Entrepreneurs have been crossing borders and sharing cultures for thousands of years. From the days of the Silk Road, an ancient network of trade routes, entrepreneurs have connected east and west. They have found friends, made money, shared ideas and products and rendered borders permeable.
Today, an enterprising number of digital entrepreneurs are continuing this trend. These men and women – often working alone or in small teams – are ditching the 9-5 to create a business selling digital product online to a global audience. They are sharing their passion for fitness, cookery, tiny houses, video games, crochet and much more with anyone else who shares their interest, no matter where they live.
They are as much global traders as multinationals, Mittelstand companies and Silicon valley unicorns. But they are often misunderstood.
It's easy for small scale digital entrepreneurs to get lost in debates about global trade. We're very aware of the dark side of globalisation: the McDonalidisation of culture, billion-dollar tax avoidance schemes, and the global spread of online crime (even the term 'The Silk Road' was hijacked by criminals in 2011).
In such debates, the activities of individuals and small teams of entrepreneurs often get lost, until the conversation moves on to local concerns: about the family-run grocery store, say, or the upstart hipster cafe selling breakfast cereal in a once-poor neighbourhood.
Authorities also routinely penalise small-scale entrepreneurs because they fail to understand what they need, what they risk and what they do. The 2015 EU VAT rules are a case in point. Set up with the intention of preventing large companies from avoiding tax they ended up penalising thousands of small digital businesses. The EU Commission has promised improvements.
The rise of the global digital entrepreneur
This lack of understanding isn't justified. Solopreneurs and SMEs are some of the most exciting people to watch in terms of crossing borders, testing new ideas and following their dreams. And this trend for global digital entrepreneurship will only continue. Although these traders may be individually small, collectively they have a serious economic impact.
Let's look at SendOwl, a digital delivery platform I work for that makes it easy for digital entrepreneurs to sell their products direct to customers from their websites, blogs and social media. They have sellers in 86 countries, selling to customers in every country in the world except eight small ones (Eritrea, Micronesia, Guinea-Bissau, Palau, South Sudan, São Tomé and Príncipe and Tuvalu if you're wondering). And recently, they announced that their entrepreneurial sellers had made more than one quarter of a billion dollars.
That’s just one digital delivery platform. A 2016 Accenture report concludes: “SMEs, especially those born Digital, are the new (micro-) multinationals in the game of e-Commerce.” The report goes on to say that “Until now, B2C online transactions have been mainly domestic (supply and demand from the same nation); however, cross-border e-Commerce is taking over as the key growth engine to B2C trade”
Crossing borders, defying populists
Today, we're seeing politicians and populist movements supporting protectionism. 'America First' declares American president Donald Trump. "In the name of the people" says Marine le Pen, garnering 33.9% of the vote in the recent French election. This approach, to put it crudely, is based on an understanding that someone else's success means your failure. And of course it can do: global trade and globalisation has produced many losers as well as winners.
However, digital entrepreneurs provide a salutary antidote to 'zero sum' economics. They explore global niches where there is little competition; they establish themselves as authorities so people specifically want their products because they are trustworthy; and they create new global markets. Cinnamon and Jason Miles, an American couple, now run the Internet's largest marketplace for doll clothing patterns. The couple saw how other mums admired Cinnamon's doll clothing for her daughter and decided to take that idea and run with it.
Small-scale digital entrepreneurs often make money because they deserve to. They don't take money away from someone else selling an identical product but for $10 more. And they don't always just make sales: they create communities based around similar interests, attract cheerleaders who look to them for inspiration, and encourage cooperation.
Blue Parrot Language is a joint American-Jamaican enterprise that sells a Jamaican Patois language audio course and The Jamaicasaurus “the only translation dictionary to go from English to Jamaican Patois and the only Jamaican thesaurus in existence”.
Digital entrepreneurs are in the vanguard of people who want to do something they love (there are depressing numbers of people who hate their job or see no value in it). And they are using technology to achieve their goals. The internet allows them to reach a global audience, sell easily across borders, and to be independent. They are using technology to suit themselves rather than waiting for technology to use them.
Authorities are right to be concerned at the way global trade and technology is changing the way we live and work: but they should look at what is being achieved by everyone, not just by the companies that generate the most headlines.
Small scale digital entrepreneurs can show what can happen when people with a passion for doll clothing, fitness, indie video games and much more are given the means to pursue their global dreams. They cross borders, they share knowledge and they bring people together. They should be taken seriously, and encouraged.