Although small businesses in the US have suffered setbacks because of the financial crisis, they are starting to become more positive again as reported by the National Federation of Independent Business' index of small business optimism increased in November. And that optimism is in itself what sets entrepreneurs apart from others. You have to have a lot of passion and a huge amount of focus to get a small business started. You also usually need a loan from a bank, investors, or for the poor, a microloan.
Entrepreneurs, whether the poorest of the poor in the developing world, or those in the US and Europe who have more access to capital, are the engines which make our economies work, not only on an international or national level, but also on a very local level. Helping entrepreneurs around the world are business angels, such as those found at Keiretsu, which supports entrepreneurs in the US and internationally.
According to Jack Bays, co-president of Keiretsu Forum Paris and London:
The ongoing economic crisis has had wide-spread implications, but one group that has suffered severely has been small start-up companies who rely on investment by individual business angels to bring their ideas to reality. The founders of these new companies have worked long hours and invested their hearts and souls in their initiatives. These companies may be small today but they fuel economic growth for the future, improve lives with new products and services, and over time transform society in a positive way. Angel investing is a critical factor in the survival of these small companies, and therefore needs to be encouraged as a necessary part of the economic cycle.
I decided while attending LeWeb Technology conference 2010 outside Paris last week to focus purely on entrepreneurs whose work exemplified this passionate approach to business, as well as concrete ways to make our lives and our world a better place. I did not visit the PayPals or Microsofts or Googles but rather spoke with those smaller, web-related start-ups, which, whatever their size, however long they have been around, well-funded or newly created somehow made me feel my life and the lives of others would be richer, because of what they provided and because their founders were extremely passionate. And that is the key to entrepreneurship, being passionate. Beyond that, one can never truly fail. The experience itself is worth it.
One company I have been following for some time is Tagattitude, created by technology entrepreneur, Yves Eonnet, who, in addition to being a tech guy, likes to keep things simple. He is also a huge fan of Muhammad Yunus' social business ideas. Yves' company takes their technology, and a simple cell phone, and creates payment systems which are already at work in parts of Africa, as well as Pakistan. The phone itself becomes both the credit card and the cash register. I love this street vendor video.
Why is his company different, beyond its simplicity? The payment mechanism is not tied to a telecom, and thus remains independent. As mobile phones become our bank accounts, content distributors and information sources, this is increasingly important. Furthermore he helps small businesses thrive and conduct their own business!
Two fantastic examples of companies started by entrepreneurs built on amateur passions: photography and sports. I always find it wonderful when people can take what they love most, their hobbies, and make them into a business, because you know they are going to work hard and remain passionate which is what is needed especially during tough times. It was obvious that Mike Kerns loves not only Fantasy Football but also amateur sports and communicated that during our interview. He is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen Sports, maker of social and sports-related applications found on the Facebook, Android and iPhone platforms, Kerns joined Yahoo! when Citizen Sports was acquired in 2010. Kerns obviously understands that the sports is better when you can interact, participate thus a natural for Social Media ... (heck, some guys can ONLY communicate when talking about, expressing themselves through sports!). And though Yahoo! has recently been through a rough patch, I think Citizen Sports is one area where they may have the competition beaten. His is one of the success stories many entrepreneurs like to hope for, if they do decide to one day sell their companies.
As for one of my own loves, photography, it kills me to see professional photographers and photojournalists unable to make a living anymore. And for all those amateurs who are now able to do more thanks to digital photography, this site is beyond inspiring: www.fotopedia.com. Their recent partnerships with UNESCO and US National Parks make you both want to visit the sites and become a photographer yourself if you are not already. What is remarkable is the detail and refining of perspective made possible by new cameras and digital technology thus lending itself to the internet experience. The Chinese photographer, Quang-Tuan Loung spent ten years photographing the National Parks and the result is a stunning collection of 3000 photographs.
The company itself was started by a passionate amateur photographer, Jean-Marie Hullot along with another Microsoft alum, Christophe Daligault. In this case, the business model allows for the purchase of professionally made prints of the photographs, making sure the photographer retains rights and earns fairly from each work. The National Parks series in particular harkens back to Ansel Adams and the documenting of what is so very precious, that pristine (for now) nature...almost a kind of visual John Muir.
Another company I happened upon by chance at lunch when I sat down at a table with one of the founders of Rent2Buy, which started in the US, and which has a blog I like. The reason I liked this company and what I heard from its owner was that it seemed to be a win-win for both consumer/potential buyer and the seller. During the financial crisis there are indeed opportunities and one part of this company helps both those selling their homes, who are having a hard time finding buyers, and those who cannot yet buy, or who have gone through a tough time, to build up both a positive credit history as well as a down-payment as their rental payments go towards the purchase of the property they are renting. Worst case scenario, you rented it and lived in it. Best case, you are buying a home in an affordable way and not throwing away money on a rental, and are not going to become another subprime default tragedy. This company has been increasing listings around the world and creating strategic partnerships.
Perhaps my favorite entrepreneur at LeWeb was a young Frenchman from Toulouse, only 22, who is passionate about cooking which he learned from his mother and grandmother. His social network for food buffs is already thriving. His Facebook page jaimecuisiner (I love cooking) has over 22,000 friends and he recently purchased www.cuisiner.com. If I had to take a bet on a young entrepreneur who is willing to give it his all and absolutely loves what he does, while remaining 100% true to his French love of cooking roots, it would be Benjamin Moreau. I will be following him carefully ... he exemplifies both the hyper-local and international appeal of how the internet can be utilized to create a business model.
If there was one common thing linking the entrepreneurs I met, it was that uplifting, optimistic feeling of individuals taking their passions and turning them into realities. In each case, these entrepreneurs are making our world richer not only because of the new businesses being created, but because I was convinced that they each wanted to add something entirely new to human experience, be it through social media, increasing human transactions which lead to a better quality of life, or simply the beauty of nature brought to a huge audience or the pleasure of sharing a recipe for a well-made meal.
In other words, entrepreneurship is about creativity, combined with a sense of endless possibilities. That in itself is why the future needs people and businesses like these.