June 22, 2003

Entrepreneurs and artists share a Joycean love of risk

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Trieste is an unusual place. It is an Italian city with Austrian habits.Rather than the typically Italian names, such as Totti, Fusco or Scappaticci, Triestine cafes have names such as Elsmansberger, Hinterseer and Bergdorff.

Coffee is served with the obligatory Central European glass of water. The architecture is pure mitteleuropa – pastel shades and stark columns. Wienerschnitzel competes with pasta on local menus.

One of the most interesting buildings is the old stock exchange, echoing the city’s mercantile past. In its heyday,Trieste was the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s main port. It was a bustling centre of trade, commerce and speculation.

And it was here, in September 1909, that Eva Joyce, James’s younger sister, suggested to Jim that there was money in cinemas. For a city of 400,000, Trieste had loads of cinemas. In contrast, there wasn’t even one in Ireland.

Joyce was sold. He knew four local businessmen (with typically ambiguous and non-Italian Triestine surnames: Messrs Reb ez, Car is, Machnich and Novak) who were making good money in cinemas and theatres. His sales pitch began.

“I know a city of 500,000 inhabitants where there is not a single cinema.” Where is it, they asked.

Joyce didn’t give his secret away at first. He then produced a map of Ireland and pointed to Dublin,then Cork and finally Belfast – not one cinema among them – and close to a million people. Spreading his arms wildly over the whole territory like a demented general, Joyce persuaded the businessmen that if they moved quickly, the entire country was theirs for the taking.

They agreed instantly. Joyce had his venture capitalists. But what was in it for the original entrepreneur, James Joyce? As he had no capital, he negotiated 10 per cent for himself. Today, this capital would have been known in the jargon as `sweat equity’.

Joyce set off in October 1909. By December theVolta cinema was open on Mary Street in Dublin, with Joyce as proprietor, Novak as manager and an unknown Italian on the projector.

The Evening Telegraph covered the Volta’s opening night on December 20: “James Joyce, who is in charge, has worked apparently indefatigably and deserves to be congratulated on the success of the inaugural exhibition.”

Two other ventures captivated Joyce at this time.The first was a plan to import skyrockets into Trieste, and the second (which would become enormously successful for subsequent Irish entrepreneurs) was to import Irish tweeds into Italy. Both projects were dropped and the Volta folded, but all three episodes reveal a portrait of the artist as a young entrepreneur.

Joyce, arguably our finest and definitely our most celebrated writer, saw no contradiction between artist and the entrepreneur. Rather they are complementary and at their root the artist and the entrepreneur are similar. A fine business brain is as interested, irreverent, creative and alert as a fine artistic mind.

The artist sees himself as outside the mainstream. So too does the entrepreneur. Both celebrate the individual over the collective. Both regard security with a certain distance.

There is a striking similarity about their worldview. Both regard the rest of society’s obsession with certainty and security as bizarre. Neither can bear the idea of working for someone else for a wage.

The very thought of taking orders from a bureaucrat strikes fear in both. Working is about creating, beating the competition and expressing themselves, not about pointless committees, political games and promotion.

In the end, artists and entrepreneurs are the only people in society who do not retire.They rarely become jaded or washed up.

Of course, many artists and entrepreneurs become part of the establishment, feted by politicians, the media and corporates alike, but most remain well beyond the pale.

What binds these two apparently contradictory groups? Risk. Risk and a love of risk, originality and freedom, distinguish the entrepreneur and the artist from others.

Both groups live on their wits, not from the type of corporate arse-kissing that dominates many `successful’ career structures in corporate and public sector Ireland. Artists and entrepreneurs are, to borrow an expression from Professor Declan Kiberd, “brokers in risk”. They make things happen by displaying enormous selfbelief, hard work and attitude. An interesting way of looking at the similarities is to remember your schooldays and examine the subsequent careers of your mates. In many cases those who ploughed their own furrow either artistically or in business were remarkably similar.

They were the types of character career guidance advisers ignored. Neither had the obsession with the points race that defined more typically `bright’ students.

Yet, despite their similarities, artists and entrepreneurs appear to regard the other with suspicion. Why is this? Obviously a certain base ideology is at work. Many bohemians would describe themselves as left-wing and dismiss entrepreneurs as greedy.

Entrepreneurs tend to believe in a system that leaves people alone, where people should pay their own way, and lookon artists from a pinched pounds, shillings and pence perspective. Egregiously, narrowly ideological commentators have helped to ghettoise one group or the other, depending on the commentator’s own ideological weakness.

In the years ahead, artists and entrepreneurs are likely to move closer and recognise each other as soulmates, as the role of risk in people’s lives becomes more central. An interesting way to look at the last 100 years of politics – since Joyce opened the Volta – is that it has been a large exercise in risk minimisation.

Socialism, fascism, communism, corporatism and indeed our own hybrid democracy are all exercises in minimising financial risk in people’s lives. The state tried to broker risk by growing into areas where it is ill equipped – leading to low risk, low return.This results in an erosion of value for money, which leads to popular pressures for less state involvement. Just think of the absence of value for your money in the state-dominated health service, or roads or rail.

Over the coming decades, smaller government will ensure that risk moves from the state to the person, from the collective to the individual. Those who will suffer are the large numbers of people who believe in the sanctity of insurance, the safety net and the dull, predictable riskless society. In contrast, the re-emergence of risk will be a boon for risk-lovers everywhere and unite entrepreneurs and artists in a Joycean celebration of risk, irreverence and life on the edge.


  1. Brilliant article and still relevant 11 years later, after the so-called Great Recession.

    I love these lines in particular:

    “Both regard the rest of society’s obsession with certainty and security as bizarre. Neither can bear the idea of working for someone else for a wage.”

    “Both groups live on their wits, not from the type of corporate arse-kissing that dominates many `successful’ career structures in corporate and public sector Ireland.”

    Amen to that.

    I wonder why the cinema didn’t survive in th end? – perhaps there wasn’t enough money around in Dublin at the time to keep enough bums on seats?

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