Could Newton have found three laws of entrepreneurship?

Sir Isaac Newton was a renowned 17th Century scientist who, among other things, formulated his three famous laws of motion that to this day are taught at school and underpin classical physics.

When Newton was alive, between mid 1600s and early 1700s, trade and associated entrepreneurship was starting to boom in the UK. The largely domestic agrarian economy was beginning to change with the growth of overseas commerce, particularly with North America and the West Indies. The slave trade, rise of manufacturing, and the import and export of ever more exotic goods were the areas being exploited by entrepreneurs of the time.

So, had the University of Cambridge had a science park where academics could spin-off and commercialise their research, would Newton have perhaps mingled with those businessmen and inadvertently formulated three laws of entrepreneurship to add to his portfolio?  And if so, would they have been akin to his acclaimed laws of motion?

Newton’s first law states that an object either remains at rest or continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless a force acts on it. So a ball lying stationary on a field stays that way until something like the force of a boot kicks it into play.

An entrepreneur doesn’t really behave like this.  Firstly, an entrepreneur is never at rest; he or she is always thinking about the next step, chasing a sales prospect, courting an investor, or multi-tasking at social media.  Secondly, an entrepreneur is rarely seen cruising in the same direction at the same speed until acted upon. By definition, entrepreneurs have some internal motivation that moves them forward despite forces acting against them. Indeed, some opposing forces like bureaucratic rules and regulations seem to give them even more drive to overcome and make progress.

So perhaps Newton’s first law of entrepreneurship would read “an entrepreneur remains restless and continues to progress generally forward despite a myriad of obstacles presented“.

His second law states that acceleration is produced when a force acts on a mass. The greater the mass (of the object being accelerated) the greater the amount of force needed (to accelerate the object). This means that if the force from an engine continues to push a car forward, overcoming friction, it will get faster. Mathematically, the acceleration is proportional to the force; twice the force on a fixed mass leads to twice the acceleration.

Entrepreneurs like acceleration, as this is business growth; the change from a start-up to a scale-up. Growth is produced when an enthusiastic, dedicated entrepreneur and their team act within a business.  And, business size (mass) does seem to play a role, as small agile start-ups can scale (accelerate) more quickly than larger companies with their legacy systems and cumbersome layers of internal middle management.  However, the growth results in a larger organisation, as if the mass accumulates like a snowball descending a mountain.  Yet, the metric of successful business growth is not usually linear; the hockey-stick shaped revenue curve that investors like to see has an exponential relationship with time despite the accumulating complexity of the business.  In fact, growth is all about the market opportunity and how quickly the business can capture it through slick execution.

Therefore, Newton’s second law of entrepreneurship might have been stated as “business growth occurs when an entrepreneur enters a market with a compelling proposition.

Finally, Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite re-action. So could the equivalent read that for every entrepreneurial success there is an equal and opposite failure? Possibly, although there are many more failures than successes. Failure can be new businesses that simply don’t make it through, but also much larger established businesses that fail to adapt and innovate as the new start-ups steal their market share.  The law may therefore read “for every startup success there are an order of magnitude more failures“. This is why venture capitalists invest in a broad portfolio hoping that one turns out to be extraordinary and can compensate for the losses of the many.

I suspect, therefore, Newton may not have found entrepreneurs and their unpredictable world of business particularly satisfying to formulate.  By their very nature, they are mavericks; more akin to the unintuitive quantum mechanics that we have since discovered with the help of Planck, Bohr and Einstein to name but a few. We’ll have to explore if quantum entrepreneurship is a better description in a future article…

Adrian Burden is author of Start To Exit: How to maximize the value in your start-up

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