Can we teach Entrepreneurs?

I am in Kona, on the west coast of the big island of the Hawaiian islands.  I am in Hawaii for a workshop later this week.  10 entrepreneurs who are part of the global leadership of Entrepreneurs’ Organisation are meeting to pull together our ideas on how we can accelerate and deeper the teaching of entrepreneurial leadership – firstly within the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation, but for me this is a wider question of the teaching of something that may or may not be “teachable”.

This post is a brain-dump of some thoughts, and a lot of questions.  I don’t try to answer too much, but would love you to help me think through this question:

Can entrepreneurship be taught?

Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan

Why do some teenagers set up some business on the side while others settle with a summer job at MacDonalds?  Is it because of their parent’s influence, beliefs, risk profiles?  Maybe because of a role model?

Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs all famously dropped out of college to focus on building their business. Did they learn enough in the years of school they had already attended? Or did they learn little from school that made a difference in building a company?

I doubt that “dropping-out” is a key skill in entrepreneurship. However, I do know that sometimes you have to close off all other possibilities and commit 100% to one thing. If I have a degree, and an MBA, and a job offer… I am much more likely to give up on building my business when times are tough.

If some of entrepreneurship can be taught, what would it look like?

My own MBA course on entrepreneurship focused on how to write a business plan. You got an “A” for a well written, well researched, well presented business plan. A completed 40-60 page word document with plenty of excel tables in the appendix and some sensitivity analysis on the key assumptions. This is not entrepreneurship. It is consulting.

MBA courses have adapted in the 10 years since my MBA. Now, the lean startup of Steve Blank and Eric Ries has done a great job in getting students to really create a business as part of the course. They have to sell a few products, they have to iterate, they have to pull together techie help to build something. Entrepreneurship has moved away from writing word documents, to getting out of the building and interacting with suppliers, clients, banks and potential employees.

Another huge growth in the education of entrepreneurs are the accelerator programs such as Seedcamp, Seekrocket, Y-Combinator, Smartcamp etc. These bring aspiring entrepreneurs together with “experts” and mentors – experienced entrepreneurs who have already built a business.

My friend Luis-Martin Cabiedes, a prominent angel investor in the spanish digital startup community recently complained that most startup incubators focus on crafting a good pitch to investors. He asks “where is the execution, where is the team building, where is the finance?”. There is clearly much more to successful entrepreneurship than a good elevator pitch. Sales is a vitally important component of entrepreneurship, but it is not all that is required.

Some of My Big Questions:

  • What is the right balance between “happy” entrepreneur and “impactful” entrepreneur? Are they the same thing?
  • How to help grow intuition (or gut feel)?  How to help people trust intuition, without losing the humility to check their beliefs/ideas/assumptions/plans with others? (Leadership’s great balancing act: The Need for Self-Belief vs The dangers of Self-Delusion)
  • How to manage Student Evaluation of Learning – the balance between “The feeling of Learning” vs “Real learning happening”.  A lot of entrepreneurship learning is “Edutainment” –  driven by immediate student 1-10 evaluations of the presenters – tends to push towards “the feeling of I am learning” vs The ugly discomfort of being faced by challenges that overwhelm your current level of expertise/capacity.
  • How to create consistency of Learning – often there is no connection between one speaker and another, tools, concepts, priorities.  One mentor will say “you need lots of cash”, another will say “bootstrap!!!”.  Is there a base-line knowledge for beginning entrepreneurs?
  • How to connect local entrepreneurs and keep them motivated by regularly meeting with other’s who face similar challenges?  The most powerful benefit of Entrepreneurs’ Organisation is Forum – a formally moderated monthly meeting of 8-12 entrepreneur peers.  This meeting keeps me motivated, gives me a powerful resource to seek answers to my entrepreneurial challenges.
  • Humans are blind to what we don’t know… how to create context in which Entrepreneur’s realize that there is more to learn, that their current skills/capabilities/knowledge need to be improved?  A lot of entrepreneurs were bored at school.  I learnt to research stuff in my own way and not to rely on teachers.  I tend to assume I can learn things better with google, wikipedia and a few good books from amazon.
  • How to help people “depreciate” old knowledge/models?  Often what worked in the past will be repeated… it is very, very hard to get someone to stop doing/believing something (much harder than giving them new knowledge or skills)
  • “What is Essence” vs “What is Accident” in Success/Leadership/People Selection? What are the base core values that must be developed to Lead in Entrepreneurial context? Which are “trainable”? Which are innate (or learnt so young so as to be considered innate)?

What questions am I missing?  What resources would you suggest I use?  

8 responses to “Can we teach Entrepreneurs?”

  1. In my experience, entrepreneurship means having the courage to just “go do it”. The MBA, courses, advice from others are tools entrepreneurs can use to answer the question of how to do it better. But the courage, the impulse to go implement something make the difference between a consultant and an entrepreneur. Many after an MBA join a company instead of starting their own business. This happens to entrepreneurial people too, and the reason is student loans. We learned at school that cash is king. The risk of starting a business without money and with a debt of more than 100k dollars makes it a foolish idea. I have seen MBAs start their own business after paying debt and building a cash cushion.

  2. definitely entrepreneurship can be taught, we need to demystify the fact that entrepreneurship is not a learned skills

  3. Richard Atkinson Avatar
    Richard Atkinson

    Hi Conor,

    These seem to me to be really key questions. I increasingly feel that fingering the right questions is actually what matters. Answers vary with context, good questions are universal. Getting someone to the point where they are asking the right questions (i.e. attending to the issues of high leverage in the first place) may be enough; brains and eyes (oh, and very big ears) should carry it from there. But, based on experience, here is my experience around a couple of these questions:

    How to grow intuition? (1) Experience. Do, and see, more startups. (2) Peers. Build a network of people who have lots of experience and whose cognitive/working style you understand sufficiently well that you can blend (not substitute) their intuition with yours.

    Consistency of learning: I wonder if this could be a false goal? The mentors quoted are actually giving answers, and apparently not tailored to context – worse than useless. Better to be able to ask ‘What’s really going on here?’, to form your own coherent diagnosis of the challenge and constructed response to it. All thinking tools must simplify and so distort to some degree; they will therefore fail in some contexts. Relates to Q on depreciating old models. Learning many tools allows you to view a problem from more angles and increases your ability to develop a better synthesis.

    In response to the title question, my father taught people to fly aeroplanes. Most can, a few can’t, some are naturals and you can’t predict. I’d say that applies to entrepreneurship just as well.

    My thoughts on the other questions are less developed, and my experience less supportive of a settled view, so I’ll leave those be.

    Good post Conor, thank you.


    1. Great food for thought 😉 love the comparison to flying – there is a bit of built in “feeling” and a bit of knowledge – and then lots and lots of practice and checklists and decision support – a great metaphor!!!

  4. Great questions. It reminds me a little of the debate about can sales be taught. This is a great opportunity for education as corporations can learn a lot about innovation from entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs can learn a lot about scaling from big companies. There is a lot of activity driven my the lean movement about early stages of entrepreneurship. Also by groups like EO and Young Entrepreneurs to promote this as a career choice. Startupmanagement.org recently launched is a great resource. Also like this one from HBR http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/02/want_to_change_the_world_be_resilient.html?utm_source=Socialflow&utm_medium=Tweet&utm_campaign=Socialflow – would love to chat more about this as we are exploring some ideas with http://www.healthxl.org and ibmsmartcamp.com

    1. Great resources!

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