Here's a true story about my friend, Drew. Drew graduated from Brown University with a 3.98 GPA in economics. With three internships under his belt, he could have easily landed a job at a consulting firm like Bain, as three of our high school friends did, or at a big tech company, like more friends, or at a bank.
Instead, Drew went to work on his couch. To a stranger, he probably looked unemployed. He wasn't. He chose to not accept any of the jobs he could have landed in order to do something unique in our circle of friends: to become an entrepreneur.
Given the option to work a regular job in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars a year, why did Drew decide to work in his living room? The first reason was probably personal: Drew doesn't like hierarchies. He always wanted to be his own boss. And the only way you can be your own boss at an entry-level age is to start something you can run.
The second reason was intellectual: Drew tended to see the world as problems that needed fixing. I've always been the one to say, "There must be an explanation for the way this works" (this is what journalists sound like) and he's always been the one to say, "There must be a better way to do this" (and this is what entrepreneurs sound like).
The third reason was community: Drew was fortunate to come from a wonderful and well-off family that could support him if everything fell apart. He was surrounded by friends who were eager to give start-up funding and hours of free advice. He had connections, through friends and parents of friends and friends of those parents, to an investment community. Being an entrepreneur is, paradoxically, a decision both to be alone and to be at the mercy of many people's generosity.
As a country, we can't really hope to change reasons one and two. We can and should hope to increase the pool of college graduates, but we can't engineer a generation that hates hierarchies and believes it has better ideas than the rest of the world -- even though both qualities are important for an entrepreneur to have. We can, however, strengthen the safety net for start ups.
Every year, millions of people try to start a company. In the last year, I've met dozens of them. The details differ, but the lessons rhyme. All entrepreneurs need a community of support. They need the advice and intuition of other entrepreneurs. And they need a safety net.
SAFETY NETS AND CAPITALISM
"If you look at a list of US cities sorted by population, the number of successful startups per capita varies by orders of magnitude," the renowned inventor Paul Graham wrote. "Somehow it's as if most places were sprayed with startupicide."
Until scientists invest such a thing for government procurement, the United States would be advised to do the second best thing and adopt a holistic policy to support startups. This isn't industrial planning. It's not about picking winners. It's making rules that increase the odds that entrepreneurs play the game in the hope that many of them will win.