“If an entrepreneur pivots they are a hero. If a politician pivots they are zero. And yet people say they want more nimble government.”

Twitter Post by Steve O’Hear — Entrepreneur, Writer, Journalist

The Radical Center: Entrepreneurship and politics typically don’t go very well together, given that their philosophies are nearly polar opposites of each other, in terms of what they represent. The politician’s job is to regulate, enforce, and create social rules that are derived from existing ideological practices and narratives. The entrepreneur, on the other hand, bends and breaks rules as necessary in order to innovate, revitalize, and change the nature of rule systems in themselves. One works heavily with bureaucratic processes, while the other thrives in the wild, uncharted worlds of free enterprise. The two groups will often grudgingly acknowledge the necessity of each others’ professions and may even decide to work with one another, but they are not natural allies in any sense of the word.

In business, the general rule of thumb is to never talk about politics or religion because it could unnecessarily harm your ability to reach a wider market. Larger companies may be able to get away with it if they have a proven business model and/or a reliable customer base that wouldn’t be deterred by their company’s political affiliations. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, typically do not have this luxury, especially when they’re small or are in their beginning stages. So the people who get involved in startup ventures either are, or eventually learn to be, politically neutral. If that’s not possible, keeping your mouth shut is the next best option — in an ideal world, business and politics simply don’t mix.

This polarization doesn’t typically fit on the usual American left/right, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican spectrums, because they exist on a separate axis all together. Their background and motivations may affect the types of businesses they’re seeking to pursue, but the idea of entrepreneurship is not something any particular group can claim ownership on — innovators come in all different types of personalities, genders, races, religions, and political beliefs. From a sociological point of view, these individuals seem to emerge out of any given social group, as if nature somehow mandated the necessity for entrepreneurs to exist as a part of every society.

- – -

My journey into the world of entrepreneurship started when the decision was made that we would try to turn our band, OK Music, into a business venture. Similar to improv comedy and theater, we had a process going where we would take theme suggestions from audience members (ex. “cats!”, “blue!”, “apocalypse!”) and turn it into a real-time, interactive performance. We had been doing these concerts for fun for several years by then — audience numbers were small, but concerts were always successful and always positive. But we weren’t making any money because it had never occurred to us that we could be doing so, at least until that point.

As time becomes precious and people get more busy, it becomes harder and harder to justify having musicians come and rehearse/perform for nothing, so a decision had to be made whether we wanted to do this as a hobby or a living. I was lucky enough to have gotten into a Ph.D program in musicology and was relatively free of familial commitments at that point, so I decided to give the business thing a shot. The university would allow me to learn, network, and experiment with new ideas and new people, and I was in a unique position to take advantage of these opportunities for a whole 4 years.

As I met more and more people, the hypothesis that our idea was indeed unique as a business model was eventually confirmed — aside from people telling us directly that they’ve never heard of anybody doing something like what we were doing before, I struggled to find any venues or places that was willing to take a chance on an “interactive” performance such as ours. OK Music is a kind of band that breaks the fourth-wall of traditional concert models, and most places (classical, jazz, rock, world, or otherwise) simply weren’t able to accommodate us for their venues or events. So in a whim of desperation inspiration, I looked into entrepreneurship as a way to give our project some direction and structure. I figured that these were the people used to hearing and dealing with new ideas, so they could be the ones to help us with our venture.

Engraving of the Mayflower

“Venture” is short for “adventure”, which is probably the best characterization that can be used to describe the process of starting a new business. Your journey starts with an idea, small or big, in high hopes that you will discover something new and change the world as a result. Your ideals are then constantly tested against the harsh waters of reality; obstacles, hardships and losses of direction are numerous, constant, and unforgiving. During the process you also get to meet all kinds of interesting people — some good, some bad, some who had clearly lost their mind for one reason or another. Friendships and alliances are created, and broken, in a blink of an eye. Intense highs are followed quickly by deep lows, depending on how things progress. Regardless if you succeed or fail, what’s guaranteed is that the stories that you have to tell upon your return will be vast and abundant.

As one entrepreneur described, the process of starting a new business is like “staring death in the face every waking moment of the day, yet somehow coming out alive at the end”. A similar thing could be said about improvisors, who start with the void of nothing yet somehow emerge out of the process having created something new and original. At least for myself, that feeling of adrenaline that I got from my piano/keyboard performances prepared me well for what was about to happen — except this time I couldn’t turn it off, because I had now tied my ideas directly with my ability to sustain my livelihood.

To my musician friends, the best way I could describe the feeling was that it was like playing in a jam-session with the entire world, 24-hours a day, 7-days a week, 365-days a year. It was impossible to escape the experience of it, and very difficult to think of anything else other than what was happening with the business, given that all the work that myself and others put into the project could evaporate at any moment. The illusion of security and stability had been lifted, and everything become ephemeral, fleeting, and temporary. Next to experiencing actual life-or-death combat, this was probably as intense as things were going to get for the most of us living in first-world nations.

- – -

In traversing the startup scene of the Los Angeles area during the last year I noticed something peculiar about what was happening around these meetings — it seems like the entrepreneurs were forming a community amongst themselves as a collective whole. What was a startup “scene”, anyway? How do you create an association out of a bunch of people who’re largely there to pursue their own, self-conceptualized idea? The question was an interesting one to me because it was similar to the ones I’ve been asking and writing about in the music improvisation communities as well — achieving coherency when you have a room full of people wanting to express their individuality is typically not an easy task. But somehow, they made it work.

Despite its seeming contradictions, these meetings were held regularly, with many of its members attending them with an almost religious-like fervor. After having seen the same people over and over, many of them had grown to know each other very well, and there was definitely a sense of comradery and community that could be felt among its members. There were newbies (like myself) who were in the starting stages of their idea, people in the middle stages who were fresh in their acquisition of investment or capital, and seasoned (usually older) entrepreneurs who’ve gone through the process over and back. The more experienced members took it upon themselves to educate and mentor the newer people, since they understood that starting a new venture, no matter what field they might be in, was an extremely difficult thing to accomplish.

By the time I arrived on the scene (in the fall of 2010), there were already secondary markets present — meetings were typically held at “workspaces”, which were temporary office rental spaces that also served as public gathering areas. The work environments were purposely left open and flexible in order to give people the opportunity to collaborate, network, and perhaps make new friends and partnerships during the process. There were also business consultation services for entrepreneurs seeking advice and feedback, and stress management and therapy sessions for those times when ideas fell flat and things just didn’t seem like they were getting anywhere. It seems that the idea of launching a new business had grown into something more than just the act — it had turned into a culture onto itself, breeding its own habits and customs.

Steve Blank

The typical tall-tale of the entrepreneurial story is that an individual comes out of nowhere, magically invents something groundbreaking, then revolutionizes the world through persistence, hard work, and dedication. Though not limited to improvisers, musicians often have a similar kind of mysticism surrounding them as well — it’s the story of the “genius”, the modern day prophet who foretells and creates the future to come. In reality, most of these stories are over-exaggerated, or in some cases, just plain false. (Entrepreneurs like to use the phrase “false prophets” to describe bad business ideas that may seem alluring at first.) Even in cases where the artist’s talent is genuine, there’s usually a historical basis for which their success can be explained in a rational manner, so the reality is never quite as dramatic as how its success stories are told. Nonetheless, the talent and intelligence levels of the people at these meetings were extremely high, many of them being prodigies or super-stars in positions that they held previously.

In recent years there has been a shift in the way people think about entrepreneurship — as with the music world, the word “genius” is still occasionally thrown around in these circles as a way to describe people with brilliant ideas and impeccable skill. Historically, the use of the term tended to have a very strong Euro-centric bias, largely talking about the accomplishments of dead, usually German, Christian, heterosexual males. The meaning used at these meetings, however, was an “Americanized” version of it; it was open to any nationality (immigrants included), religious beliefs, political leanings, races or gender. People here rarely asked of who you were or where you came from, because they were too busy asking what you were doing or what you were working on at the present moment.

As with musical improvisation, there is currently a growing interest in teaching entrepreneurship in universities and colleges around the nation. There’s a lot of debate in both communities as to whether or not you can actually teach people the art of spontaneous creation, and this issue doesn’t look like it will become settled any time soon. Nonetheless, for those already inclined to be out-of-the-box thinkers, there are more and more resources available now to help them focus, refine, and harness the energy that they bring to the table. At the very least, these programs are providing an alternative education for students whom the usual paths may not be appropriate.

Entrepreneurs are typically known for their intense ambitions, extreme persistence, and unwavering self-confidence — at one presentation Davit Binetti asked the members of the audience to raise their hands if their ultimate goal was to “take over the world”. Nearly everyone in the room had their hands in their air, except for myself and maybe a few others spread across the room. (I’m interested in success, but the idea of making obscene amounts of money or acquiring absolute power had never appealed to me.) The fact that it wasn’t possible for every person there to be the ruler of the universe didn’t seem to bother them, since secretly or not so secretly, everyone seemed to be convinced of the fact that they were “the one”. Given the right motivations, circumstance, and enough time, almost anything was possible — it was perhaps this belief that contributed to their talents and eagerness to learn new things. Tabula Rasa, much in the way John Locke might have envisioned.

One would think that in such an environment full of competitive people, there would be lots of tensions, hostilities, and general nastiness spread across the room. Surprisingly, there was none. In fact, the positivity and optimism people seemed to share about the world, and of each other, was almost a little disturbing given how bad the economy was on the outside. Didn’t they realize what was going on? They did, actually — in fact, for some of them the whole reason why they were there was because they quit or was laid off from their job recently.

- – -

Where does this atmosphere of certainty, confidence, and kinship come from? Isn’t capitalism supposed to be a dog-eat-dog world where stepping on the head of another is the only means of getting ahead? Perhaps this might be true in some worlds of corporate politics, but this stereotype simply doesn’t apply to most startups and small business practices — for entrepreneurs, jobs aren’t things to be competed for, but to be created.

roadandrailway

During the last decade, 99% of all employment and 64% of net new jobs in the United States have come from the world of small business practices. Unfortunately the media, and as a result, politicians, seldom frame economic issues in this way, choosing to focus on the the successes and follies of the top 1% instead. In many ways this puts a different spin on the “We Are the 99%” mantra of the Occupy Wall Street protests — beyond the frustrations involved in dealing with the actions of the rich and powerful, the movement emerged as a result of alienation and neglect that the voters have been feeling towards the political system as a whole. Entrepreneurs argue that reducing corporate favoritism while creating policies favorable to small businesses will not only spur job growth, but will foster innovation, production, and put more money into the hands of ordinary Americans at the same time.

So the startup community sees their pursuits not only as a way to solve problems for their customers, but as a way to enact a very real, positive change for society as well. The perception that the powers-that-be have largely failed to solve America’s economic problems strongly adds to the urgency behind this belief. Given this conviction, the intensity and passion of the entrepreneurial community is entirely reasonable: they have a calling for something that’s both individual and societal, and any means of improving their methods and getting the word out is seen as making the world a better place.

As a political philosophy, the best description that I can give of the Los Angeles startup movement is that it’s a kind of intense mix of American bohemianism and pragmatism rolled into one. The utopian visions of liberal ideals (community, freedom, equality, individuality, etc.) are ruthlessly tested against reality through a rigorous, practical application of these ideas, with only a small handful of them surviving in the end. Under the typical left/right scale, it’s on the extreme ends of both sides — it’s simultaneously both liberal and conservative (in an old-fashioned, pre-1980s-Republican sense), going back and forth as necessary. It’s no wonder then, entrepreneurs are often thought of as being bi-polar or having attention deficit disorders (ADD), since most people don’t understand what’s happening in their minds when they jump from one perspective to the next. But these symptoms are positions of ideology, not medical conditions or psychological deficiencies.

NAF-logo-press

The closest political movement that is analogous to the outlook above is the Radical Center, most prominently argued for in The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics by Michael Lind and Ted Halstead (of the New America Foundation), as an alternative to the left/right scale that the United States has come to rely upon during the last few decades. They both share the desire for a more well-reasoned, less-politicized approach to politics/business, as well as an optimistic outlook that things can eventually be changed for the better in the near future.

The political policies that the entrepreneurial community is seeking to enact — tax credits and tax-rate adjustments for small businesses — is not seen as too difficult to implement from a policy-making point of view. The movement as it stands now, however, currently lacks the political capital necessary in order to have their interests strongly represented by members of Congress. The political proponents of the Radical Center, on the other hand, lacks the support from economic and cultural engines that would allow them to sustain their ideas in the minds of the American people.

If there is indeed an ideological connection between these three streams (Radical Center, entrepreneurs, progressive artists), then it seems that connecting them together would be the way to give the movement an holistic platform in which to stand on, which would allow it to enact holistic change. For that to be accomplished, however, an interdisciplinary look at the situation would be necessary in order to see if there may be common outlooks, signifiers, or language terminologies that could be used to foster productive dialogues between the groups. The writing of more literature in this area can also help to bridge these gaps as well.

- – -

For many of the people attending the entrepreneurial meetings, their presence signified that they were at a turning point in their life in some way or another. Some wanted a new career direction, others felt trapped in their lifestyle and was looking to do something different, while others were there out of necessity because they weren’t able to acquire a job or advance in their current place of employment. The startup scene is a community that symbolizes change, new directions, and hopefulness for a better future.

In today’s climate of pessimism and nihilism, perhaps this is exactly what America needs in order to progress into the new millennium. The United States has historically made great leaps forward when things became tough, reinventing, revolutionizing, and reinvigorating itself during those moments of truths. We may be in for another one in the near future — for many, this cultural shift has been long overdue, seen as an inevitable progression, and a logical conclusion, of trends which have been brewing in the background during the last few decades. Either way it’s clear that something is going to change in the very near future, and those who take action during the next couple of years will be the ones who shape the direction the nation will take as it progresses into the 21st Century.

This article doubles as a proposal for a book project that will expand and elaborate upon some of the ideas presented here. Donate money at my GoFundMe page if you’re interested in supporting the project, or contact ryant@ryangtanaka.com for more details.