In every major field, entrepreneurs like Rogers are remaking the ways we work and play. Before, a would-be restaurateur needed serious capital investment to succeed in a notoriously unpredictable, failure-ridden industry; today a young chef can make a statement with just talent, hard work . . . and someone else's lease. On Fridays at Coffee Bar, in San Francisco's Mission district, Ethiopian-born chef Eskender Aseged wowed crowds and critics at his restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Radio Africa & Kitchen, and is now opening his own brick-and-mortar eatery. In New York there were, at last count, 34 pop-up restaurants in operation. (The rise of yet another star-up, the daily e-newsletter Tasting Table, helps educate fans of pop-ups.) "These people using Facebook to invite their friends to pop-up restaurants don't think of themselves as part of an Internet revolution," Shirky says, "and the pop-up restaurants aren't 'Internet businesses' any more than 19th-century banks were 'telegraph businesses.' " This same spirit is shaking up the fine-art world. Jen Bekman, a gallery owner, launched 20x200, a site that regularly commissions a photograph and a print in small editions and sells them at affordable prices. "I wanted to scale this in a way where artists are getting big checks, and people like you and me and everyone else we know can become art collectors," Bekman says. Last September, after two years in business, Bekman raised $885,000 in seed funding; she now has 19 employees.
While the recession has stemmed the flow of venture capital—the lifeblood of any start-up—what's out there for anyone with a strong idea is seed money. It's backing designed to help you get started and keep you hungry. First Round Capital looks at 3,000 business plans a year and funds a couple of dozen, making early investments, usually at around half a million dollars. An even leaner model is the start-up boot camp Y Combinator, which has seeded more than 200 new businesses—at less than $20,000 a pop. So, while the big-time Silicon Valley money might be going to nanotech and biotech, incubators and seed-funders are spreading their wealth around as if they're betting on a roulette wheel of Next Big Things. Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham says that applications are up 40 percent in the past six months and has this advice for those who want to make the leap: "Most things that happen to newly launched start-ups are bad. But these disasters are precisely the reason to launch fast: They all represent problems you need to solve eventually, and the only way to find out what they are is to launch."
This philosophy is the antidote to the too-big-to-fail mentality. The M.O. of the New Entrepreneur is to start small, launch fast, listen to your early and devoted clientele, and, if necessary, tear up your business plan. "We've been given this advice many times," says Nick Bergson-Shilcock, who cofounded HireHive, a video-based questionnaire service to help companies screen job candidates. " 'If you're not embarrassed by your first release, you're not releasing early enough.' " HireHive was shuttered within months of Bergson-Shilcock's graduation from Y Combinator's three-month boot camp, but his mentors hardly considered his risk-taking a failure. He'd earned what you might call bet equity. The fact is, across our culture, it's the entrepreneurial leap that's esteemed, regardless of whether it results in a successful landing, a spectacular crash, or an eventual return to the corporate ladder (typically at a higher rung). "We got a lot of respect for deciding that there were bigger and better opportunities out there," Bergson-Shilcock says. "We're really enthusiastic about our prospects. This is just the opening chapter of a long novel."
Serial entrepreneurs who have five ideas ready to replace every failed venture will be rewarded one day for their headlong approach; others will take some inspiration from the patient, practical example of Chris Carella. He and his wife, Becky, had been grinding away at other people's start-ups for five years when, initially for fun, they started working on a fantasy-football product. They played it with their friends, who loved it. Baseball season came around—same result. So, after accumulating enough savings and lining up part-time gigs to help in a pinch, they made the leap together. Now their company, Super+Fun, is testing prototypes and soliciting user feedback. Their latest, an online game that helps users improve their physical fitness, is slated to launch soon, and a new blogging platform is close behind. In the meantime, they're networking with other start-ups at the Makery—and beyond. Call it cluster entrepreneurship, an infectious strand of go-getting that trades on the best parts of me-too-ism. "I was burned out from working on other people's projects for so long," Carella says. "We wanted to own what we were doing."