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Where It All Began

America's entrepreneurial roots go way back.

This month, Jamestown, Virginia, marks its 400th anniversary. The Virginia colony was not only the first permanent English settlement in the New World, it was also the beginning of American entrepreneurship.

James Horn, author of A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America, says that the colonists who settled in Virginia in 1607 were not out to practice their own religion on their own terms. They were an entrepreneurial venture motivated by money--or at least their backers were.

The Virginia Company, a collection of powerful English merchants, funded the enterprise. America represented an untapped opportunity, and first-mover advantage was at stake.

In many ways, problems typical of new companies plagued the startup. The initial business plan--to find precious metals, locate a sea passage to the Far East, secure commerce with the native people and manufacture goods--seemed overly optimistic and vague. The employees' lack of applicable experience was evident. The new company also had some exceptional challenges: disease, famine and warfare. But what might be the enduring legacy of Jamestown as the start of American business is the simple fact that the company adapted and persisted.

When gold and silver didn't materialize, the company tried a variety of other schemes, from glassblowing to the cultivation of silk. Eventually, the colony discovered its blockbuster product in the form of tobacco, which was hugely profitable. However, in a familiar ending to entrepreneurial ventures, the leaf-fueled success of the colony couldn't prevent The Virginia Company's dissolution in 1624 as a result of bickering among the investors.

Still, Horn rates Jamestown as a success. "Virginia survived, and that's enormously important not just for Virginia, but [also for the] other English colonies," he says. "It's in Virginia that the lessons were learned as to how to establish a colony."

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This story appears in the May 2007 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »