Oct 10, 2014 - 11:30am

5 Evergreen Lessons from a 15th Century Entrepreneur

Digital Content Intern, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Being an entrepreneur requires a healthy recipe of courage, knowledge, audacity, self-confidence, and above all vision. This holiday weekend offers a great opportunity to recognize one of America's very first entrepreneurs. Although Christopher Columbus’ goal of traveling west to reach Asia didn't quite pan out, he had what it took to succeed, even if it wasn't in the way that he expected.

Here are five reasons why Christopher Columbus was an exemplary entrepreneur:

1. Entrepreneurship is about recognizing a need and seeking a solution.

In the 15th century, there was a European demand for spices and precious metals from Asia. Columbus saw this as a business opportunity. He recognized supply and demand and the need to fill a void. Capitalizing on this opportunity he formed an import company. The lengthy and often dangerous jaunt would consist of getting to India through the Atlantic without cruising around Africa. Despite the perils of this trip, Columbus had no other choice; the more established route was monopolized by the Portuguese crown, leaving foreign merchants with little ability to ship their goods to and from Asia. The ability to chart a new route would not only be shorter and faster, but also increase the ability of merchants to meet growing European demand for Asian goods.  

2. Entrepreneurship requires confident evangelism of one's ideas or products.

As with many other start-ups, Columbus didn’t have the economic resources to undertake his expedition. Yet, he had faith in his plan and was determined to find funding. For more than seven years he lobbied several European monarchies to finance his expedition. Unfortunately, potential investors considered his idea to be ill-advised and not feasible. As a good salesman with a strong vision, he eventually convinced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that a new route would disturb Portugal’s monopoly on Asian imports and give Spain new sources of trade and commerce. They became his venture capitalists.

3. Entrepreneurship is best served with the audacity and hubris to go where no man has gone before.

The ability to lead others is a differentiator between people who succeed in convincing others to rally around a common theme, and those who do not. Think of this as the “Reality Distortion Field,” which refers to a “phenomenon in which an individual’s intellectual abilities, persuasion skills and persistence make other people believe in the possibility of achieving very difficult tasks.” An Apple Computer employee used this Star Trek reference in 1981 to describe Steve Jobs’ success in the Macintosh project. Columbus’ leadership is evidenced by his ability to have recruited investors and sailors to invest their fortunes and lives in a high-risk endeavor.

4. Entrepreneurship comes with a side-order of failure.

Blinded by optimism and confidence, entrepreneurs constantly underestimate the risks involved in their endeavors. Their desire for solutions outweighs their fear of failure. It takes courage to start a business from zero. Like Columbus, it takes courage to travel an undiscovered path.  While the outside world tells them they won’t succeed, the tenacity and stubbornness in them tells them to carry on.

5. Entrepreneurship is a legacy worth studying.

Before the advent of motorized travel, the only technological advantage you could use to increase your speed was to manipulate your sails to use the wind to your advantage. Christopher Columbus dominated the trade winds and used them in his expedition. There was no GPS, no internet, no Weather Channel, or petroleum. In 1492—similar to now—entrepreneurs were dependent on the knowledge and inventions of their predecessors. Similar to modern entrepreneurs, Columbus’ accomplishments were building blocks that laid the groundwork for others to reach new heights. 

Today we live in an era of information; we have the ability to learn anything about everything anytime and anywhere. However, Christopher Columbus’ story shows that the key principles of entrepreneurship still persist regardless of advancements in technology. With confidence, willingness to take risks, tenacity, knowledge, courage, and conviction (well, maybe also a little luck) you can achieve your greatest dreams and become a remarkable entrepreneur. Dream big; pay it forward! Future entrepreneurs will thank you.

Happy Entrepreneur, I mean Columbus Day!

About the Author

About the Author

Digital Content Intern, U.S. Chamber of Commerce