Throughout the theoretical history of entrepreneurship, scholars from multiple disciplines in the social sciences have grappled with a diverse set of interpretations and definitions to conceptualize this abstract idea. Over time, "some writers have identified entrepreneurship with the function of uncertainty-bearing, others with the coordination of productive resources, others with the introduction of innovation, and still others with the provision of capital" (Hoselitz, 1952). Even though certain themes continually resurface throughout the history of entrepreneurship theory, presently there is no single definition of entrepreneurship that is accepted by all economists or that is applicable in every economy.
Although there is only limited consensus about the defining characteristics of entrepreneurship, the concept is almost as old as the formal discipline of economics itself. The term "entrepreneur" was first introduced by the early 18th century French economist Richard Cantillon. In his writings, he formally defines the entrepreneur as the "agent who buys means of production at certain prices in order to combine them" into a new product (Schumpeter, 1951). Shortly thereafter, the French economist J.B. Say added to Cantillon's definition by including the idea that entrepreneurs had to be leaders. Say claims that an entrepreneur is one who brings other people together in order to build a single productive organism (Schumpeter, 1951).
Over the next century, British economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill briefly touched on the concept of entrepreneurship, though they referred to it under the broad English term of "business management." Whereas the writings of Smith and Ricardo suggest that they likely undervalued the importance of entrepreneurship, Mill goes out of his way to stress the significance of entrepreneurship for economic growth. In his writings, Mill claims that entrepreneurship requires "no ordinary skill," and he laments the fact that there is no good English equivalent word to encompass the specific meaning of the French term entrepreneur (Schumpeter, 1951).
The necessity of entrepreneurship for production was first formally recognized by Alfred Marshall in 1890. In his famous treatise Principles of Economics, Marshall asserts that there are four factors of production: land, labor, capital, and organization. Organization is the coordinating factor, which brings the other factors together, and Marshall believed that entrepreneurship is the driving element behind organization. By creatively organizing, entrepreneurs create new commodities or improve "the plan of producing an old commodity" (Marshall, 1994). In order to do this, Marshall believed that entrepreneurs must have a thorough understanding about their industries, and they must be natural leaders. Additionally, Marshall's entrepreneurs must have the ability to foresee changes in supply and demand and be willing to act on such risky forecasts in the absence of complete information (Marshall, 1994).
Like Mill, Marshall suggests that the skills associated with entrepreneurship are rare and limited in supply. He claims that the abilities of the entrepreneur are "so great and so numerous that very few people can exhibit them all in a very high degree" (1994). Marshall, however, implies that people can be taught to acquire the abilities that are necessary to be an entrepreneur. Unfortunately, the opportunities for entrepreneurs are often limited by the economic environment which surrounds them. Additionally, although entrepreneurs share some common abilities, all entrepreneurs are different, and their successes depend on the economic situations in which they attempt their endeavors (Marshall, 1994).
Since the time of Marshall, the concept of entrepreneurship has continued to undergo theoretical evolution. For example, whereas Marshall believed entrepreneurship was simply the driving force behind organization, many economists today, but certainly not all, believe that entrepreneurship is by itself the fourth factor of production that coordinates the other three (Arnold, 1996). Unfortunately, although many economists agree that entrepreneurship is necessary for economic growth, they continue to debate over the actual role that entrepreneurs play in generating economic growth.
One school of thought on entrepreneurship suggests that the role of the entrepreneur is that of a risk-bearer in the face of uncertainty and imperfect information. Knight claims that an entrepreneur will be willing to bear the risk of a new venture if he believes that there is a significant chance for profit (Swoboda, 1983). Although many current theories on entrepreneurship agree that there is an inherent component of risk, the risk-bearer theory alone cannot explain why some individuals become entrepreneurs while others do not. For example, following from Knight, Mises claims any person who bears the risk of losses or any type of uncertainty could be called an entrepreneur under this narrow-definition of the entrepreneur as the risk-bearer (Swoboda, 1983). Thus, in order to build a development model of entrepreneurship it is necessary to look at some of the other characteristics that help explain why some people are entrepreneurs; risk may be a factor, but it is not the only one.
Another modern school of thought claims that the role of the entrepreneur is that of an innovator; however, the definition of innovation is still widely debatable. Kirzner suggests that the process of innovation is actually that of spontaneous "undeliberate learning" (Kirzner, 1985, 10). Thus, the necessary characteristic of the entrepreneur is alertness, and no intrinsic skills-other than that of recognizing opportunities-are necessary. Other economists in the innovation school side more with Mill and Marshall than with Kirzner; they claim that entrepreneurs have special skills that enable them to participate in the process of innovation. Along this line, Leibenstein claims that the dominant, necessary characteristic of entrepreneurs is that they are gap-fillers: they have the ability to perceive where the market fails and to develop new goods or processes that the market demands but which are not currently being supplied. Thus, Leibenstein posits that entrepreneurs have the special ability to connect different markets and make up for market failures and deficiencies. Additionally, drawing from the early theories of Say and Cantillon, Leibenstein suggests that entrepreneurs have the ability to combine various inputs into new innovations in order to satisfy unfulfilled market demand (Leibenstein, 1995).
Although many economists accept the idea that entrepreneurs are innovators, it can be difficult to apply this theory of entrepreneurship to less developed countries (LDCs). Often in LDCs, entrepreneurs are not truly innovators in the traditional sense of the word. For example, entrepreneurs in LDCs rarely produce brand new products; rather, they imitate the products and production processes that have been invented elsewhere in the world (typically in developed countries). This process, which occurs in developed countries as well, is called "creative imitation" (Drucker, 1985) The term appears initially paradoxical; however, it is quite descriptive of the process of innovation that actually occurs in LDCs. Creative imitation takes place when the imitators better understand how an innovation can be applied, used, or sold in their particular market niche (namely their own countries) than do the people who actually created or discovered the original innovation. Thus, the innovation process in LDCs is often that of imitating and adapting, instead of the traditional notion of new product or process discovery and development.
As the above discussion demonstrates, throughout the evolution of entrepreneurship theory, different scholars have posited different characteristics that they believe are common among most entrepreneurs. By combining the above disparate theories, a generalized set of entrepreneurship qualities can be developed. In general, entrepreneurs are risk-bearers, coordinators and organizers, gap-fillers, leaders, and innovators or creative imitators. Although this list of characteristics is by no means fully comprehensive, it can help explain why some people become entrepreneurs while others do not. Thus, by encouraging these qualities and abilities, governments can theoretically alter their country's supply of domestic entrepreneurship.