September 30, 2023
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Martin Luther was an entrepreneur


By Mike Panesis

Oct. 31 marks the 500th anniversary of an important moment in human history. On that day in 1517, Martin Luther, a German priest and university professor, took action.

Unhappy with corruption in the Catholic Church, Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, making clear his objections to church practices, especially the selling of indulgences for the remittance of sin.

Luther’s intent was to spark an academic debate and encourage change from within. He likely did not intend his words and actions to cause rebuke from the pope, excommunication from the Catholic Church, creation of a new theology and church, the launch the Protestant Reformation, and a revolution in Western civilization.

Entrepreneurs should be grateful.

Say what now? What do Luther’s actions have to do with entrepreneurship, and vice versa?

Let’s start with theology. The toll booth that was the 16th century Catholic Church had inserted itself between humanity and God. Luther believed that everyone was entitled to a direct, personal relationship with God. People weren’t as beholden to king and country as they thought. If they had a personal relationship with God, then they could think their own thoughts, have their own opinions and change the world themselves, even if they had to voyage across the Atlantic to a New World to do it. Luther’s theology enabled entrepreneurs.

Then there’s technology. Luther spread doctrine using a pivotal technological advancement, the printing method using movable type that his countryman Johannes Gutenberg had introduced less than a century earlier. His “95 Theses” spread fast through the printed word. Today, we’d say that it went viral.

Luther encouraged both learning to read and translating the Bible into German — then printed en masse, because everyone deserved direct access to the word of God. Entrepreneurs leverage technology to effect change.

How about destiny? Luther taught the concept of vocation, that everyone — not just clergy — has a calling, and that the best way to honor God is to “live your truth.” The importance of your vocation did not matter. All are equal in God’s eyes. Ask entrepreneurs why they take risks and work so hard to bring value to their customers. Chances are that they won’t mention money first. It’s much more likely that they’ll tell you they can’t imagine doing anything else. Martin Luther nailed the entrepreneurial mindset.

I don’t mean to imply that Luther was an entrepreneur. Can you imagine transporting him 500 years into the future to pitch his “95 Theses” on “Shark Tank”? Me neither. However, his behavior evokes the essence of entrepreneurship. He saw a problem and proposed a solution. When it didn’t work, he pivoted. He was passionate about his beliefs, understood the needs of his customers and communicated effectively to his constituents. Come to think of it, he might do just fine on “Shark Tank,” even with Mr. Wonderful.

The state of the art in entrepreneurship emphasizes facts and evidence. There’s no business model without customers and product/market fit. An entrepreneur’s task is to discover customers and craft a minimum viable product through methodical, quasi-scientific discipline. You’ll get no argument from me. I teach it myself. But it’s not enough.

There’s a religious fervor to a startup. Think about it. Entrepreneurs see value where no one else does. They have to convince others it’s there without evidence. Once they have evidence, it’s usually not enough; they still have to win hearts and minds. They want their customers to share their passion. And they do all this at great personal risk. How is that not like religion?

The study of entrepreneurship would benefit from the study of religion. It’s time that we recognize that and be deliberate about its application. It’s not enough to tell your employees that they’re all evangelists for your startup without explaining why and how.

But this is all in our future, a future indirectly bequeathed to us 500 years ago by a German priest and university professor.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the importance of Luther’s accomplishments and be thankful for their benefits that we enjoy today. Then go #StartSomething. Amen.

— Mike Panesis is the executive director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at California Lutheran University.