Is play the new economic driver?

Most researchers and policymakers agree, that entrepreneurship is the economic driver in terms of innovation and new job creation. While watching the film ‘The Startup Kids’ which showcases some of the brightest and most successful really young entrepreneurs in the US and Europe, I couldn’t help but wonder if a new paradigm shift is on its way.

Many entrepreneurs, young and old, embrace entrepreneurship because its ‘fun’ – As Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben& Jerry’s famously said ‘ If it isn’t fun, why do it?’

However, for the smart kids featured in this film, entrepreneurship isn’t just fun, it seems to be a direct extension of play.

Take for example the rise of Brian Wong. As for many young entrepreneurs, the skills that would lead Brian to grow successful businesses were developed while playing. Specifically, as an adolescent, Brian was obsessed with being the best player of a popular video game. He recalls spending  8 – 10 hours  a day non-stop in order to maintain his top status on several different servers. This then led to Brain self-teaching himself web design and opening up an online web design company with his buddy… fast forward several years and at nineteen, Brian became the youngest entrepreneur to ever receive Venture Capital funding as the founder of Kiip.

Stuart Brown MD, writes in his book ‘Play’ that during play we experience a diminished sense of self, an openness to improvisation, a desire to keep the process going and time seems to fly by. Creating a team of like-minded friends encourages the play to continue…

Forming a close-knit start-up team with some of their good buddies was another common characteristic of these young entrepreneurs. As they built their start-up, bootstrapping was another typical feature. This often meant renting a small apartment, living and working together in that apartment, eating fast food and working crazy hours .  At one point in the film, the camera zooms in on a note taped to the wall at a bootstrapping start-up which reads- Alert: today we work until 4:30am –  which at first glance, may seem excessive… but hold on, these are all recently graduated college students… and what college student isn’t used to pulling an all-nighter with their buddies? 

 Zach Klein, co-founder of Vimeo chose to spent 6 months in self-imposed isolation while developing Vimeo. He explains that at that time, nothing was more interesting or important to him, not even his girlfriend. Afterwards he sent letters apologizing to his family and friends for having been so out of touch…

Strikingly, even when they have been successful and ‘made it big’, these young entrepreneurs don’t stop. Take the story of Alexander Ljung, co-founder of Soundcloud. He declared that when Bjork signed up for Soundcloud, he would take the day off, but once Bjork did sign up and Alexander could now take the day off, he didn’t want to because all he wanted to do was keep working….

… this isn’t the type of behavior you’d expect from a 20 something year old….

A certain portion of youth have always engaged in ‘obsessive play’ games like chess and in my time dungeons and dragons. 

But the difference today is that obsessive play can generate tremendous economic returns not only for the entrepreneur but also for the economy as a whole – at a scale and scope that was unimaginable even a decade ago

As Hermoine Way, founder of Newspepper comments, today, all you need to start a business is a laptop and a WIFI connection!

Sure there are a lot of failures but more often than not failures make up part of the entrepreneurial learning curve. As Venture Capitalist Tim Draper notes, there were 20+ search engine start-ups funded and at different stages of development before Google came on the scene.

And besides, every game has its winners and its losers.

It seems to me that the real contribution of these young, smart folks is yet to come: their influence expanding as they become role models, mentors and investors to the next generation of young entrepreneurs, initiating an ever growing trend and new career path challenging the age-old notion that at some point it’s time to stop playing and start working.

Maybe it’s simply time to encourage the energy of play into entrepreneurial pursuits.

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