As a Partner at Balderton Capital, James Wise has met with 1000s of founders and worked with some of the most successful technology companies of the last decade. He is a member of the UK Government’s Industrial Development Advisory Board and a trustee of Demos. All this experience made him perfectly placed to write his own book, Start-Up Century, on why so many people are becoming entrepreneurs and what this shift means for the workforce as a whole.
1. Why are we seeing a record number of start-ups in the UK?
People will point to the impact of COVID, which forced many of us to look for new ways of working and opened the door to more entrepreneurial opportunities, especially digital & remote roles. But if you look at the data you can see this is a secular trend that has been going on for decades, with twice as many new companies started in 2020 as there were in 2010 in the UK & USA alone. The availability of new digital tools, the increasing ease of starting a business and a generally more pro-entrepreneurial culture have all contributed to this rise. At the same time, the traditional firm, like the factory and farm before it, is slowly being automated. This means companies need fewer people to do the same amount of work, pushing people out of more traditional careers. This trend is now being accelerated by the rise of artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT and autonomous agents, creating opportunities for entrepreneurs, but forcing many of us to revaluate our careers at the same time.
The challenge ahead of us is this: In a world where more people are self-employed or work in small start-ups, how can we lift the huge regulatory and financial burdens that still exist when scaling businesses in the UK and beyond? This is what the book hopes to answer.
2. In your opinion, what makes someone more likely to become an entrepreneur?
Firstly, more people are on entrepreneurial paths today than we may recognise. When people discuss entrepreneurship nowadays, they are often referring to a handful of people, often associated with Silicon Valley and the technology platforms that have come to dominant much of our lives. However, the book aims to refocus the conversation on the everyday entrepreneurs that keep the world ticking over. The plumbers, builders, freelancers, gig-workers and small independent producers who may not be building the next Amazon, but are taking the risks and putting in the hours to make sure they and their community can get the things they need.
This type of entrepreneurship is heavily influenced by three things: role models, resources, and education. One of the most fascinating findings in the book, collected both through anecdotal interviews and academic studies, is the significant impact being around other entrepreneurs has on a person’s ambitions. Whether it’s having family members who are self-employed, classmates who went on to start businesses or even working in the same office as start-up founders, being around other people who took these risks significantly increases the likelihood someone else will as well. Of course, entrepreneurship is also limited by the resources you have access to. It takes time and effort to learn a new skill and apply it to solve a novel problem, even in a world where technologies like AI are getting cheaper and more powerful. As a result, the book makes a strong argument as to why and how we close the digital divide and provide new types of financing to the self-employed so more people can take advantage of these opportunities. Finally, formal education still has a huge role to play, and the book details how entrepreneurial courses are reintroducing creativity, problem-solving and salesmanship back into the curriculum.
3. What are some of the benefits of more entrepreneurial work?
There are many challenges in today’s world of work that entrepreneurship can overcome. In the book I detail how entrepreneurship, unlike many careers today, can help people find fair, fulfilling work. While most societies believe in fairness and meritocracy in the workplace, not everyone feels like today’s careers offer equal opportunities for all. Entrepreneurship, however, is a much more meritocratic career where you, rather than your boss or shareholders, get most of the rewards for your success.
In terms of fulfilling work, being self-employed, or working with a small, dedicated team in a start-up can be absolutely exhausting, but it does give you the freedom and sense of ownership that is often integral to a feeling of dignity in work. When asked why they decided to start a business, a vast majority of people say it’s because they wanted to do something they were passionate about, even if it was harder work for potentially less pay.
Finally, in the face of greater automation, and the looming threat of AI to traditional careers, I believe entrepreneurship is the best way to help people find work in the future. While AI may automate many of the tasks we associate with knowledge work today, it is a very long way off replacing the creative spark behind entrepreneurial endeavours. With the right support, freelancers, gig-workers, the self-employed and start-up founders will be able to utilise this new generation of AI tools to create opportunities, rather than be displaced by them. This latter point is becoming increasingly urgent.
4. What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to anyone considering becoming an entrepreneur in today’s climate?
Get started! I know this is vague advice, but it’s truly the best piece of advice there is. If you want to work in the fashion industry, designing new clothing or in the energy industry, working on the green transition, then the best thing you can do is to dive into those communities and start building. Whether it’s starting with a side-hustle, like an online store, or getting on top of the basics with part-time or online courses, every tiny step you take will get you closer to the bigger goal of running a self-sufficient business. Never let the good be the enemy of the perfect.
While writing the book I came across lots of great articles and advice on the how to get started in different industries, which I compiled into an A.I to help people with this exact problem. So, if you are keen to learn more you can actually interrogate the book and get some business advice by visiting www.startup-century.com.
5. How did you find the experience of writing your book?
I’m fortunate that in my job I speak to, and work with, hundreds of brilliant entrepreneurs, so the ideas behind the book emerged naturally from that. I also really enjoyed conducting the interviews, and going through the research which underpins many of the arguments and conclusions. By far the hardest part was the final leg of editing and proofing the book. Once you're deep into writing, taking a step back and finessing each sentence, and editing out the superfluous paragraphs, is hard work and I was fortunate to have Bloomsbury’s support with much of that.