There’s no doubt that new innovations can be revolutionary — but evolution is essential to long-term success. Which quality is more important for entrepreneurs in today’s climate?

Do you consider yourself a revolutionary? These days, entrepreneurs are often equated with revolutionaries — breaking molds, scaling exponentially, creating new business models and heading, like the legendary starship Enterprise, “where no man has gone before.”

Or, do you see yourself as an evolutionary entrepreneur — someone who is bent on improving existing systems and building upon the ideas of others?

The “romantic” vision of entrepreneurs is one of revolutionaries, creating the unthinkable, taking big leaps toward an uncertain future fueled by their dreams. Like the brave men and women who fought for independence in the Revolutionary War, entrepreneurs may be outflanked and outspent, but they persevere and create something new.

But does that vision mirror reality? Certainly, for some entrepreneurs it does. Entrepreneurial inventors, in particular, generally thrive in uncharted territories, crafting products like computers and automobiles that previously were considered more science fiction than fact. Some people consider “disrupters” the modern-day version of entrepreneurial revolutionaries. But revolutionaries usually start out with a specific end goal — and as this article on GigaOM points out, disruption (like Craigslist nearly destroying newspapers’ classifieds industry) often occurs accidentally.

What appears revolutionary on the surface may actually be evolutionary. As I pointed out in a previous article for Business on Main, although Apple’s Steve Jobs was considered one of the greatest innovators in history, much of his inventiveness was evolutionary in scope.

In fact, many of our entrepreneurial legends — Howard Schultz, Ray Kroc, Mary Kay Ash, Henry Ford, Bill Gates and Richard Branson among them — achieved success by reimagining concepts already in the marketplace.

The evolutionary entrepreneur
Several months ago, after hearing Andy Rhodes, the executive director of virtualization and cloud solutions at Dell, say that many of today’s tech “revelations” (like cloud computing) were actually evolutionary, I’ve been asking entrepreneurs if they considered themselves revolutionaries or evolutionaries. To my great surprise, everyone I asked defined themselves as evolutionary business owners.

Kate McGinley, a former banker and the owner of McGinley Media, which builds e-commerce sites for small businesses, says she takes an evolutionary approach. Her formula: “[New] ideas come from the intersection of two existing ideas. Then [you] iterate, iterate, improve, improve.”

Also taking on the mantle of proud evolutionary, Meridith Dennes, co-founder and CEO of Project Eve (and a former investment banker), defines business evolution as “continuous change for efficiency and improvement,” and says Project Eve is “evolutionary in wanting to change how we do business, not changing what business we do.”

Entrepreneurial attorney Nance L. Schick takes evolutionary entrepreneurship even further, saying she’s part “of a growing movement that honors and empowers our humanity. I'm not ‘fighting’ or seeking to ‘kill’ anything.”

Creative destruction
The entrepreneur as evolutionary is not a new concept. In “Entrepreneurship in an Evolutionary Perspective,” a paper presented six years ago at the 14th Nordic Conference on Small Business Research, the author examined the works of Joseph Schumpeter, a Moravian-born economist who moved to America in 1932 and popularized the term "creative destruction.”

Schumpeter, the author wrote, “described [capitalism] as a method of change, which … is continuously evolving. This means that each step of change is irreversible … and contributes to a new situation which forms new conditions for further activity.”

The paper points out that Schumpeter believed capitalism “incessantly revolutionizes from within. … To develop something new, existing resources have to be [organized] in new ways, which means that [organizing] new activities and closing down old activities are aspects of the same process of evolution.”

After the revolution
It can get confusing. Revolutions are short-lived. Change takes hold, or disappears. Revolutionary ideas rely on evolution to survive. Just a few months ago, Nick Bilton, in his New York Times column referencing Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram, asked, “So why was a small startup with only 13 employees able to build Instagram while a company like Eastman Kodak, which recently filed for bankruptcy protection, was not? It’s easy to imagine how things would be different at Kodak had it dreamed up the idea.”

Kodak (or Polaroid, for that matter), once known for its revolutionary concepts, didn’t evolve, leaving room for an upstart to take the industry by storm. As small companies scale, can they continue to be disruptive? The Times’ Bilton isn’t sure: “The challenge of creating something small and disruptive inside a large company is one that many face today.”

Yet even as most entrepreneurs admit to being evolutionaries, it’s hard for some to give up the vision of being a bold revolutionary. Ami Kassar, the CEO and founder of MultiFunding, a company that helps small businesses get funding, believes, “Ultimately, an entrepreneur with a mission is evolutionary — though sometimes it feels like you are revolutionary.”

That image — the bold entrepreneur filling the voids in the market — dies hard. Steve Cooper, the co-founder of Hitched, an online magazine, aims to evolve to revolutionary status. He says, “Right now I'm an evolutionary, because it's the quickest and easiest entry into business. I don't want to create barriers or unnecessary obstacles for myself. I try and leverage existing systems and platforms, rather than try to reinvent the wheel.”

But that’s not good enough for Cooper. He continues, “Mentally, I like to think I'm a revolutionary. That's where my aspirations lie. I haven’t done anything revolutionary [yet], but I have ideas that I hope someday come to fruition that might change the way things are done.”

So should entrepreneurs be revolutionary or evolutionary? The answer, it seems, is both — dreaming big, but being open to changes and improvements for long-term growth and survival.

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