What do a pizza maker and a chemical engineer starting businesses have in common? They both recognise an opportunity, and they will both assemble the resources they need to run their businesses.
They are entrepreneurs, but they have major differences. The chemical engineer who is commercialising a new process to create solar panels is described as an innovation-driven enterprise; the pizza maker is described as a traditional small or medium business.
This distinction is the basis for an interesting paper titled “A Tale of Two Entrepreneurs: Understanding Differences in the Types of Entrepreneurship in the Economy”, available from the Kauffman Foundation.
The distinction is palpable in our discussions on economic transformation, and the role of small business and start-ups in South Africa. On the one hand, there are those arguing for “gazelles” – innovators – to be the centre of policy, as they have the potential to be large employers and wealth creators, but we never identify who these potential gazelles are and what would lead to their proliferation.
On the other hand, the mantra of creating “one million small businesses” refers only to government policies that hinder small business, and not to actual market conditions.
We simply have not moved beyond high-level policy statements to developing the strategies that we need as a nation. We are expert cheerleaders for the Little Guy in the economy, but we have not moved to tangible products and services on a scale that will have an impact. In this environment, neither the pizza maker nor the chemical engineer is likely to benefit.
Bill Aulet, one of the co-authors of the paper, provides important advice on understanding the different challenges entrepreneurs face in terms of funding, growth potential, risk levels and other needs.
This is an incredibly useful starting point in South Africa, where generalisations about red tape compete with generalisations about oligopolies. In fact, it might be truer to state that we should be tackling both red tape and highly concentrated markets. But, again, these are such high-level policy statements (often with credible evidence) that they miss the fact that entrepreneurs in South Africa have different needs.
The pizza maker will have to navigate the municipal regulations on the preparation of food, a complicated system of human resources legislation and an opaque system of government funding. But, she will also have to purchase flour in a market that is dominated by large companies, and where small millers are unable to readily ship product to market.
One option for the business would be to go the artisanal route, but it would be difficult to do brisk business given the demand for artisanal foods.
The chemical engineer with the new processes for developing solar panels has similar challenges. Government regulations on inventions in universities seem too state-centric and the cost of prototyping is extremely expensive, and the venture capital system in South Africa underdeveloped. Moreover, there are the challenges of selling the process, and patents to bigger companies might be limited due to an investment stance that does not value early-stage development, or selling the product to construction companies may not be immediately open due to difficulty in marketing an unknown product.
There are pizza makers and chemical engineers who will have the nous and tenacity to navigate each of these challenges. However, not nearly enough of either type makes it through this demanding process. South Africa has one of the lowest rates of established businesses in the world.
A starting point to improving the prospects of success is recognising the different steps required to support more traditional small businesses and innovation-driven businesses.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Times: Business Time on the 22 March 2015.