The First Entrepreneur

Who was it? A rundown of the contenders.
King Croesus of Lydia — credited with issuing the first true gold coins with a standardized purity for general circulation.

This column has recently featured a number of profiles of some of our newest and most interesting entrepreneurs. While I hope our loyal readers have enjoyed these stories, I thought it might be interesting to look at the other end of the timeline this month and pose the question, “Who was the first entrepreneur?”

Though there will never be a definitive answer, read on for a look at some candidates and their stories.

We’ll start our search in the Bible. Some argue that God was the original entrepreneur, having created the earth by hand. A case could be made for the serpent, who definitely sold Adam and Eve a bill of goods. But I would propose Noah, whose reward for building the ark, and populating it with every animal on the planet, was to have the whole world for himself and his family once the flood waters receded. According to the Bible, he promptly planted a vineyard, which gets him some bonus points. All very impressive for a 600-year-old man!

Thinking more along evolutionary lines, probably the real first entrepreneur was some proto-human who managed to knock off two animals in one day’s hunt. With no freezer available back then, this enterprising individual traded the spare carcass for a couple of spears and a cooking pot, thereby establishing the barter system.

Speaking of cooking, the titan Prometheus deserves a place on our list for having stolen fire from the gods and given it to humans. Not only is the ability to cook and eat meat considered to have been the catalyst for major evolutionary advances in our species, Prometheus’ gift of fire sparked the entire restaurant industry.

Sticking with Greek myth-ology, another candidate would be Procrustes. This son of the sea god Poseidon had a palace in a choice location along the sacred road from Athens to Eleusis. Limited to one bed, Procrustes nonetheless welcomed visitors to spend the night. The catch was that if they were too short for the bed, he would stretch them to fit; and if they were too tall, he would cut off their feet. Procrustes’ run as an innovative hotelier was put to an end by the hero Theseus, who wrote a terrible review of his palace in the 11th century BC equivalent to TripAdvisor.

One final hospitality industry note: if prostitution is the oldest profession, the first prostitute could certainly lay claim to being the first entrepreneur.

Though the barter system has not disappeared completely, most entrepreneurs today operate on a cash basis, thus a key progenitor of entrepreneurship was King Croesus of Lydia — credited with inventing money. Not surprisingly, this made him very wealthy, hence the still-used phrase “rich as Croesus.”

Marco Polo, and his father, Niccolo, are often cited as the first global entrepreneurs. Not only did they envision — and to no small degree launch — a vast trade network from western Europe to eastern Asia, Marco’s famous writings inspired countless others. Among them was Christopher Columbus (himself quite the entrepreneur), who found the American continent while searching for a western trade route to India.

Indians were of course the first American entrepreneurs. Though much maligned for selling Manhattan to the Dutch for the equivalent of $24, in retrospect they may well have gotten the better end of that deal.

I personally have to give a shout-out to whomever sold the first oyster. Getting anyone to pay anything for a gray, gelatinous bivalve strikes me as epic entrepreneurship.

The history of entrepreneurship is replete with creative, innovative firsts. What makes entrepreneurism truly remarkable is that enterprising individuals are still breaking new ground.

Next month we’ll get back to the more recent end of the entrepreneurial timeline.

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.
Categories: History