Interview with Richard Lucas
Why entrepreneurship is so important nowadays?
Entrepreneurship has always been important. The concept of a person or group of people using their minds and creativity to solve a problem is both the foundation of a business and also basis of human progress. Throughout history there are many examples of societies where the means by which those in charge mobilized their citizens to action were through fear and raw power. The entrepreneurial drive of the leaders of such societies could on occasion produce some kind of result but at a terrible cost. Whether it was the Roman Empire, Hitler's Germany, Stalin's USSR or today's North Korea we can see that even if roads and rockets get built, terror and slavery does not produce prosperity, happiness or sustainable progress. The most powerful, creative and dynamic societies are those where people decide for themselves that they want to do something, to change something, to make something happen, and do so for their own reasons at their own timetable. Self interest, broadly defined, is much more than just looking for a cash profit: ultimately it means people doing what they want to do with their lives.
Societies built on individual incentives and free markets have delivered far greater opportunities and prosperity than the alternatives. The role of the entrepreneur is absolutely central in making this happen. Technological progress, the profit motive, capital mobility and competition ensure that new ideas and technologies are examined, considered, adopted and tested.
Every new technology is both an opportunity and a threat to existing organisations and start ups. Entrepreneurship means that those in existing organisations should be thinking "what does this new technology or idea mean for us?". "How can we use it to cut costs, deliver more value and service to our clients?" Self interest means keeping a systematic eye and look out for competitor activities. If a better (cheaper, faster) way of doing things is being adopted by competitors, then companies have to adjust, improve or die.
Without entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship, societies are destined to stagnate, wither away and die. 60 years of welfare capitalism has deadened the sense of urgency and necessity in many Western European countries. The disaster of communism in Central Eastern Europe has left a positive legacy: an awareness that people cannot rely on the state to solve all our problems and that we have to look after ourselves if we do not want to be dependent on the goodwill of others.
Some societies in Southern and Western Europe are only dimly beginning to realize how their lack of economic dynamism threatens not just their living standards but their national independence and social stability. This appeal from entrepreneurs in Spain gives a sense of the debate.
If Poland is going to avoid the looming economic crisis of debt, deficits and inflation - it will be partly because our entrepreneurs have done so much to ensure that goods and services made in Poland are competitive with imports and to export onto world markets
What kind of entrepreneurship barriers do you see in Poland?
There are cultural, social, and institutional barriers. The cultural barriers are the way in the media celebrates leisure and rest as an ideal form on being" "thank goodness its Friday, what a pity the weekend is ending". The Mcgregorian idea that working and being productive is can lead to personal fulfillment and happiness is presented as a weird work-a-holicism. Many parents, grandparents, teachers, priests and authority figures do not see "starting a business" as a respectable career choice. If you do want to start a business, the bureaucratic environment is extremely unsupportive. The labour code assumes that someone starting a business has almost unlimited time to read and understand ridiculous and complex laws concerning employment contracts, sick pay, holidays, and documentation. It should be enough for a small business to be legally obliged to pay its staff as agreed, be legally liable to keep the work place safe and leave it at that. Tax and ZUS regulations could clearly be made more simple. I am not complaining about the level but the degree of knowledge needed to be compliant.
What are the main differences between Poland and United Kingdom in the context of entrepreneurship development?
The situation in the UK is far from perfect. I live in Poland so my perspective is limited. I get the impression that there is a political consensus in the UK that entrepreneurs are needed and good without a clear idea of how to make the culture more entrepreneurial. In recent years TV programmes such as the Apprentice and Dragons Den, business networking events in Universities and elsewhere, have really taken off. There are great "eco system" support networks, like those in Cambridge, where banks, VCs, Seed capital funds, local government, business schools, the university, technology parks, angel investors, work together without much in the way of rivalry or professional jealousy.
Trust is a major issue in Polish society or rather the lack of it. Too many people assume that everyone else is gong to cheat them. For people with business ideas the problem manifests itself in way it prevents people from talking to others about their business idea. This needs to change. The big challenge in business is effective implementation of ideas, not the idea itself.
You support many initiatives which stimulate entrepreneurial culture in Poland. One example of it is your project znaniabsolwenci.pl. Could you describe it?
The idea is simple. School pupils at Primary, Secondary and High school can win 500 zl if they find, interview and publish interviews with alumni from their school who have achieved success and/or established a business.
This competition has several major objectives, we want to:
- Encourage children to be active, develop their self confidence and research skills, learn how to communicate intelligently with adults and learn about the world of business;
- Encourage business people to support the schools that they used to attend, and to make them feel appreciated and valued;
- Encourage schools to celebrate the successes of their alumni and to consider using them to help with teaching their current pupils;
- Challenge negative stereotypes of business, through bringing children into contact with business people who are ready to give time for free as volunteers
- Introduce no cost ways of improving education in Poland through using resources that are available but under utilized;
- Provide children with positive role models, of people who studied in the same classrooms as they do, and have now done something impressive with their lives.
While these are ambitious aims, it is also a pilot project. We want to do the competition, learn the lessons, and do it better next year, maybe roll out worldwide in other languages. This year we are allowing schoolchildren to interview business people who did not go to their school this time round, so that even if there are no entrepreneurs able or willing to help in a particular school children can still go in.
Poland does not yet have a strong tradition of school alumni helping their schools as volunteers. Schools seldom celebrate the successes of their alumni. When I see British schools and universities organising events with their alumni for the benefit of their pupils that cost no money, I think "why not in Poland?" which after all in a less wealthy country.
Poland needs future generations to have a positive attitude to work and enterprise. Bringing former alumni back into schools who have achieved something and are ready to donate their time for free is a powerful positive role model. Who knows how many of today's children have the potential to start a business employing 5, 50 or even thousands of people,
Do you see entrepreneurship potential in Polish youth?
Very much, but this is a wider topic. My children have two passports, British and Polish. I have friends and business partners from all over the world. I feel good when I hear of a business success from any country, where the founders have done something impressive (not just exploited political contacts or got an EU grant) I really see entrepreneurship and enterprise as more than a competition between countries. One company I used run in Poland, PMR with British and American shareholders, helped the largest Brazilian mining conglomate do business in Serbia. The staff working on the project were not Polish. We made a profit and so paid taxes in Poland but was it a "Polish" business. I don't think it matters very much.
There is a lot of room to increase the promotion of enterprise and business in Polish schools, universities and society by business people.
Enterprising values come out of creativity and taking the initiative. So from my perspective initiatives like TEDxYouth, which is happening in Poland for the first time and Uniwersytet Dzieci (Children's University) are also very important. Project based learning which teaches responsibility is coming into Gimnazjum. It's all about people learning to be responsible,take the initiative, get control over their own lives, rather than let life happen to them
You are great fan of Creative Commons idea. What exactly is it and why do you support it so much?
I first found out properly about Creative Commons via Richard Baraniuk's TED talk here and immediately realized this was the perfect solution for a problem that has bothered me for a long time.
The problem is that when people create materials for promoting enterprise the value is very much reduced because it is not available to other people working in the same area. Where the presentations, workshops and content is being created by professional trainers or publishers who live from selling training services it is understandable they want to keep control of their content. However when the work they are doing is being financed either by pro enterprise foundations like Kauffman (who support for Global Entrepreneurship Week, Start up Weekends) or paid for out by taxpayers through government or international agency - like the EU then it annoys me that the work is not available for everyone who wants to use it, given that we as taxpayers have bought it in the first place. Even if presentations are made available on line (for example, in Malopolska, we asked those doing projects as part of GEW to make them available afterwards) it is still a problem if someone wants to use the materials in a workshop because they need to permission and this takes time and effort that is not necessary. When I or other people are doing projects as volunteers and we put in the creative commons we build the amount of materials available for others.
In Poland we are "starting from behind" in terms of the resources available and the tradition (or the need to build it) of business people supporting entrepreneurs.
Thanks for the inspiring interview!