Of all the amazing changes the past three decades have brought, which were the most important? Five trends stand out as the entrepreneurial landscape's most transformative.
Travel back in a time machine to 1977, and you'd find few of the devices businesspeople rely on today. Into the early 1980s, most personal computers were bulky things such as RadioShack's notorious TRS-80, known to users as the "Trash 80."
As the '80s progressed, PCs and printers got cheaper and more reliable. Computer-processing power that had cost tens of thousands of dollars and taken up entire rooms could fit on an entrepreneur's kitchen table, says Kenneth Lipartito, history professor at Florida International University in Miami. Now a computer system could be had by any would-be business owner with a credit card or a sympathetic relative willing to lend some cash.
Programs such as 1977's VisiCalc spreadsheet software turned computers into more of a business tool. With the advent of Aldus PageMaker in the mid-'80s, computers became printing presses.
By 1982, the home computer was Time's "Machine of the Year." That year also saw the FCC authorize commercial cellular phone service.
From there, the revolution was in portability. By the late 1980s, lightweight laptop computers were hitting the road with executives and cell phones were starting to grow out of everyone's ears. It was easier than ever to launch a business from anywhere.
Also by the late 1980s, CompuServe and a few other early e-mail providers were saving savvy business owners on postage costs. Of course, the person you wanted to e-mail might or might not have an address yet.
The road to entrepreneurship had gotten cheaper and smoother. Only one thing could have made life better: the ability to tell the entire world about your company at very little cost, without ever leaving your desk.
In 1993, the first widely used commercial browser, Mosaic, was released, and overnight, a little-known network linking the computers of a few university and government scientists became a tool for everyone. The World Wide Web was up and running.
While many big corporations slumbered, entrepreneurs were quick to launch companies that capitalized on this new way to reach customers. In 1995, both Amazon.com and eBay opened for business, and the e-commerce era had officially begun.
The rise of e-commerce was a boon to women and minorities, notes Seattle University business professor Barbara Parker. "On the internet, nobody knows who you are, so their prejudices don't matter," she says. "There are very few barriers to web-based entrepreneurship. You can find a market for something like industrial music by selling to customers who like it, even though they're scattered all over the world."
That's basically what Greg Selkoe did in 2002 when he developed an online marketplace for the urban "street" fashions he liked to wear. Having watched other hip fashion sites disappear in the dotcom bust of 2000, Selkoe saw an opening and launched Boston-based Karmaloop.com. He scraped up $75,000 from family and friends to purchase inventory.
Selkoe, 32, now has 27 employees and expects 2007 sales to top $16 million--double last year's take. These days, up-and-coming designers pay for the privilege of being included on Karmaloop's Kazbah area, which showcases new underground brands.
Karmaloop's success underscores the continued potential of the internet, says David Kirsch, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland in College Park and a collector of failed dotcom business plans. The famed dotcom crash, he says, was but a blip in the financial world. In fact, Kirsch's studies showed that the five-year survival rate for dotcoms of the internet-bubble era was a very healthy 48 percent.
Since the so-called bust, an entirely new internet-based business opportunity seems to have arisen every 18 months or so, Kirsch says. Just think of VoIP sensation Skype, online-video hit YouTube, podcasts and blogs. "[The net is] like this giant heart that keeps pumping and shooting out new things," Kirsch says.
The rise of wireless broadband has huge potential to fuel entrepreneurial activity, says Lipartito. He points to plans in many municipalities around the country to create their own free broadband networks. "Such public infrastructures have often been a boon to entrepreneurs," he says. "Think of railroads, telephones, electricity and good public roads."
Mary Cronin, a Boston College professor and author of the 1994 book Doing Business on the Internet, couldn't find a link to the book, so just italicize sees the explosive popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook and the increase in sophisticated mobile phones as two trends set to revolutionize e-commerce. "Marketing money is starting to follow mobile commerce," she says, "to convince people to start using their phones for e-commerce."
In the 1970s, selling around the globe was mostly the province of large corporations. They had the bankroll to navigate the mysteries of other cultures, pay massive overseas phone bills and deal with complex import/export laws.
Even for the big guys, there wasn't as much of a globe to sell to. All of Eastern Europe was closed to U.S. business, and even Western Europe wasn't easily penetrated, says Andrew Bernard, senior associate director of the Center for International Business at Dartmouth College. "A lot of Asia was closed off to Western trade," he says. "China was off the radar. India was restricted."
That would change dramatically over the next 20 years, as rounds of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade gradually removed trade barriers. In 1978, China began a slow trend toward openness to foreign companies. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Eastern Europe was suddenly wide open.
As telecommunications became cheaper, barriers to foreign trade for small businesses were lessened, Bernard points out. As people and ideas began to flow more freely between borders, immigrants to the U.S. arrived with the know-how to trade with their countries of origin.
In 1994, Hugo Almeida took his experience helping Matsushita sell electronics in Latin America and formed a company that eventually became ABItronix in Flanders, New Jersey. A U.S. citizen who spent much of his childhood in his parents' native Ecuador, Almeida was able to use his contacts and knowledge of South American languages and cultures to establish his company as a prominent supplier.
That was the same year the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, and by trading with NAFTA participant Mexico, Almeida, 40, learned how to penetrate other Latin American countries' trade barriers.
Though he's faced intense competition from cheap overseas producers, Almeida has found a niche in selling higher-quality connectivity products for communications solutions. His company's sales jumped from $840,000 in 2005 to $1.2 million in 2006.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.