I frequently get asked the question, “Can entrepreneurship be taught?” or its sibling, “How do you teach entrepreneurship?” The latter one is often tinged with a bit of cynicism, especially from very seasoned entrepreneurs.
Frankly, even after teaching the subject for the past 10 years, my answer to either question remains, “I don’t really know.”
But I have been convinced that entrepreneurship can be learned. And from an educator’s perspective, that’s all that matters. We can do everything in our power to create an amazing course, use the right materials, lecture to our heart’s content, bring in the best speakers, assign the most relevant coursework, etc. But if students don’t learn anything from it, then we’ve failed. It’s that simple.
It’s often said that the most effective path to learning is by doing. So my New Venture Lab course (open only to student-entrepreneurs who are actively pursuing a startup) is about as experiential as a course can get: the students work only on their startups. There is no academic work that is hypothetical or theoretical in scope; it’s all practical, applied and relevant. So rather than try to teach them, my goal is to facilitate the students’ learning.
I’m certainly not alone in this; many entrepreneurship educators use experiential teaching methods like business startup exercises, consulting projects, entrepreneur shadowing and interviewing, live case studies, internships, and so on. But I’ve found that working on something that is real and that is yours presents the greatest learning opportunity possible for entrepreneurship.
Like many teachers, my greatest joy is when students can not just acknowledge that they learned something but that they can clearly articulate what they learned. In New Venture Lab, this is done through an end-of-term personal assessment paper that asks them to evaluate their performance as a student and an entrepreneur during the course (as with most entrepreneurs, they are incredibly candid and humble in their self-assessments).
For those who do wonder whether entrepreneurship can be taught, I encourage you to try changing your paradigm of the question. Start with “Can entrepreneurship be learned?” Then, rather than asking us educators, ask the students.
Or you can take a shortcut and read the list below. It’s compiled from the personal assessment papers in my New Venture Lab course that ended this week, and are the lessons learned by the students, in their own words.
- Be realistic about my milestones in relation to time [available].
- Continue to improve my value proposition.
- Deciphering what actions create value for the company.
- Don’t launch prematurely.
- Don’t raise money when desperate for money.
- Enjoy the ride.
- Entrepreneurs are big optimists, especially regarding their own ideas.
- Everything is going to take longer than expected.
- Focus on the problem being solved and the value that is being provided (and who it is provided to).
- Gain as much feedback as possible from stakeholders.
- Get used to your plans failing.
- Having a mentor to lean on in a new business venture.
- How valuable it is to have a mentor.
- If I wasn’t a little embarrassed of my first [product] release, then I’ve launched too late.
- If given the choice, set your goals a bit too hard.
- It’s not that social media makes you money, it’s the relationships/trust that social media builds for you that results in you becoming trusted.
- Make sure my plans always include value for my customers.
- Market fit and the value proposition.
- My partner and I must find a way to transition from tacticians to managers.
- Network with other businesses.
- No matter how [much] you plan you will run into speed bumps and you’ll have to change your plan to make it work for you.
- Our value proposition to venue managers also must include how our solution improves their guests’ experience.
- Resources mean more than the money in the bank account.
- See the value in teams.
- Solving a real market problem.
- Success can be measured by accomplishments; to prove success, value-creating milestones should be set.
- Team building and setting company culture from the start.
- The concept of lean start-up an specifically, putting out a minimum viable product.
- The importance of customer advocacy.
- The importance of having people around who can help you or you can just talk to.
- The number of resources around Chicago available for entrepreneurs.
- The importance of customer interaction when building the product and business.
- The importance of milestones.
- The MVP idea, getting data from your customers about the product.
- The need for a team leader, not just a solid team.
- The pitch agenda for investor meetings.
- To scale a company you need to set it up right from the beginning.
- Value and the need for customer interaction.
- We need to spend more time selling.
- Write a company organization chart, even if you feel silly if there are just two of you.
- You don’t know what you’re doing, so surround yourself with people who do.
- You want your team, resources, and opportunity to all be in balance with each other.
- What investors look for.