Technology entrepreneurship and the disruption of ambition

Napoleon at the Great St Bernard — by Jacques-Louis David [Public domain]

There has been a great deal of analysis of how technology will disrupt life in the coming decades. Little of this, though, has looked at how technology is changing one of the most powerful forces in shaping society: ambition.

What the most ambitious people choose to do with their lives has a profound impact on society, the economy and culture. It’s changing, fast. At Entrepreneur First, we believe that building technology startups will become the ‘default’ career path for the world’s most ambitious people.

I argue three things below. First, that digital technology is the most recent in a series of ‘technologies of ambition’ that have enabled ambitious people to maximise their impact over the last millennium or so. Second, that technology entrepreneurship is likely to become the dominant ‘technology of ambition’. Third, that new institutions will be needed to channel, focus and amplify this new ambition (and that Entrepreneur First will be one of them).

A brief history of ambition

Let me sketch a (highly stylised) ‘brief history of ambition’ to put today’s situation in context. The most important concept in such a sketch is the idea of a ‘technology of ambition’. This is the ‘technology’ that gives an individual maximum ability to have impact in a given place and time. Maximising impact is the essence of ambition, so ambitious individuals seek out paths that give access to their era’s dominant ‘technology of ambition’.

Over time these paths become somewhat standardised (careers, ultimately) and institutions develop to formalise access to the ‘technology’. These institutions in turn become magnets for talent.

What are these ‘technologies of ambition’?

If you were born in early medieval England and were not the son of a great lord, your prospects were rather limited, no matter how ambitious you were. There were few, if any, ways to have impact beyond the village in which you were born.

By the late medieval period, though, a great ‘technology of ambition’ had emerged. It allowed the son of a butcher from Ipswich to build this:

Credit: Luke Nicolaides — https://www.flickr.com/photos/lukenicolaides/8845859010/ CC BY-SA 2.0

Why was Cardinal Wolsey able to emerge from obscurity to become the most powerful and richest person in the country?[1] To simplify, literacy. Literacy was the great ‘technology of ambition’ of the pre-modern period. If you could write down instructions and there were people who could read them, you could administrate at scale. Not scale as we would recognise it today, but at a far greater scale than the village you were born in.

If you wanted to read and write, you had to join the Church, like Wolsey. My favourite thing to tell groups of ambitious young people today is that 1,000 years ago they’d all be training to be monks and priests — not from piety, but from naked ambition.

Fast forward a few hundred years and the dominant ‘technology of ambition’ has moved on. By the late 18th century, armies are professionalising and something more like the modern state has emerged. Military command is the new ‘technology of ambition’ that the most ambitious people want to master. By 1800-ish, military command allowed an individual to say a word in Paris and move armies hundreds of miles away. It’s this ‘technology’ that allows the young Napoleon Bonaparte to progress from Corsican obscurity to French emperor.

Skip another couple of generations and finance emerges as the dominant ‘technology of ambition’. Cheques and memos written in New York reverberate around the world. Ambitious individuals who can harness finance are the emerging ‘masters of the universe’. Figures like J.P. Morgan in the late 19th century and Sidney Weinberg in the mid-20th become Wall St legends.

Finance’s dominance as the ‘default’ career path for ambitious people has been remarkably enduring [2]. In 2011, when we started Entrepreneur First, 60% of computer science graduates from one of the UK’s top universities went into finance. It remains the most popular destination for graduates of the world’s top business schools. As a ‘technology of scale’, the ability to direct vast capital flows to every corner of the planet is hard to beat.

But there’s at least one corner of the world where this default path doesn’t hold: Silicon Valley. In Silicon Valley the most ambitious people want to build technology companies. My bet is that this will become the dominant ambition globally in the twenty first century.

Ambition and the means of production

Entrepreneurship built on digital technologies — software, the internet, mobile, artificial intelligence, etc — represents the most powerful ‘technology of ambition’ yet. There are three reasons for this: ever growing scale, ever growing scope and ever falling cost.

Scale: Because of the internet, digital technologies allow you to have an impact on more people than at any time in history. Did anyone in human history have an impact on a billion people each day before the 21st century? Napoleon would be green with envy at the scale of influence Mark Zuckerberg commands today [3]. The number of people reachable through an internet connection continues to balloon.

Scope: Digital technologies are general purpose. Whatever the focus of an individual’s ambition, digital technologies provide a means for achieving it. As Marc Andreessen says, software is eating the world. For example, taxis and hotels are hardly traditional high tech industries. But today the most important companies in both sectors are technology companies. This means that even people with no intrinsic interest in technology itself can and will turn to digital technologies to realise their ambitions.

Cost: The cost of starting (if not of scaling) a technology company has collapsed over the last decade. Being able to reuse open source code and rent, not buy, computational power has made technology entrepreneurship much more accessible as a ‘technology of ambition’.

This is the most profound shift of all. Moving from the J.P. Morgan model of ambition to the Mark Zuckerberg model shifts the balance of power from capital to talent. Ambitious people have gone from writing cheques to writing code. Today the most ambitious individuals don’t own the means of production, if they can write code they are their own means of production (Marx would, perhaps, be surprised). This gives ambitious people unprecedented power.

From writing cheques to writing code (Public domain; Presidência do México — Flickr CC BY 2.0)

This is why we see more and more of the world’s most ambitious individuals seeking to master today’s ‘technology of ambition’: technology entrepreneurship and the digital technologies that underpin it.

New ambitions, new institutions

Each new ‘technology of ambition’ leads to new institutions that amplify the ambitions of people drawn to the technology.

To illustrate, let’s consider the three historical ‘technologies of ambition’ discussed above.

  • Literacy: By the late medieval period many more people wanted (and were needed to) read and write. Literacy could no longer be confined to the scriptoria of monasteries. As a result, cathedral schools and universities emerged. Cardinal Wolsey attended the relatively recently opened Magdalen College School and Magdalen College. (Both were founded within a couple of decades of his birth).
  • Military command: As armies became more professional, an elite cadre of officers was needed to run them. Military schools emerged. Napoleon’s rise to prominence was accelerated by his studies at the École Militaire. (It was founded a couple of decades before his birth)
  • Finance: Finance — and its cousin, management — emerged as ‘technologies of ambition’ in the twentieth century. Business schools followed. Like its predecessor institutions, the business school became a magnet for talent and ambition.

In each case, the institutions provide three things. One, a mechanism for acquiring the skills associated with the ‘technology of ambition’. Two, a social network of like-minded and like-skilled ambitious individuals. Three, a means to accelerate an individual’s next steps, such as providing privileged access to a set of resources or positions.

Crucially, these institutions play a role in taking ‘technologies of ambition mainstream. Initially the tool is restricted to a very small number of people and usually acquired by accident of birth or circumstance. We might call this ‘pre-mainstream’ — e.g. when only monks were literate. After the institution develops, the technology becomes a tool that is accessible to a larger , albeit still elite, group. This group typically seeks to acquire knowledge of the technology deliberately and succeeds or fails on the basis of merit, more or less. At this stage, we can say the technology is ‘mainstream’ — e.g. by the time there was a literate professional class.

This is the transition that technology entrepreneurship now needs to go through. History suggests that, relative to today, many more ambitious individuals will seek to start technology companies in future.

Beyond startup accelerators

We’re at the early stages of the emergence of technology entrepreneurship as the ‘default career path’. The development of the related ‘magnet’ institutions is at a correspondingly early stage. I’m skeptical that startup accelerators are the answer. The unit they care about is the company, not the individual.

In that sense accelerators are the ‘pre-mainstream’ institutions of technology entrepreneurship. They assume that any good founder can and should form a team and develop a startup idea organically. This is implicitly conservative. It’s like believing in the 18th century that all the world’s great military leaders are probably the sons or nephews of great lords. The past might look like that, but it doesn’t mean the future will.

Most accelerators have a team/idea filter on entry. This means that they don’t, crucially, provide a path by which a sufficiently talented and ambitious individual can succeed on merit alone. They therefore exclude a large fraction — perhaps a majority — of the people who could be great technology entrepreneurs.

That, in short, is why we designed Entrepreneur First. We want to support the most talented and ambitious people even before they have a company . We’re entering an era where a large proportion of the world’s most ambitious individual will be founders. At Entrepreneur First we’re building an institution that amplifies their efforts from the very beginning of their journey.

As I like to say, the Napoleon of the 21st century won’t raise an army, they’ll start a startup — and we hope they’ll start it with us.

If you think you can build something extraordinary and want to master the new ‘technology of ambition’, you can apply to join Entrepreneur First in London or Singapore here.

Thanks to Zoe Jervier, Alice Bentinck and Alex Crompton for reading drafts of this.

[1] He wasn’t the first example — there were powerful non-nobles centuries before. But he’s a very striking one.

[2] ‘Default’ doesn’t mean ‘only’, of course . Hopefully it’s obvious that literacy, military command and finance are just examples, not a canonical list.

[3] Of course, just because a technology of ambition exists doesn’t make it a good thing. But we can all agree that it’s better for ambitious people to build valuable things than to invade countries.

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