It’s the governments’ job to minimize the risk of disruption, but innovation requires that we be comfortable with a certain level of risk.
I read Ilona Dougherty’s “To enhance innovation we need ‘intrapreneurship’ instead of ‘heropreneurship’” with some interest. The crux of the piece was this: the so called heropreneurs are to be guarded against, and “we can’t rely on just one sector or just one kind of actor to solve our innovation deficit.”
For a brief period, I served as an adviser in the Harper government. Today, I am the CEO of a tech company with offices in Waterloo and San Francisco. As someone who has spent time in what civil servants would call the “innovation sector,” I’d like to give the current government two pieces of free advice.
First, stop listening to people who make up words.
In the past three to four years, we have witnessed a startup bubble of sorts. It is difficult to tell which advice to follow and which to ignore. A very good rule of thumb is this: ignore advice containing words that you cannot find in a dictionary.
Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Max Levchin, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates all sound more like engineers than students in a postgraduate sociology seminar. The biggest enemy of innovation is the march of time. Those who are trying to change the world simply do not have time for words that convey no meaning.
A lot of people will try to make a lot of money “studying” or “providing analysis” on what government should do. Ignore them all. In the time it would take to figure out what “heropreneurship” actually means, you could have just called up any successful entrepreneur or venture capitalist to ask for real advice.
Second, stop chasing away Canadian businesses.
In the 1950s, a Holocaust survivor named Jack Tramiel started a company called Commodore Business Machines in Toronto.
Tramiel may be the most important, least celebrated figure in modern computing. He built the C64. In the early 1980s, the C64 outsold Apple, IBM and Atari combined. In 1987, I got a C64. It was my first computer. It is what I used to write my first two lines of code:
> 10 PRINT « Hello World! »
> 20 GOTO 10
Tramiel may have been the first businessperson to promote the cause of mass computer ownership. He wanted a cheap computer in every home. In the early days of computing, his name would have been as important as Steve Jobs. He was called “the king of low cost computers.” People he mentored, hired and taught have gone on to create billions of dollars in value and are responsible for some of the most impressive companies in the world.
Yet, no one thinks of Tramiel’s Commodore Business Machines as a Canadian company. That’s not an accident. Tramiel started his company in Canada, but in the late 1960s Canada’s high tax and anti-innovation agenda chased him away. Its social welfare policies resulted in severe casualties to its innovation and wealth-creating sectors.
Thanks to these policies, Canada lost out on all that potential. Tramiel moved his company to California, and the rest is history. Silicon Valley could have been built in Toronto. It wasn’t, because Canadian policies chased it away.
Today, Canada’s regulatory system is still chasing away innovative startups. We’re chasing away Uber and subsidizing GM. We’re chasing away drone companies and subsidizing Bombardier. Change can be scary. But true innovation requires that we be comfortable with a certain level of risk. Risk is what government is designed to fight. The civil servants at Industry Canada know that by giving taxpayer money to Bombardier they will save Canadian jobs. So they subsidize Bombardier and drive away the drone companies through heavy-handed regulations.
What they don’t realize is that this decision has also destroyed billions of dollars worth of value. But it’s their job to minimize the risk of disruption, and thereby prevent real innovation and change.
When you minimize the risk of disruption, you scare away innovation. That is happening as much today as it was in Tramiel’s era. Plus ça change.
There is a lot the government can do to promote innovation, but the most important thing it can do is to follow Google’s corporate motto: “don’t be evil.”
Subsidizing Bombardier and killing drone companies is evil. Stop that. Wasting money on consultants while making it harder to start a business in Canada is evil. Stop that.
Stop doing bad things. We in the “innovation sector” will take care of the good things.
Photo: LUMOimages / shutterstock.com
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