Steve Blank

Entrepreneurs as dissidents

November 6, 2012: 11:21 AM ET

Countries that put their artists and protesters in jail will never build a culture of entrepreneurship.

By Steve Blank, contributor

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he ran the Think Different ads, a brilliant marketing campaign to make Apple's core customers believe that Apple was still fighting for the brand. But in hindsight, the ad captured something much more profound.

The crazy ones? The misfits? The rebels? The troublemakers? To celebrate those people as heroes requires a country and culture that tolerates and encourages dissent. Because without dissent there is no creativity.

Most start-ups solve problems in existing markets – making something better than what existed before. Some start-ups choose to resegment a market – finding an underserved niche in an existing market or providing a good-enough, low cost solution.  These are all decent businesses, and there's nothing wrong with founding one of these.

But some small segment of founders are truly artists – they see something no one else does. These entrepreneurs are the ones who want to transform "what is" and into "what can be." These founders create new ideas and new markets by pushing the boundaries. This concept of creating something that few others see – and the reality distortion field necessary to recruit the team to build it – is at the heart of what these founders do.

The founders that make a dent in the universe are dissidents. They are not afraid to tell their bosses they are idiots or tell schools they've been teaching the wrong thing or to tell an entire industry to think different. And, more importantly they are not afraid to tell their country it's mistaken.

Over the last few years, I've traveled to lots of countries that understand that the rise of entrepreneurship will be an economic engine for the 21st century. In several of these countries, the government is pouring enormous sums into building entrepreneurship programs, faculties and even cities. Yet time and again when I ask the local entrepreneurs themselves what questions they have, most often the first question is, "How do I get a visa to the United States?'

For years I thought the reason hands were raised was simply an economic one. The same countries that repress dissent tend to have institutionalized corruption, meaning the quality of your idea isn't sufficient enough to succeed by itself, you now need new "friends in the right places." But I now see that these are all part of the same package. It's hard to focus on being creative when a good part of your creative energies are spent trying to figure out how to work within a system that doesn't tolerate dissent.

Lessons Learned

  • Entrepreneurs require the same creative freedom as artists and dissidents
  • Without that freedom, countries will be relegated to cloning others' business models or creating better versions of existing products
  • History has shown that the most creative people leave repressive regimes and create elsewhere.

Steve Blank is the author of "The Four Steps to the Epiphany," which details his customer development process for minimizing risk and optimizing chances for startup success; and of "The Startup Owner's Manual," a step-by-step guide to building a successful company. A retired serial entrepreneur, Steve teaches at Stanford University, U.C. Berkeley's Haas School of Business, Columbia and the National Science Foundation. His books and a longer version of this story can be found at

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