taking online courses from Yale or Illinois. I think it’s more likely that students in New Haven or Urbana-Champaign will take courses from some brilliant and articulate lecturer in Bangalore.

Niaz: To me a great entrepreneur is someone who understands economics, can see the big picture, and analyzes the things globally. He is also an economist, a research scientist, and a remarkable doer. What are the core things of economics and globalization should entrepreneurs be master at?

Peter: I think everyone should understand basic economics—say, by reading Henry Hazlitt’s classic Economics in One Lesson. Most of economic principles are common sense: there’s no such thing as a free lunch, benefits and costs should be compared at the margin, voluntary exchange is mutually beneficial, actions often have unintended consequences, and so on. Basic knowledge about globalization—the radical drop in communication and transportation costs, the often-surprising differences in legal, political, and social rules and customs around the world—is important too. But I don’t think a deep theoretical knowledge of economics or international trade is a prerequisite to successful entrepreneurship. Intuition and experience are typically more here valuable than “book learning.” (And I say that as a university professor!)

Niaz: What are your advices and suggestions to entrepreneurs to find big and complex problems, to build actionable business model to work to solve those problems, and to make this world a better place to live in?

Peter: The most important advice is not to listen to people like me. Seriously, one can fill a large library with books about entrepreneurship, innovation, competition, and business success, most written by scholars or journalists or policymakers without any experience or expertise with actual entrepreneurship. Thinking conceptually about entrepreneurship, and studying the great entrepreneurs of the past, can be useful and informative. Knowing basic accounting, finance, and marketing is important. But these things are neither necessary nor sufficient for entrepreneurial success. Entrepreneurial judgment, as Mises put it, “defies any rules and systematization. It can be neither taught nor learned.”

From a social or policy point of view, I think we need an environment in which those who wish to experiment with entrepreneurship can do so. Many people are attracted to “wicked problems,” for the intrinsic satisfaction of solving them as well as for financial gain, and we should allow people young and old, novice and experienced, to try their hands, knowing that they can reap the rewards if they succeed, but will have to bear the costs if they fail.

Niaz: Last but not least, if you could send a message about the benefits of entrepreneurship, what would it be?

Peter: As educators, I think it’s critical to remind people who are not entrepreneurs—I’m looking at you, politicians and journalists—that entrepreneurship is the driving force of a market economy, and that entrepreneurs need property rights, the rule of law, sound money, and free and open competition to be successful.

Niaz: Dear Peter, thank you so much for your valuable time and sharing us your invaluable idea, experience, and knowledge which will help us to pursue entrepreneurial excellence.  We are wishing you very good luck for your good health and for all of your upcoming endeavors.

Peter: Thanks for the great questions, and I look forward to reading future entries in your series!

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Further Reading:

1. Diego Comin on Entrepreneurship, Technology and Global Economic Development

2. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

3. F. M. Scherer on Industrial Economy, Digital Economy and Innovation

4. Stephen Walt on Global Development

5. Robert Stavins on Environmental Economics

6. Ely Kahn on Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship

Diego Comin: Entrepreneurship, Technology and Economic Development

Editor’s Note: Diego Comin is an Associate Professor of Business Administration at HBS since 2007. He received his B.A. in Economics in 1995 from the University Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain and his PhD in Economics from Harvard University in 2000. Between 2000 and 2007, Comin has been Assistant Professor of Economics at New York University. He is also Research Fellow at the Center for Economic policy Research and Faculty Research Fellow in the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Economic Fluctuations and Growth Program. Comin has also been fellow for the INET and Gates foundations and consultant for the World Bank, IMF, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Citibank, and the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) of the government of Japan.

You can read his full bio from here. To learn more about his research, ideas and knowledge, check out this this this and this.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Diego Comin recently to gain insights about entrepreneurship, technology and economic development which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Diego, thank you so much for joining us in the midst of your busy schedule. We are very thrilled and honored to have you at eTalks.

Comin: The pleasure is mine.

Niaz: You’ve received your bachelor degree in Economics in 1995 from Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona, Spain and PhD degree also in Economics from Harvard University in 2000. Between 2000 and 2007, you were the Assistant Professor of Economics at New York University. And you have been Associate Professor of Business Administration at HBS since 2007. You’re also an honorable Research Fellow at the Center for Economic policy Research and Faculty Research Fellow in the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Economic Fluctuations and Growth Program. At the very beginning of our interview can you please tell us something about ‘Entrepreneurial Economics’?

Comin: Entrepreneurial economics is the area of economics that studies the causes and consequences of entrepreneurship.

Niaz: How would you define the connection and contribution of economists and entrepreneurs in the entrepreneurial economics to accelerate economic growth?

Comin: Often, when entrepreneurs found new companies they tend to utilize new technologies in production accelerating their diffusion. In other instances, new technologies are created to develop and commercialize new technologies. Hence, entrepreneurship may foster economic growth both by contributing to the creation and to the diffusion of new technologies.

Niaz: You’ve been working for so long with primitive technology dataset. What does actually the primitive technology dataset measures?

Comin: I should refer the reader to my paper with Erik Gong and Will Easterly “Was the Wealth of Nations Determined in 1000BC?” at the American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics (July, 2010). Basically, it measures whether certain significant technologies were present in the geographic areas that correspond to modern-day countries long time ago. For example, printing presses in 1500 AD.

Niaz: Can you please share your knowledge with us about Primitive Technology?

Comin: There are basically three key findings. First, cross-country differences in technology adoption were very large in the distant past (i.e., 1500 AD, 0 and 1000BC). Second, past levels of technology are highly correlated to current levels of technology. In particular, the levels of technology of our ancestors in 1500AD predict 50% of current cross-country differences in productivity or technology. Finally, the reason for this humongous persistence is that some technological knowledge associated with the adoption of historical technologies helps adopt current technologies.

Niaz: Can you please tell us about the diffusion of technology?

Comin: The moment technologies are invented, in principle they are ready for people around the world to use. However, most people and companies do not use them right away. Technology diffusion is the field that studies how and why technologies are adopted the way they are.

Niaz: What are the factors that affect the shape of the diffusion of technology?

Comin: There are several factors that may affect the shape of diffusion curves. How long ago a technology first arrived to a country, the level of income and its evolution, how intensively the technology is eventually used in the country, the rate of improvement of the technology and the productivity gains associated to these improvements, the potential complementarities of one technology with others, and the diffusion of technology in neighboring countries.

Niaz: Your research consists on studying the process of technological change and technology diffusion both across countries and over time. As you know, cutting edge technology, super innovation and evaluation of social media have been changing everything. We are in the golden era of Digitalization. Economy is also transforming to Digital Economy. Can you please tell us about Digital Economy? What has changed and what’s new in this digital economy?

Comin: The digital economy lowers the costs of transferring information. And by making information cheap it reduces the costs of bringing new technologies to all the corners of the world. However, it is important to be aware that the reduction in the costs of transferring information precedes (by a lot) the digital economy. One advantage of having direct measures of technology that span 200 years is that one can uncover long-term trends that are not obvious to the naked eye. When looking at my data, I observe that the acceleration in the speed of diffusion of technologies started with the industrial revolution and it has been unraveling smoothly since then.

Niaz: Things are not happening in the same ways all over the world. Digital Divide, Broadband Connection, Availability of Technology, Lacking of Knowledge and some other constraints have been putting under developed, developing and poor countries behind. How large is cross-country differences in technology adoption? How can underdeveloped, developing and poor countries take optimum advantage of digitalization?

Comin: That question raises an interesting point. Though technologies are more readily available in all countries than 100 or 200 years ago, the gap in the intensity or use (or penetration rates) that we observe between rich and poor countries has widened. (Marti Mestieri and I document that in a recent paper “If Technology Has Arrived Everywhere, Why has Income Diverged?” NBER wp#19010.) It is not easy to explain why this has been the case but it seems that the super low cost of transmitting information are not sufficient for a large number of potential users to know how to apply new technologies (in developing countries). Information is not the same as Knowledge.

Niaz: In near future, I hope we won’t have that much difference in our online and offline life. At the same time, we have started to live a life that is more likely science fiction. Living such an exciting era what do you think about the future of digital economy?

Comin: It seems safe to conjecture that in the future (and probably in the present too) the constraint will not be information but our ability to do something with it. I guess that the challenge for the digital economy will be to help on that front.

Niaz: What are you economic advice to young entrepreneurs, startups founders and CEOs? What are the things they should always keep in mind to grow and excel with their startups?

Comin: I think it is important to be always aware of what’s the core of the company; the area/activity where the company is really great. And always evaluate how actions or strategies affect/complement the core.

Niaz: Any last comment?

Comin: Both as a fundamental driver as well as a manifestation of other drivers, technology is key for the economy and society.

Niaz: Dear Diego, thank you so much for sharing us your invaluable ideas knowledge and insights. We are wishing you very good luck for all of your future endeavors.

Comin: Thanks very much. I also wish you good luck with eTalks.

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Further Reading:

1. Philip Kotler on  Marketing for Better World

2. F. M. Scherer on Industrial Economy, Digital Economy and Innovation

3. Stephen Walt on Global Development

4. Robert Stavins on Environmental Economics