Editor's Note: This article is part of a feature exploring what the future holds for the next generation of startups.

One of the easiest ways to look foolish is to start making predictions about the future--just ask those who said online shopping was a passing fad. And before the iPhone launched eight years ago, how many (besides maybe Steve Jobs) would have guessed that mobile apps would become a $35 billion industry?

But when Steve Case, Peter Diamandis, Esther Dyson, and other forward thinkers offer their thoughts about the future of entrepreneurship, you'd be a fool not to listen. Among their predictions: We'll see even grander and more ambitious ventures from entrepreneurs in the coming years. (And, presumably, fewer Kickstarter campaigns of the making-potato-salad ilk.) Some of their other projections feel less futuristic and more like a return to some of the practices (promoting strong values and building smart partnerships) that have made companies great in the past.

And whether or not you agree with these visions, there's one sure way to know what's coming down the pike. As management guru Peter Drucker liked to say, "The best way to predict the future is to create it."

 


Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings, made early investments in Facebook and LinkedIn as well as Evernote and Flickr. To her, the future of entrepreneurship requires a strong purpose and clear values.

--As told to Diana Ransom and Liz Welch.

What will it take to be a successful entrepreneur in the future?

I prefer to ask, what is a good entrepreneur? Success is somebody's definition. The best entrepreneurs have a sense of purpose that drives them. You can pivot better if you have a purpose, because then you have something to design toward. Otherwise, it's hard to figure out what to do when something isn't working.

There is a little too much hero worship of entrepreneurs today. There are too many people who think, "Oh, I should be an entrepreneur." Too many see the role as the goal. It's the same with politicians. You should not want to be a politician because you want to be president. You should be a politician because you want to fix the world or represent a movement. The focus should be less on what you want to be and more on what you want to do.

Aside from having a purpose, in what specific ways can companies become good?

We are in a transactional economy--you can hire anyone, whether a freelance bookkeeper or graphic designer. A guy with a startup recently told me he was looking for a part-time CEO--that's not a good idea.

But in general, you can create a small core team and outsource most everything else. That leads into the peer-to-peer economy. The challenge is, how do you get the infrastructure required to stay strong? Take Uber or Airbnb: They need to do a better job on quality control and insurance. So how do you get the best of a fluid peer-to-peer economy as well as the best of a creative team that works together and finishes one another's sentences?

There is no answer to that. The trend is that we will see more oscillation between the two. People will go to one extreme or the other. One or two will get it right, partly because they will choose the right place on the spectrum, but also because they choose good people. So the quality of the CEO and the loyalty people feel to that person are ultimately what make a good company. Thank God, we still need people.

So infrastructure and loyalty matter. What else should entrepreneurs focus on in the future?

Bill Gates talked about the digital nervous system that underlies a company--you need some sort of central controlling body. But mostly you need an immune system, to inoculate you against losing your core values. So that each individual cell--or employee--carries the company's identity, culture, and mission within him- or herself.

You recently founded the nonprofit HICCup (Health Initiative Coordinating Council), which focuses on wellness. Is health a problem more entrepreneurs will focus on in the future?

I see health as a huge opportunity--not a problem. My ambition is to figure out how to help people create their own health and how to turn that into a profitable business. That includes figuring out how to make healthy food profitable for vendors and convenient and cheap for the customers. That is one of the biggest opportunities, not just for startups but for larger food companies too. They are not our enemies. We need them to achieve scale.

People usually use the word innovation as a way to depict something good. But a lot of what we are doing is not innovative. It is boring stuff. Good diet and exercise is nothing new, but doing it at scale, measuring it as a large project, and creating new business models for it is.

But shouldn't entrepreneurs be innovative?

They should do something that is not redundant. Doing something totally new is tricky. If you are second--and if you are smart--you can learn from the first person's mistakes. But by the time you are the 15th or 16th, you probably cannot add much that's new. If you do something for the 15th time and do it dramatically better, that is incredibly rare.

Will sustainability play a greater role?

Being sustainable means people trust you, but it also means making a profit. Take Icon Aircraft, which I invest in. Kirk Hawkins is the CEO. He was doing a presentation at an aviation conference, and he spoke about how production of the aircraft was a bit late and it cost a bit more because the government required them to add a parachute. And some customers at this high-end event were disgruntled. He said, "Look, guys, I could sell this plane cheaper. I could rush it out. But you don't want me to build you a plane. You want me to build a company that can repair and maintain your plane and that can build a better version over the years. And that is what I am doing." His point is a good one: You have to start thinking long term.

How do you do that?

In the end, what is health? It is physical sustainability. So many people think short term, whether it's about their businesses or what they eat. So their bodies become unsustainable. You can create a much more sustainable body by avoiding bad food and exercising and avoiding cigarette smoke. The body becomes a metaphor for business, and business for the body.

What's your best advice for entrepreneurs?

Never listen to anyone's advice.

From the Dec 2014/Jan 2015 issue of Inc. magazine