Tech Entrepreneurship Hasn’t Changed in 100+ Years

No matter how trendy the media wants tech entrepreneurship to be, it has all been done before

Tech started to become romanticized in commercial circles in the late 90s; it popped into pop culture right around the time everyone became fascinated with social media and Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Zuckerberg.

Since then, this ‘new breed’ of entrepreneurship has been the talk of the town. Mass media’s narrative is:

“Everyone’s an entrepreneur now,” “Everyone has an app now,” “Look at these houses full of precocious kids,” “They’re all highly intelligent but socially incoherent,” “How new, how grand, how unusual; what a story.”

In 1876, Thomas Edison built a lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey where he aimed to produce inventions every week. He filled the two story frat-lab with up to twenty engineers at any given time. These ‘kids’ were rarely formally educated, and Edison actually teased the ones that were.

Edison asked a recent hire, a Princeton graduate, to find the volume of a light bulb. The engineer mathematically approximated the volume of the sphere and the cylinder of the light bulb in a few minutes while Edison simply filled the light bulb with sand. In just a few seconds Edison had its empirical volume.

In the few years that Edison kept this makeshift Silicon Valley alive, he produced electric light and the first tool that could record and play sounds. Edison’s inventing of the phonograph and light bulb created entire industries.

Thomas Edison reciting ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ in his phonograph

Just how valuable is another social network? At this point, most ‘startup founders’ are just creating derivatives of products that are derivatives of industries. The tech titans of today craft products, the tech titans of the 19th century crafted industries.

The amount of money flowing into Silicon Valley is notable, yes, but not unique to this period. J.P. Morgan invested nearly all he had in Thomas Edison to help him form Edison General Electric. The best entrepreneurs of this era were all backed by Wall Street.

Assuming that, because our technology is more advanced, we’re pioneering new ground that hasn’t been touched before is fallacious. The frameworks needed to create industries and spark technological revolutions already exist. The ‘classics’ can teach us every principle we need to know to thrive.

If your goal is to become an entrepreneur, you’re probably not an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs that create industries, that change things, that move us forward set out to do exactly that. They wake up and think, “What if we could record our voice and play it back 100 years later?” Stop trying to fit into a social archetype and start focusing on real innovation.

Don’t get me wrong, the developments we’ve made in communication alone in the past few decades is astonishing. We’d just make these advancements a lot quicker if we spent our time studying the Edisons and Wrights of history instead of talking about how ‘cool and unusual’ this ‘new wave’ of ‘entrepreneurship’ is. To be transparent, I may be a bit guilty of supporting this trend myself….

Entrepreneurs should focus on re-applying frameworks that have effectively revolutionized tech on new industries and technologies. We still have a lot to learn from the entrepreneurs of the past, even if their innovations don’t seem as innovative anymore.