An Entrepreneurial Silver Lining

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

A new study has confirmed it. A close look at our entrepreneurial history reveals that entrepreneurship is an engine for job creation and economic growth even during difficult economic times. The study, The Economic Future Just Happened reveals that more than half of the 2009 Fortune 500 companies started in a recession or bear market. Similarly, nearly half of the firms on the 2008 Inc. list of America’s fastest-growing companies were launched during a recession or bear market.

This new study by the Kauffman Foundation’s Dane Stangler suggests that policies that support entrepreneurship also support recovery. It also reveals that job creation from startup companies tends to be less volatile and sensitive to downturns when compared to the overall economy. Are there factors in economic tough times that encourage potential entrepreneurs to take the risk of translating their ideas into a startup? 

Several are identified. First, firm founders might perceive that their prospective competition might be weakened. Second, entrepreneurs may view unemployment as an opportunity to start a company. In other words, they beat unemployment with a startup. Further, unemployment presents the opportunity to tap into a larger pool of potential employees.

Naturally, not all new ventures survive, not even during healthy economy times. But although the link between new firms and aggregate economic performance is not so straightforward — some of the startups experience an initial expansion only to contract in its second to fifth year before expanding again — in times of recession, the important contribution of new firms regardless of their ultimate fate constitutes their immediate positive impact on job creation. New firms also contribute to innovation, thereby driving economic growth and often restructuring the economy with new patterns of economic activity.

Companies that reach the Fortune 500 and Inc. fastest-growing lists demonstrate strength, innovativeness and flexibility. These companies were once invisible, but their founders were able to turn a problem into an opportunity. I encourage you to read about some of these success stories in “Profiles in Innovation” section. I would not be surprised if some of the entrepreneurs behind these big companies failed for various reasons beyond a depressed economic environment before successfully reemerging. The entrepreneurial process is complex, but as this new study shows, risk-taking offers big rewards in an entrepreneurial economy both to the entrepreneur and the larger economy.

Knowing this, is the government’s response to this recession supportive of entrepreneurs? Despite the spur of entrepreneurship during recessions, obstacles remain, potentially mitigating the positive contributions of entrepreneurs during such difficult economic times. On top of the list is perhaps the tight capital market. In this regard, Financing the Entrepreneurial Recovery: A Kauffman Foundation Summit, offered interesting insights. Its participants, which included economists, researchers, investors, and entrepreneurs, discussed and debated a wide range of policy recommendations. Most urgently, they called for relief from the strangling costs of providing health care and Sarbanes-Oxley compliance. When asked for new models of financing entrepreneurs, participants expressed strong support for the continuation of the SBIR program, federal support for university proof-of-concept centers, and a national tax credit for angel investments.

More is sure to come from this and other similar discussions, but one thing is certainly clear – entrepreneurship is the path forward to recovery.

Jonathan Ortmans is a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation where he focuses on public policies to promote entrepreneurship in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, he serves as president of the Public Forum Institute, a non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering dialogue on important policy issues.

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