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MD 43,10

Timeless advice: Daniel Defoe and small business management
R.H. Hamilton
Department of Management, The University of Mississippi, Southaven, Mississippi, USA, and

1304

Patricia L. Hamilton
Department of English, Union University, Jackson, Tennessee, USA Abstract
Purpose – Daniel Defoe, best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe, was also an early entrepreneur who late in his life published a business text called The Complete English Tradesman. The purpose of this paper is to argue that The Complete English Tradesman should be given renewed consideration as an early predecessor to the great works in management literature. Design/methodology/approach – The paper compares the content found in The Complete English Tradesman with topics and content typically found in modern small business management texts. Findings – The paper finds considerable overlap between Defoe’s advice and modern small business management principles. Besides the overall relevant content, the paper also finds unique insights offered by Defoe that could be applied by the modern small business entrepreneur. The paper presents possible reasons why Defoe’s work is not widely known today. Research limitations/implications – Defoe’s work may be reflective of the general eighteenth-century entrepreneurial climate. There may be other related sources of interest, as well as potential parallels between the eighteenth-century climate and the modern entrepreneurial environment. Practical implications – A timeless core set of actions may be essential for entrepreneurial success. Originality/value – This is the first research to compare Defoe’s work explicitly with modern small business management theory or practice. Keywords Management history, Literature, Entrepreneurialism, Small enterprises, Performance management Paper type General review

Management Decision Vol. 43 No. 10, 2005 pp. 1304-1316 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0025-1747 DOI 10.1108/00251740510634886

Introduction If the name Daniel Defoe is recognized today, it is usually as the author of the early eighteenth-century novels Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. Although a few scholars have examined Defoe’s economic writings (Schumpeter, 1954; Novak, 1962; Illingworth, 1974; Earle, 1976; Smith, 1995; Sherman, 1995a), not many people besides literary historians realize that Defoe was better known in his own day as a political propagandist and journalist than as a novelist or that he worked variously as a merchant, government agent, and spy (Backscheider, 1989; Novak, 2001). With one notable exception (Stevens, 1977), the smattering of scholarly articles that treat Defoe in a business context tend to focus on his contribution to business writing (DiRenzo, 1998; Lund, 1998; Sherman, 1995b). Yet Defoe’s The Complete English Tradesman (TCET), written 50 years prior to the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, was directed at small business entrepreneurs. Because of its breadth of topics, from accounting and cash flow to inventory control and customer service, it bears a

striking resemblance to modern small business management texts. To our knowledge, however, there has not been an assessment of this work in the light of modern small business and entrepreneurial principles, even though the field of entrepreneurship has grown increasingly important in the management discipline. Given the topics TCET develops, we believe it should be given renewed consideration as an early predecessor to the great works in management literature. This review will look at Defoe’s credentials as a entrepreneurial practitioner, will observe how the text gives classic as well unique insights applicable to the modern small business owner, will give some possible reasons it has...
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