Whilst large companies have played their role in this development, at the heart of many of these changes have been technical entrepreneurs, namely those individuals who operate within technologically advanced industries that, with a degree of technical expertise, have branched out by themselves and set up organisations that base their competitive advantage on focus on their skills and experience.
With the rapid technological progress occurring in the last decade or so, particularly with the growth of the internet, technical entrepreneurship has become a primary consideration for governments at a regional, national and even transnational levels seeking to encourage, stimulate and sustain increased levels of growth in the field. For example, the Welsh Government has recently announced a £100m fund to help support technical entrepreneurs and the companies they have created in the life sciences sector in Wales.
During the last fifty years, it can be argued that the most famous examples of technical entrepreneurship have emerged from Silicon Valley – the birthplace of modern computing, social networking and online searching – where companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Apple and Facebook have made fortunes for their owners and changed the way we live our lives today.
Yet, in my opinion, the most influential technical entrepreneur that ever lived is not Bill Hewlett, David Packard, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. Instead, that accolade should go to a humble English potter born over two hundred and eighty years ago in Staffordshire
The youngest of thirteen children, Josiah Wedgwood was born in 1730 and started in the pottery industry at the age of just 11. Working in the family firm, he built up his expertise until he left his father’s business when he was 29 to set up on his own.
By this time, Wedgwood had mastered the art of pottery and set about introducing new products, processes and services that resulted in myriad inventions and commercial success on a hitherto unseen scale.
As would be expected of a technical entrepreneur, he came up with new scientific devices for his industry, such as the pyrometer for measuring very high temperatures in kilns.
But he also revolutionised the entire retail industry through introducing a myriad of innovations that we are all familiar with today, including money back guarantees, free delivery, illustrated catalogues, buy one get one free offers, regular sales, travelling salesmen and self-service.
He created the first real mass market by manufacturing affordable and desirable ceramics for the growing industrial classes who couldn’t afford the expensive Chinese porcelain that had dominated the markets for over 200 years previously.
He was also centuries ahead of his time in the way he considered innovation. For example, rather than patenting as most technology entrepreneurs today remain obsessed with, Wedgwood preferred to be first to market and was an early proponent of the open innovation model.
And pre-dating Steve Jobs’ synergy of art with technology by more than two centuries, he encouraged collaborative research through working with artists, customers, friends, rivals, architects and sculptors to develop his products.
He also demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for marketing and branding, and was the first in the ceramic industry to mark his products with his name, denoting ownership of his designs. He also sought patronage from politicians and royalty alike and using this in his advertising. Indeed, he used the royal patronage to develop overseas clientele as well, resulting in 80 per cent of his total production being sold abroad by the mid 1780s.
But he was not satisfied only with his business and like Bill Gates two hundred and fifty years later, he wanted to use his fortune to help society.
He took on a prominent role in public life, particularly in the battle for the abolition of slavery. He also helped to create the first British Chamber of Manufactures and played an important role in the development of infrastructure in England during the industrial revolution, building canals, turnpike roads and communications through personal investment in the ports and towns in which his goods were transported through.
Therefore, from inheriting £20 from his father, Josiah Wedgwood built up a very profitable and long lasting dynastic firm that resulted in a personal fortune of £500,000 (around £50m in current prices).
Indeed, it was this legacy that gave his grandson, Charles Darwin, the time to undertake his scientific
studies as a young man and to eventually come up with the theories that would result in one of the most important books ever written, the “Origin of the Species”.
And whilst the firm was hit hard as a result of the global crisis four years ago, collapsing into administration, Wedgwood has thankfully emerged from the rceession with a new owner determined to carry on the legacy of the original founder of the business in Stoke on Trent.
So the next time you are sitting having a cuppa, give a small toast to the man who not only created the ceramic vessel from which you are drinking but who, for his achievements in manufacturing, management, marketing and retail, should rightly be recognised as ‘the world’s greatest innovator’.