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The word “pioneer” conjures an image of brave explorers in wagons braving America’s badlands to establish new settlements in the west, or the poet Keats’ “stout Cortez” getting a first glimpse of the Pacific, “silent, upon a peak in Darien”.
Those images are at least partly fiction. The wagon-drawn pioneers were not the first Americans to settle in the west, merely the first to document and publicise their advance. Cortez was not the first European to see the Pacific (it was another conquistador, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who led the expedition — Keats blundered). Even the word pioneer derives from the old French for footsoldier and was applied to humble engineers who prepared the way for advancing armies with trenches and other excavations.
What, then, are the characteristics required of true business pioneers?
Persistence — or “grit” — is a vital personality trait. While it is exciting to think of business advances being made in huge leaps by bold innovators, they are more often the outcome of many smaller steps, some of which end in failure. Inventor Nikola Tesla criticised Thomas Edison, for whom he worked briefly, for examining “straw after straw” in his search for a needle in a haystack, rather than using theory as a shortcut to the solution. Yet it was the persistent Edison and his rival George Westinghouse who thrived in the business field.
To break new ground often requires entrepreneurial ability. Tesla (whose name a modern pioneer, Elon Musk, hopes to immortalise through his Tesla electric vehicles) died penniless, despite developing a viable alternating current electric motor. But profitability is not a pre-requisite for pioneer status. Aviation entrepreneur Sir Freddie Laker pushed to establish budget transatlantic flights against powerful incumbents, only for his airline, which ran the Skytrain service, to go bust in 1982. But his initiative paved the way for others, such as Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic.
Business pioneers are often tinkerers, like Soichiro Honda, the founding father of the eponymous car company, who built a motorised bike out of parts scavenged from postwar Japanese streets. His early successes, which led to the unorthodox early Honda motors, were powered by his enthusiasm and innovative mindset.
Pioneers need to be flexible enough to “compete in unstructured and ever-changing environments”, according to Constantinos Markides and Paul Geroski, whose 2005 book Fast Second laid out the characteristics of “colonists” — as opposed to the “consolidators”, who often benefit from the pioneers’ breakthroughs. Pioneers need, too, to possess the agility and bravery to switch course if their early attempts lead to a dead-end.
Most pioneers also possess an instinct for networking, spotting and linking together existing elements to create something novel, even revolutionary. Mark Zuckerberg took the traditional college yearbook and combined it with the power of the fledgling internet to create Facebook. Walter Isaacson, biographer of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and author of The Innovators, has pointed out that, from Leonardo da Vinci to Jobs, pioneers are often found at the intersection of the humanities and science, discovering ways in which two apparently distinct disciplines can fertilise one another.
The roll-call of business innovation must include not only product inventors but also those with the capacity to create a new business model or process, such as Toyota’s Eiji Toyoda, who inspired the production methods now used by many manufacturers, or Michael Dell, whose “Dell Direct” approach to hardware assembly changed the computer industry in the 1990s.
On the same basis, the hall of fame ought to be big enough to accommodate business and management theorists who forge new business ideas, from Frederick Winslow Taylor’s efficiency principles to Peter Drucker’s “knowledge workers”, based on their observation of existing practice and their insights into the future.
Finally, true business colonists are often not solo operators but successful collaborators, comfortable working with partners or teams. Honda Motor’s success was in part down to Soichiro Honda’s realisation that he needed to marry his inventiveness with the marketing and sales skills of Takeo Fujisawa in order to succeed.
Some business pioneers are fearless (and occasionally fearsome) maverick leaders — visionaries who see beyond the business horizon. But in Isaacson’s words, breakthroughs are achieved not only by dreamers but also by doers — the true heirs of the footsoldiers who prepared the way for the great armies that followed them.
Who would you describe as history’s greatest business pioneers?
Over the next few weeks, the Financial Times is asking readers to help us find the top business pioneers of all time. Based on your suggestions, and those of FT journalists, we will compile a longlist, which will be presented to our panel of judges. They will attempt to come up with the top 50, to be published on FT.com and in an FT magazine in March.
As well as telling us who you are nominating, please also tell us why.
We welcome nominations not just of the obvious candidates but also of business pioneers we may not have thought of — perhaps because they come from outside the usual countries, markets or industries, or because, while they were not business people themselves, their ideas had a profound effect on business. These could be scientists, inventors or doctors, like Fleming, whose innovations had profound business consequences.
Please send us your nominations – the process will be that much richer for them.