Canada is missing a critical component that is essential in order to lead our economic growth away from its traditional dependence on the energy sector. In a word, or rather several, we lack new-age entrepreneurs. This very specialized and emerging group is (thus far at least) unique to the United States. Though their role is still being defined, they give that country a significant edge in the new economy. The impact they are having, and will have, is profound.
These are not swashbuckling entrepreneurs the like of which have launched such wealth-creating engines as “What’s App.” They are not even, at least seemingly, singularly focused on adding to their billions. Rather, these are accomplished entrepreneurs with their own business start-up successes behind them who are keen on expanding across other industries, wherever the opportunity exists, to change the world. They are not bent on the control dynamic or perquisite so common to the investing philosophy traditionally and, more commonly, still associated with very successful entrepreneurs. Quite the opposite: they understand that to be successful across business sectors in which they may have no relevant experience, those entrepreneurs who have the game-changing ideas have to become the vehicle through which success might be possible.
This may well sound like a bit of gobbledygook so let me try and be a bit more granular. Guys like Marc Andressen, Peter Thiel, Vinod Khosla and Elon Musk are not quite household names but they have respectively founded or co-founded Netscape, Pay Pal and Sun Micro Systems, for starters. They then ranged far and wide, making important and early investments in companies like Facebook, Tesla and SpaceX and in industries as diverse as clean-tech and social media. The underlying theme in all these investing activities is disruption. And real disruption, not the kind which drives a company or an industry into new products or markets, but stuff which puts an industry on a different footing and drives old-line players into oblivion. Call it whatever you like — economic re-invention, big-picture investing or hugely risky — but it’s ultimately game changing in its impact. To be sure, we have a whole host of hugely successful entrepreneurs in Canada. Guys like Ted Rogers and Murray Edwards, Laurent Beaudoin … the list is very long. But these guys are conventional entrepreneurs. They own or at least control everything in which they invest, they largely stick to one industry (the source of their wealth). They invest in things they know and have huge experience to rely upon. This is not wrong or unhelpful, quite the contrary. But it means Canada and Canadians will be missing in action from a host of new industries — those created by Google, Facebook, Uber, Netflix, Airbnb and Amazon.
It is the ambition of the likes of Bill Gates and Larry Page which sets them apart. Gates left Microsoft to focus on philanthropy, but not any old philanthropy — that’s too easy. He wants to eradicate diseases, improve education and fight poverty, all on a grand scale. Page has delegated much of his operating responsibility at Google to focus on big stuff. Who knows whether his ideas about how driverless cars will change the landscape or artificial intelligence will render millions redundant and in so doing lift the lives of millions, but these are the ideas that are driving his imagination. The point is this: these people will change the world! Maybe not to the extent they expect and most probably their failures will be high-profile expensive flame-outs. But they will drive the American economy in directions that others will be relegated to follow. To these victors belong the spoils.
Let’s hope Canada’s best, brightest and most accomplished follow this lead and put their money, their networks, their leadership skills and experience behind young Canadian entrepreneurs with ground-breaking ideas. Such a partnership can mean Canada could win too.