The Myth of Isolation

The Myth of Isolation is the second post in the Case Foundation’s Myth of the Entrepreneur series. This series is intended to intentionally examine, and change, the stories our culture tells about entrepreneurship. For more information on the Case Foundation’s approach to the Myth series and Inclusive Entrepreneurship, please check out our introductory piece. We encourage you to join the conversation using #Ent4All on Twitter.

The Myth of the Entrepreneur series is based on research conducted by Michael Chodos, former fellow with the Case Foundation and currently at the Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation at Georgetown University, with contributions from Aaron Coleman, former Case Foundation intern.

In our first deep dive into prevalent entrepreneurship myths in our culture, we’d like to tackle one of the biggest of them all – that all successful companies emerge from some solitary “moment of inspiration” in some solitary place. The idioms and the imagery – “light bulb moments” and garages where “it all started” – are deeply seeded in the narrative of what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Take a minute and think about the classic tales. It was in the garage that Steve Jobs invented the personal computer. It was in his basement that Alexander Graham Bell uttered those famous lines upon inventing the phone, “Watson, come here! I want to see you!” And Isaac Singer toiled away alone as he built the sewing machine from scratch.

All white men. All idolized for their solitary contributions to society. And all seen as having a stroke of genius while working by themselves in complete isolation. In our nation’s version of entrepreneur mythology, this magic takes place in the garage where the lone inventor works.

This myth is not only talked about in entrepreneurship circles, but even marketers have started using the “great things happen in a garage” sentiment to sell products. For a good example of this, watch the Cadillac ad below:

But it turns out the myths of the garage inventions and the lone inventors are more fiction than fact. Steve Jobs didn’t invent the personal computer in his garage – nor did he start Apple alone. Steve Wozniak pulled the first Apple computer together by tinkering with circuit boards along with a group of friends at the “Homebrew” computer club run out of a bicycle shop in Palo Alto; Jobs convinced him they could sell it.

And what we don’t hear about Bell’s invention of the telephone is that he built his version of the first telephone based on decades of similar designs from others. There was a wealth of knowledge and work on behalf of other brilliant individuals that contributed to Bell’s truly remarkable invention that altered humanities communication forever.

Singer has a similar entrepreneur experience with the invention of his sewing machine. While he’s credited with the invention, he built his work off of decades of incremental inventions by other engineers and designers. At least eighty patents for designs and working machines existed before his first patent was filed. In fact, he was successfully sued for infringing oth­ers’ patented designs.

This “teamwork disguised as individual successes” phenomenon is rarely talked about in mainstream entrepreneurship stories. It leads us to idolize the individual instead of analyzing the team and process that made the idea come to fruition. Steve Johnson, in his book How We Got to Now, takes a deep dive into six innovations that were highly collaborative and involved in how they developed. He discusses inventors like Bell and Thomas Edison, who we think of as lone innovators who had a stroke of genius, and breaks down the real life process that led to inventions that changed the course of history. Thomas Edison gets the credit for inventing the light bulb, but his “light bulb moment” was actually a much more common iterative process of building off the successes and failures of others in the space.

Entrepreneurship requires work, drive and guts; however, what these four changemakers’ stories reveal is that developing the idea and building the product or service requires the knowledge and contribution of both present and historical peers and networks. It requires the diversity of ideas and perspectives of many pioneering men and women who come together to build on both past and current work, while creating a support system that uplifts an entrepreneur and propels a business.

As research shows, the most successful ventures involve teamwork. A 2013 report published in the Harvard Business School Review (HBR) found that companies with leaders who possess both inherent diversity (gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation) and acquired diversity (robust and varied business and life experiences) were, “45 percent more likely to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year and 70 percent more likely to report that the firm captured a new market.” And HBR isn’t alone. Forbes, McKinsey and Company and Scientific American have all published articles and studies that reinforce the theory that greater inclusivity breeds innovation and growth. When we look at the historical facts of great innovations like Apple and the telephone, we see that their success was based on teams. And we see that diverse teams produce greater returns for their investors.

So why do we keep lifting up tales of solitary entrepreneurs from privileged backgrounds working in suburban garages as the ones to emulate? And why do we hold so dear to the idea of lone rangers having singular moments of discovery?

The history and the future of entrepreneurship are full of interesting and diverse characters and stories of great teamwork – and much more interesting than the myths and the models that continue to dominate the narrative. The most powerful ideas are really borne out of a “village”, more than they are happened upon in a rare “aha moment” by a single entrepreneur working in the isolation of their garage, dorm room or basement. Changing that narrative to better reflect reality has the potential to actually make it a reality for more people, in more places, from more backgrounds.

Join the conversation on Twitter at #Ent4All and be sure to check out the full Myth of the Entrepreneur series!