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Entrepreneurship: From ancient markets to modern startups

From pottery makers to tech innovators, take a trip through the history of entrepreneurs. Presented by Chase for Business.

minute read


    Entrepreneurship. The word itself conjures ideas of innovation, risk and reward. Based on the French word “entreprendre,” it means to begin, initiate or otherwise get something started. Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon coined the term way back in the 1700s. Cantillon used “entrepreneur” to refer to those small business founders he saw as essential risk-takers, stirring up the economic pot to create change and progress.


    A tale as old as human history

    Long before Cantillon’s time, our ancestors were practicing entrepreneurship, with the first known instances centered on the exchange of goods between tribal societies. It’s easy to imagine how that might have come about. Maybe instead of just gathering the prehistoric version of a carrot, someone in a tribe learned how to grow them.

    But she didn’t stop there. She became the go-to carrot provider, the carrot specialist, the carrot queen of her tribe. And then she had the idea of trading with another tribe. That’s the essence of entrepreneurship — finding a need and filling it better than anyone else.

    It’s that kind of specialization that gave entrepreneurship its first real footing. Because ancient humans didn’t just stop with food. Entrepreneurship quickly became about getting crafty — literally. As early entrepreneurs got better at making things, they started trading everything from handheld tools to hand-polished jewelry, expressing their ingenuity through the tangible products of human creativity.


    The era of explorers and marketplaces

    As towns and cities sprang up, the scope of entrepreneurship exploded. It wasn’t just a local affair anymore. People started to venture out on horses and ships, traveling far and wide. This type of travel kicked the expansion of entrepreneurship into a higher gear. Towns established themselves as business centers, and traders traveled to them with their goods. It was the age of marketplaces bustling with economic activity and trade routes crisscrossing land and sea.

    But while the barter system had its practicalities, it also had its limits. What if you had a dozen eggs and needed a haircut, but the barber already had a yard full of chickens? Enter money, a revolution in the world of trade. Starting with rocks and shells, the concept of money evolved into metal coins and paper notes, making commerce even easier. And with money came the idea of banking — a secure place to store wealth.


    Industrial revolutions: Setting the pace of entrepreneurship

    While early industrial revolutions marked the shift from agriculture to industry, today’s revolutions are driven by technological transformation. But regardless of the era, each revolution has sparked rapid social and economic change. And each has been driven by entrepreneurs capitalizing on innovations.


    First Industrial Revolution: Factories and steam

    In America in the late 1700s and early 1800s, factories were born, churning out products faster than ever. Machines started doing the heavy lifting. And when steam engines came along, we weren’t just walking or riding horses anymore. We were steaming ahead on trains, opening up vast new territories of trade.


    Second Industrial Revolution: Lights, action, cars

    Starting around 1870, things began to light up, thanks to electricity. This era saw the birth of the telegraph, allowing ideas to spread quickly and opening the door to globalization. With the invention of the car, distance shrank and mass production began. Entrepreneurs transformed industries such as steel and oil into economic powerhouses. And Hollywood started up then, too, capturing it all on celluloid.


    Third Industrial Revolution: Dawn of the Digital Age

    Fast-forward to the late 1960s, as the Atomic Age gave way to the Digital Age with the rise of computers and eventually the internet. Tech entrepreneurs invented new technologies and started global businesses to sell them to the masses. From the early days of Apple to the dawn of social media, entrepreneurs leveraged this technology to turn ones and zeros into digital empires.


    Fourth Industrial Revolution: Rise of smart technology

    And here we are today, in the thick of a revolution defined by digital transformation, data analytics, AI and renewable energy. In other words, our Energy Star fridge can tell us what to buy at the grocery store. It’s all about being connected, with today’s entrepreneurs focused on making businesses smarter, more efficient and greener.


    The American Dream, entrepreneur-style

    The U.S. has always been a hotbed for entrepreneurs, with roots dating back to the founding of the country itself. American history is peppered with examples of entrepreneurs like Henry Ford, who put the nation in cars, and Madam C.J. Walker, who built a beauty empire from scratch. It’s this ability to have an idea, start a business and succeed at it that has made the United States a global center of innovation and wealth creation.


    Entrepreneurship today, from Silicon Valley to Main Street

    From industrial revolutions to tech booms, entrepreneurs have pushed boundaries, disrupted industries and created innovations that have changed the world.

    Today’s entrepreneurs are as diverse as their ideas. Whether they’re writing a business plan for the next big app in Silicon Valley or opening a inventive brewery in a small town, they’re part of a rich heritage. They’re the dreamers and doers, continuously shaping the world one innovative idea at a time.

    Need someone to bounce your entrepreneurial ideas off? Reach out to a Chase business banker today. We’re always ready to help.