“What Would Sir Richard Do?”

Branson: Shooting for the stars

While it may be futile to try to figure out a universal implicit behavioral rule of entrepreneurs that sets them apart from the non-entrepreneurial majority of the population, this Entrepreneur column by “serial entrepreneur” Matthew Toren suggests the importance of role models in entrepreneurship. His choice of role model might be somewhat arbitrary, but considering the achievements of Sir Richard Branson – Toren’s role model – Toren could have made a much, much worse choice. Branson, the founder of the many Virgin enterprises including space tourism and, most recently, entrepreneurial banking, is indeed an amazing entrepreneur.

In many respects, Branson is unmatched as a pioneer and innovator-entrepreneur. He is the market leader that shapes the structure of the future through products and services that revolutionize existing and create new markets. As such, he may be a great role models for those aspiring to entrepreneurial greatness.

But most entrepreneurs are not like Branson; they do not need to completely reshape the market through innovative investments. Instead, most of the very successful entrepreneurs who end up causing fundamental change to the market are revolutionary to much lesser degree. Think Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who both have contributed greatly to our lives and the market – but who have done so primarily through tweaking and building off of already existing ideas.

Indeed, while novel ideas are important, what is of greater importance for consumers (and other actors in the market) is their implementation. And it may very well be the case that emulators and imitators of the original creator’s work do a much better job. Think of the Tablet PC and its newer version Slate PC – and the much more recent (and successful) iPad. Market leadership in the sense of pioneering may not be a winning strategy in terms of market penetration and profits. But copying and emulating may be.

While this may raise a number of issues regarding the legal monopoly protection of ideas (patents, copyrights), it also points to the important distinction between innovation and invention. All entrepreneurs are inventors, but only a few are innovators. And that is how it should be – if all entrepreneurs were innovators, the market could not possibly provide the great value to consumers that it does – on a daily basis. “Tweaking” may be just as important as innovating.

This being said, there should be no doubt that we need a portion of both inventors and innovators. Tweakers and providers of incremental improvements can change the world, but may not do so in a single blow – but over time as the market accepts the improved and better product (better in terms of consumer satisfaction). Toren is right in asking himself what Richard Branson would do, while not always listening to the answer. Branson is a leader in the market – an innovator – and as such he deserves our respect and can inspire thousands of less innovative entrepreneurs. But it does not mean the thousands of brilliant inventors that follow Branson’s lead and improve on his innovations are less important.

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