America at work
What Makes an Entrepreneur? 3 Reasons Why It Is Not Just About Tech
Free Enterprise Staff | April 9, 2014

When you think of an entrepreneur, you probably imagine a techie in T-shirt or turtleneck. Sure, the terms entrepreneur and tech are nearly interchangeable these days. But entrepreneurialism is a mindset, not a job description. The qualities that enterprising Americans bring to the game form the lifeblood of the U.S. economy — things like recognizing value, seizing opportunity, perseverance, and just good old hustle.

Here are a few individuals and companies — in unlikely fields — that have used their entrepreneurial skills to make their businesses thrive.

Farming: BrightFarms

Farming doesn’t always come across as the most entrepreneurial professions. Yet while much of the innovation in agriculture has focused on increasing yields, a new crop of entrepreneurs is taking root that aims at improving quality at a smaller scale. Some are even reimagining the farm itself.

New York City-based BrightFarms focuses on the nexus between sustainable technology and the growing demand for better food by using hydroponic greenhouses in urban areas to service nearby supermarkets. The technology BrightFarms using isn’t all that new, yet their business model could prove to be highly disruptive, with its novel long-term produce purchase agreement.

“They remove uncertainty for us and the buyer, and should help attract institutional investment,” said Toby Tiktinsky, head of business development at BrightFarms, who explains that the deals are inked before the company will build a greenhouse. The company has made several important steps forward in recent months, with the green-lighting of a flagship project on a rooftop in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park and a second round of financing from respected institutional investors. Titkinsky says there’s plenty of growth ahead: “We haven’t even looked at strawberries, for instance. That could be very disruptive.”

Restaurateur: Scott Nelowet, French Fry Heaven

Reality TV food shows typically focus on exotic ingredients and cooking techniques. The entrepreneurial skills these restaurateurs are bringing to the table don’t get as much attention. Yet even celebrity chefs know that to succeed, you have to be able to understand the market, line up backers, and generate a buzz.

While that may sound like a recipe for heartburn, people like Scott Nelowet are hungry for the challenge. He launched a brand new franchise in 2010 after realizing during a European vacation that the humble french fry could leap from side dish to main course with the help of gourmet toppings ranging from truffle oils to chili spice mixes. He had to ignore the detractors, of course. “Lots of people told me that I’d never get anywhere with this idea,” said Nelowet. “They said, it’s too simple, we’re in the middle of a recession.”

Three years later, his simple idea has grown into 14 French Fry Heaven franchises. He is on track to open five more in the coming months, with plans to increase that to 59 outlets by early 2016. He’s not above hard work — or creating a little buzz. Late last year, he drove a truck more than 4,500 miles through the heartland of the country to personally show prospective franchisees his product. “If an idea is to get traction, you need people with the energy to push them along,” he said.

Dog Walking: Patricia Sanburg, Urban Animal

Dog walking has become much more than just a way for students to earn some extra cash, thanks to the population density, tight schedules and disposable income of some urban neighborhoods.

Jim Buck may have created the niche in the ‘60s when he realized New Yorkers would willingly pay to pamper their pets.

Buck’s entrepreneurial descendants are people such as Patricia Sanburg, who runs Urban Animal. The business model has evolved to offer much more than just a twice-a-day, half-hour walk, underlining how adaptability has ensured the profession’s survival. Services now include doggie day care, puppy socialization, obedience classes, transport, boarding, and grooming.

These days, there is “more competition,” said Sanburg, “but there is also a wider range of pet related services to choose from.” She stays ahead of the pack “by setting high standards.”