Why Governments Don’t Get Startups–Or, Why There’s Only One Silicon Valley


Not understanding and agreeing what “entrepreneur” and “startup” mean can sink an entire country’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

I’m getting ready to go overseas to teach, and I’ve spent the last week reviewing several countries’ ambitious attempts to kick-start entrepreneurship. After poring through stacks of reports, white papers and position papers, I’ve come to a couple of conclusions.

1) They sure killed a ton of trees.

2) With one noticeable exception, governmental entrepreneurship policies and initiatives appear to be less than optimal, with capital deployed inefficiently (read “They would have done better throwing the money in the street.”) Why? Because they haven’t defined the basics:

What’s a startup? Who’s an entrepreneur? How do the ecosystems differ for each one? What’s the role of public versus private funding?

Six Types of Startups—Pick One

There are six distinct organizational paths for entrepreneurs: lifestyle business, small business, scalable startup, buyable startup, large company, and social entrepreneur. All of the individuals who start these organizations are “entrepreneurs” yet not understanding their differences screws up public policy because the ecosystem in supporting each type is radically different.

For policy makers, the first order of business is to methodically think through which of these entrepreneurial paths they want to help and grow.

Lifestyle Startups: Work to Live their Passion

On the California coast where I live, we see lifestyle entrepreneurs like surfers and divers who own small surf or dive shop or teach surfing and diving lessons to pay the bills so they can surf and dive some more. A lifestyle entrepreneur is living the life they love, works for no one but themselves, while pursuing their personal passion. In Silicon Valley the equivalent is the journeyman coder or web designer who loves the technology, and takes coding and U/I jobs because it’s a passion.

Small Business Startups: Work to Feed the Family

Today, the overwhelming number of entrepreneurs and startups in the United States are still small businesses. There are 5.7 million small businesses in the U.S. They make up 99.7 percent of all companies and employ 50 percent of all non-governmental workers.

Small businesses are grocery stores, hairdressers, consultants, travel agents, Internet commerce storefronts, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc. They are anyone who runs his/her own business.

They work as hard as any Silicon Valley entrepreneur. They hire local employees or family. Most are barely profitable. Small business entrepreneurship is not designed for scale, the owners want to own their own business and “feed the family.” The only capital available to them is their own savings, bank and small business loans and what they can borrow from relatives. Small business entrepreneurs don’t become billionaires and (not coincidentally) don’t make many appearances on magazine covers. But in sheer numbers, they are infinitely more representative of “entrepreneurship” than entrepreneurs in other categories—and their enterprises create local jobs.

Scalable Startups: Born to Be Big

Scalable startups are what Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and their venture investors aspire to build. Google, Skype, Facebook, Twitter are just the latest examples. From day one, the founders believe that their vision can change the world. Unlike small business entrepreneurs, their interest is not in earning a living but rather in … Next Page »

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Steve Blank is the co-author of The Startup Owner's Manual and author of the Four Steps to the Epiphany, which details his Customer Development process for minimizing risk and optimizing chances for startup success. A retired serial entrepreneur, Steve teaches at Stanford University Engineering School and at U.C. Berkeley's Haas Business School. He blogs at www.steveblank.com. Follow @sgblank

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17 responses to “Why Governments Don’t Get Startups–Or, Why There’s Only One Silicon Valley”

  1. Should “Buyable Startups” be called Flip Starts?

  2. Great article. I hope government organizations pay attention.

    You don’t touch upon culture much but it seems that a key component of Silicon Valley’s success is it’s tolerance of massive amounts of failure. In other cultures, failure rarely gets you a second chance yet here, you can fail many times before succeeding and that this is a very familiar story for most entrepreneurs. Changing a region’s culture is slow and difficult, which is yet another reason that Silicon Valley won’t be giving up it’s innovation lead anytime soon.

  3. Readers interested in spotting possible macro Israeli startup/hitech development trends or concerns may be interested in these recent pieces:
    “Tech Crutch”: The Challenge of Moving Beyond Technology in Israeli High Tech – by Adam R. Fisher
    Manufacturers Association sets up start-up unit – by Batya Feldman

  4. Very good model and article Steve. Should also be read by entrepreneurs; many of them lose a lot of time calling on the wrong type of potential investor for their business.

  5. Terrific article, Steve! Thanks for writing it. The situation gets even more complicated for governments now that they are also focusing on “economic gardening.” Lifestyle, small businesses, and buyable start-ups that make it to Stage 2 (e.g., become sustainable enterprises) also need unique ecosystems to achieve further growth – and neither start-up nor large corporate models help. Lots of government resources beginning to be wasted here too.

  6. Steve as usual you have well articulated insights about entrepreneurial ecosystems. In addition to Israel I want to point out the impact that http://www.tie.org had on changing the laws in India to allow the venture capital industry to thrive there. By all measures this successfully jumpstarted the non-service (ie not software and business outsourcing) startup ecosystem in India.

    Vinit Nijhawan
    Boston University