When Jean Ichbiah broke away from the Paris-based computer giant Bull (formerly called Cii-Honeywell Bull) in 1980 to start his own software company, he found scant support and few role models among his fellow Frenchmen. Instead, the young would-be entrepreneur looked across the Atlantic for his inspiration, and to the model provided by America's growth companies.
"I was working at Bull, developing a new language," Ichbiah recalls, "and I realized that here was an opportunity that I'd never see again. Everything seemed to be against my going out on ray own. But I knew that it was possible to build a big company on a software idea. I could point to an American firm like Microsoft."
While hardly in the Microsoft league -- yet -- Ichbiah's Alsys S.A. has grown to more than $1 million in sales since he decided to break away from France's government-supported electronics giant. And Ichbiah is hardly alone; would-be entrepreneurs are springing up from the cobblestoned capitals of Europe to the bustling cities of the Pacific Basin. As manufacturing payrolls -- from the United Kingdom to Japan -- drop, and as the opportunities offered by giant private or government-owned corporations dry up, a growing number of businesspeople are abandoning the security -- and stagnation -- of the coordinated industrial systems that have dominated the economic life of their native lands. Instead, they are seeking to emulate the success of the new American model, and forging out on their own in such cutting-edge industries as software, microelectronics, and biotechnology.
"Coordination is all right if you're building steel and cars on the model of other people," argues Jiro Tokuyama, dean of Tokyo's Nomura School of Advanced Management and a leading adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. "But now we're in the era of fast change, of integrated circuits and microprocessors. I don't think our large organizations can move quickly enough to make the changes. We must find our model among the entrepreneurs like in your Silicon Valley."
In Japan and other Pacific Basin nations, there are growing numbers of entrepreneurs seeking to follow what is often described as the "Silicon Valley Way. Taiwan already boasts at least two promising new personal-computer makers, Multitech and Mitac, as well as a start-up semiconductor design firm, Microtek. And venture capital firms have sprouted up in recent years in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, as well.
These new Asian businesses reflect a cultural shift as profound as that attempted by Mao Zedong during China's "cultural revolution" of the 1960s and early '70s. In such Confucian-oriented Asian societies as China, Korea, and Japan, people who left their jobs for a new venture have long been demeaned as lone wolves, points out Osaka-based small business consultant Yasunobu Nagura. For them, the very act of leaving established companies in Taibei or Tokyo in order to start their own ventures constitutes breaking thousands of years of cultural conditioning.
"Asian societies are at a turning point," believes Nagura, whose company has worked with more than 500 concerns in both Japan and Taiwan. "There is a new spirit, a willingness to dare new things. We're becoming Americanized."
Perhaps most remarkable of all, this trend has started surfacing even in the People's Republic of China. As part of its modernization campaign, Chinese leaders have begun abandoning the rigorous controls of the centralist Soviet model and now openly encourage the development of an entrepreneurial economy. Since 1979, the number of new privately owned businesses in China has increased thirtyfold, and independent businesses have experienced far higher rates of growth than their state-owned counterparts.
This escape from the straitjacket of the managed economy has also begun to infect Europe, where state-directed economic planning was long thought to have rendered entrepreneurism obsolete. But today, profoundly decentralist notions -- as well as the fast growth rates enjoyed by entrepreneurial companies both in the United States and Pacific nations -- are inspiring a new generation of Europeans to launch their own ventures.
Nowhere is this trend more pronounced than in Italy. Although buffeted by the worst inflation in the European Economic Community (EEC), between 1979 and 1981 Italy boasted among the continent's largest gains in per capita gross national product, much of it spurred by a massive "underground economy" of small companies, producing as much as one-fifth of the nation's total economic output. Often founded by workers laid off by giant companies, these small businesses, employing sometimes fewer than five workers, have helped Italy become a world leader in a staggering array of industries ranging from high-fashion textiles and furniture to metalworking industries. Some Italian companies, such as Danieli & Co., a $100-million steel-handling equipment company mostly serving minimills, have become internationally recognized leaders.
The other unlikely entrepreneurial success story in the EEC is in Great Britain. Persistent economic decline over several decades all but forced the British to turn away from welfare-state policies and begin experimenting with the new entrepreneurial economies. As a result, the United Kingdom now boasts the European community's most sophisticated high-technology sector, led by such ventures as Sinclair Research Ltd., the world's leading producer of small computers, and two young Scottish high-tech companies, Rodime PLC and Fortronic Ltd., both spin-offs from UK operations of major U.S. companies.
On the continent, however, the tradition of highly centralized financial power is so pervasive that even such promising electronic start-ups as Germany's Dolch have found it almost impossible to raise seed capital locally. In France, government interference and corporate conservatism have stunted the growth of new ventures in cutting-edge industries. Government-based electronics companies have been major money-losers for years; their failure to seize the technological initiative has contributed to France's dismal rate of economic growth in 1983, which was significantly below the growth rate in either the United Kingdom or Italy.
The major exception to this lackluster performance has been in the booming software industry, a field dominated by scores of small, growth-oriented companies. The disparity in performance between such successful entrepreneurial companies as Alsys, Eurosoft Telematique Espace, and Cap Gemini Sogeti and the torpid electronics giants hasn't escaped the notice of France's Socialist ministers. Although the top personal income tax rate has been raised, in recent months the government has worked to provide tax breaks to entrepreneurial companies, and has sought to open up the nation's traditionally conservative capital market.
"We know perfectly well that the growth we want depends on the entrepreneurial spirit," admits Bernard Attali, a leading Socialist intellectual and the powerful chairman of France's regional development agency. "Only entrepreneurs create jobs and new opportunities. The world is changing, and we are all entering an era of profound decentralization and the entrepreneur. We are interested in helping people go out there and help themselves."