The difference between inventors and entrepreneurs

Real innovation means coming up with ideas and building the structures necessary for turning them into real products and solutions for other people.

Emergn recently co-sponsored with the Global Peter Drucker Forum the latest in the Drucker Executive Breakfast London Series, where attendees got to hear from and speak with Adrian Wooldridge, political editor for The Economist.

Adrian has co-written a new book with Alan Greenspan, Capitalism in America: A History, and he was on hand to share his thoughts on innovation, leadership, capitalism, economic lessons that Europe and America can learn from each other and a lot more. It was a fascinating talk, but one of the things that struck me most was the clear line he draws between entrepreneurs and inventors.

It’s easy to think of these two as interchangeable. After all, entrepreneurs and inventors are both visionaries, who map out a future around a product, a solution, some kind of new idea, and work aggressively to make that vision a reality. Ford, Rockefeller, Gates, Jobs – we tend to think of these men as both entrepreneurs and inventors.

But they’re not. There’s a stark difference between being an entrepreneur and being an inventor.

Inventors create new products. Entrepreneurs create companies around those products.

With guys like Ford and Gates, these aren’t people who invented something new; rather, they took what was already made and built organizations around them that could bring these inventions to scale. Ford didn’t create the automobile; he didn’t even create what would’ve been the most technologically impressive car of his day. But what he did do was build a company with the capacity to scale up the development of cars, and mass produce them quickly and cost-effectively, to meet consumer demand.

Ford may not have been an inventor, but he was an innovator. Innovation doesn’t just mean having the smartest or wildest idea. It also means coming up with a new idea AND a way to make it scalable. Good ideas that can’t be delivered to scale or commercialized in a free-market world are wastes of ideas. So Ford may not have invented the car or the assembly line, but where he innovated was in his ability to introduce these products and processes at scale to a mass market.

Being an innovator means encompassing the qualities of both an inventor and an entrepreneur: coming up with bold new ideas and also creating organizations and systems capable of bringing these ideas to fruition at scale. Innovation doesn’t favor over the other, it demands both.

The “frugal innovation” model, as Adrian called it, is not necessarily about the most cutting-edge idea or the perfect idea, but rather taking the “good-enough” idea and scaling it to solve real problems. If the idea can’t scale to something that is cost-effective to produce and made widely available to end users – whether it’s consumers or employees – then it’s not helping anything. And what good is an idea that can’t be put into practice?

Anyone can come up with ideas. Real innovation means coming up with ideas and building the structures necessary for turning them into real products and solutions for other people.

This article is part one in a series of posts related to the 2019 Emergn & Drucker Executive Breakfast London Series. Stay tuned for my next posts in this series, which will tackle the idea of ‘creative destruction’ and leadership lessons. 

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