What is the motivator, what inspires us?” Stephen discusses with his teammate. “The reason is contribution, contribution to the world and to the future. It is about the new. We want to make a strong impact in the world and we want to create happiness with our app. So, let’s use our technology for something that is new. I believe in it and I know we can create a better world in the future with it.
Tech entrepreneurs like Stephen start from nothing but an idea in a pitch deck, which over time then is supposed to materialize into a business. Developing their digital businesses, they attempt to create a successful venture in the future. In this process, the future is a reoccurring issue since they ongoingly discuss what the future might look like and how they can influence it. While conducting ethnographic research for the last two years in a startup accelerator, my team and I became interested in understanding issues of time and temporality such as the phenomenon of “acceleration” (Skade et al., 2020).
Creating the future is essential to the process of entrepreneuring, a practice-theory based understanding of entrepreneurship (see Johannisson, 2011). In the current era, we ask what we can learn from the pandemic for the future on a societal and political level, we experience an ongoing climate change and relating initiatives such as “entrepreneurs4future,” and emerging challenges such as the negative influence of digital technologies on democracy. These are just a few examples, which have persistently highlighted the dramatic necessity to understand the things-to-come and why entrepreneurs creatively try to tackle adverse uncertainty by the use of technologies.
In this vein, emergent technologies such as AI, machine learning, big data, digital platforms, blockchains, and others are at the center stage of the interest for (tech) entrepreneurs nowadays and, thus, have increasingly gained importance in their business operations. Sometimes founders offer these technologies as products and services to their customers, yet, often such technologies can themselves become entangled in the process of venture creation as entrepreneurs engage with them through their daily practices. As a consequence, startup founders also rely on them and mobilize them to create their futures. So, how does “future-making” happen in the world of tech entrepreneurs?
Predicting the Future
Hannah: “And we can only start if financing is already in place?”
Coach: “Yes, you have to prove it, including a business plan that shows that something is coming in – but I know it’s difficult for a young company. It’s like trying to use a crystal ball. A lot of things are still unclear.”
Hannah: “Is that possible for us? Can we submit our business plan and predict that the first revenues are already there?”
Coach: “That is possible, but maybe you will only get a conditional financing that you will have to pay back. But you need to show a plan.”
Forecasting, planning, drafting business plans, and market analytics are all means used by entrepreneurs to predict the future. All of these tools and techniques, however, are based on the assumption that the future is a distant, yet, steady state, which entrepreneurs can describe, approximate, understand, and, consequently, predict if only technological tools are fine-tuned and accurate enough. Take, for example, the emergent technology of big data. Some recent calls point in direction of predicting the future by the use of this technology and the advantages seem to be compelling. Such technology allows the investment of only a small amount of financial resources in exchange for high returns: the predictive power of data. This power can be mobilized for marketing issues, market foresight analytics, and other macro-economic information to navigate the uncertain environment. While a proper business plan and knowledge of the respective market is of course an important way to legitimate an early-stage idea for angel investors or VCs, such a perspective is nevertheless problematic. By prescribing to a linear understanding of time that sees the future as something that inevitably unfolds and solely relying on such a technology, entrepreneurs may become limited from deeper engagement with the proactive creation of the future.
Controlling the future
Markus tells me that his life is about not thinking about the future at all. He goes on to say that he lives in the now. I find that an interesting statement for an entrepreneur. Don’t you have to think about the future in order to build up your business? If you only live in the here and now, how can you make strategic decisions? But Markus explains that he lives in the here-and-now and would also recommend it to other entrepreneurs. What happens in the future, he cannot say at the moment. But he knows what he is able to do and he has his connections, which can help him with his business. “I don’t know what will happen, but I know what I can do today about it to make the future less uncertain.
As an alternative to predicting the future, some entrepreneurs think about the future not as something that “happens to them” but as something they are able to “control” by focusing on “who they are, what they know, who they know,” thus, the controllable aspects of an unpredictable future (Sarasvathy, 2001). Entrepreneurs who try to influence the future by drawing on the resources in the here-and-now attempt to influence their future proactively. While taking into consideration that the future is unpredictable, hence, it is not possible to make predictions about the dynamic unfolding of the future, this perspective highlights that there are indeed certain elements in the presence, which entrepreneurs can control. Take, for example, entrepreneurs, who use social media such as LinkedIn to explore “who they know” and build on their networks to further engage in entrepreneurial activities with members of the ecosystem, expanding their business relationships, or learning about the ideas of other entrepreneurs and, consequently, attempt to control their future. In turn, think of Markus, the entrepreneur, who is just starting out with his business ideas based on what he knows he can do with the help of the technology that he is familiar with. However, while such an approach seems promising, it also entails the shortcoming that it assumes a rather stable future. Entrepreneurs may start with the presumption that they will be able to “control” the future because they have reduced some uncertainty, but what happens if the future gets “out of control”? Reducing the complexity of the future to a set of controllable variables entails the risk of overestimating one’s own abilities to deal with unpredictable events.
Creating the Future
After the meeting, I make my way to talk to Stephen about his startup and the work of his team. I am curious to hear where he and his team stand at the moment and how their startup is developing. When I step at his desk and start talking to him, he is enthusiastic and shows me a list of ideas he is working on. “It’s always about problems and finding solutions to those problems,” he explains. “The market doesn’t even have to be interesting; it can become interesting. We make it interesting.” He even thinks further and says that he doesn’t necessarily have to stay in his original market. The same goes for the technology he just developed; he doesn’t see it as a God-given thing. He’s always open to new things and looking toward an open future. His co-founder is a bit reluctant to embrace such thoughts and a little more attached to the existing app technology and would like to keep it going.
Understanding the performative character of emergent technologies offers the possibility to further engage in the means and ways in which entrepreneurs imagine, create, and reproduce futures. Famous entrepreneurs such as Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, have therefore stressed that “entrepreneurs will create the future” highlighting the growing societal importance of entrepreneurs. Moving away from the notion that the future is something that merely happens to entrepreneurs and thus grasping the future as a “problematic category” that is “unknowable” (Wenzel et al., 2020) helps us to reimagine the future as something that entrepreneurs must critically engage with, aspire, and deliberately form. Problematizing the future opens up an alternative possibility for imagining and aspiring uncertain things-to-come. In contrast to predicting or controlling the future, this means that entrepreneurs engage with possible alternative futures and “future-making” practices as “the specific ways in which actors produce and enact the future” (Wenzel et al., 2020, p. 1443, Wenzel, 2021). Importantly, while such a perspective does also incorporate practices such as planning and predicting it extends to rather mundane and daily activities that do not describe what entrepreneurs should be doing but investigates what they are doing while organizing their work, coordinating with team members, pitching in front of investors, or negotiating with VCs (see also Reckwitz, 2002). Doing so would allow us to understand, for example, the entrepreneur who uses a digital platform such as Kickstarter to raise money from investors for an upcoming project. Instead of relying on an existing market, such a technology could support an entrepreneur in building a new market, which would otherwise not have attracted other funds. Take for example Stephen who does not take the future for granted but engages in an open, uncertain future. Studying what he is doing while using technology in order to build his future will help us to see how he creates the future of his startup.
“The Future is Now”
Taken together, I argue that entrepreneurs should focus their attention on the activities and practices, which enable them to create their futures to actualize their full potentials. Going forward, this entails understanding the process of entrepreneuring also as a “future-making” activity, which enables tech entrepreneurs to create, imagine, and aspire to different versions of their futures. Redirecting our attention to the doings and sayings could help us to widen and reflect our understanding of what we as scientists who study the social reality of entrepreneurs prescribe to when thinking about entrepreneurship, emergent technologies, and the construction and enactment of the future.
Accordingly, I would also like to encourage researchers to further study entrepreneurs and the process of entrepreneuring. I think that more ethnographic work in this context is needed as it is particularly important to investigate and understand the daily activities that said entrepreneurs engage as they found, develop, scale, and exit their businesses. Through such research, we could further help understand how entrepreneurs’ mundane doings and sayings enable them to create and enact their futures. Furthermore, building on an understanding of the entanglement of social and technological practices (see Orlikowski & Scott, 2008) can enable us to push the boundaries of our understanding of how emergent technologies are intertwined with human social and cognitive practices of future-making. Such research would enable us to use two sorts of AI: artificial intelligence and anthropology intelligence.
Additionally, I argue that such work can help us to extend our knowledge of entrepreneurs’ social reality and also enable researchers on their quest to theorize for more desirable futures.
Finally, I think that a lot of the current discourses regarding the use of emergent technologies such as AI, Big Data, social media, platforms, among others, rather emphasize the desire of perfecting how they can help entrepreneurs to predict the future. However, in turn, I argued that these technologies also offer an important opportunity for entrepreneurs to produce and reimaging their own futures to actively engage in this process to open up the performative power of imagination and aspiration of the future. Taking the notion that the future is “unknowable” seriously (Wenzel et al., 2020) and embracing the current challenges we are facing as a society, we may be better off offering entrepreneurs the space for engaging in alternative futures in the search of answers to some of the most pressing questions of our time. This could be the first step to create “an entirely new way of talking about the future [in order] to shape it into something equitable and sustainable for all.”
Johannisson, B. (2011). Towards a practice theory of entrepreneuring. Small Business Economics, 36(2), 135-150.
Reckwitz, A. (2002). Toward a theory of social practices: A development in culturalist theorizing. European Journal of Social Theory, 5(2), 243-263.
Orlikowski, W. J., & Scott, S. V. (2008). 10 Sociomateriality: challenging the separation of technology, work and organization. Academy of Management Annals, 2(1), 433-474.
Sarasvathy, S. D. (2001). Causation and effectuation: Toward a theoretical shift from economic inevitability to entrepreneurial contingency. Academy of Management Review, 26(2), 243-263.
Skade, L., Stanske, S., Wenzel, M. and Koch, J. (2020), “Temporary Organizing and Acceleration: On the Plurality of Temporal Structures in Accelerators”, Braun, T. and Lampel, J. (Ed.) Tensions and paradoxes in temporary organizing (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 67), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 105-125. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0733-558X20200000067011.
Wenzel, M. (2021). Taking the Future More Seriously: From Corporate Foresight to” Future-making”. Academy of Management Perspectives.
Wenzel, M., Krämer, H., Koch, J., & Reckwitz, A. (2020). Future and Organization Studies: On the rediscovery of a problematic temporal category in organizations. Organization Studies, 41(10), 1441-1455.