Academia helping build entrepreneurs
By Jonathan Frenkel
We find ourselves in a period in which we are all going to have to row the same boat when it comes to reopening the economy and leading with the next generation of business. What is normal, or what was normal before the beginning of this year is no longer relevant, and things will most likely never return to that state. Additionally, trends that were already progressing have accelerated because of COVID-19, with education being one of the areas that will see the most disruption. The writing was on the wall, and it is something we are going to have to face immediately.
Regarding education and bucking the trends, some of the most successful entrepreneurs either dropped out of college or did not go through the well-trodden path of parlaying higher education to climb through the corporate ranks. For students today that first wave of highly visible entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson normalized the idea that one can build their career via entrepreneurship. While strong academic institutions and learning how to learn certainly helped successful entrepreneurs, we could be entering a period in which a strong academic curriculum could be the difference between success and failure. There are several advantages of enrolling in an academic program before launching your endeavor, whether that be an undergrad degree or MBA. Having a degree could prove to be an advantage as “according to a CNBC/Survey Monkey survey, only 26% of small business owners said they had a bachelor’s degree. Only 17% went to college, 20% graduated high school but did not go to college, and 5% didn’t graduate high school.” Regardless of the hype around entrepreneurs who drop out of school and encourage others to do the same, there are significant advantages to pursuing a degree.
Learning the basics
Many entrepreneurs just go on instinct and look to build from what they know. They keep pushing and learning from their mistakes, and learning from the toughest school there is, the school of hard knocks. Savvy entrepreneurs, however, spend time self-educating and speaking with people who are further along than them. Learning in one form or another is the basic philosophy of many successful entrepreneurs; they are “students of life, for life.”
There is something to be said about learning business by doing, and that has been the #1 criticism of newly minted MBAs: they do not have experience when it comes to the ways of the business world. However, a formalized education in understanding what you are doing could cut years off your learning curve. Of course, programs that are a combination of theory and actual practice are ideal. Theory, and learning how to learn is important as well, and good entrepreneurs learn from their mistakes. There is also the benefit of taking a deep dive into more corporate classes like finance and accounting that many entrepreneurs, unless they are solving problems in that space, would not be exposed to.
Building a network
Whether it is “who you know”, “who knows you”, or another one of Dale Carnegie’s quotes, what really matters is a strong network. Just attending networking events and telling people you are an entrepreneur does not cut it, but there is a lot of value in developing authentic give-first relationships. As the African proverb states “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It is a part of folklore for a reason: humans need to cooperate with others to build anything of real substance. As this Forbes article states on the importance of building a network as an entrepreneur “growing a network facilitates business opportunities, partnership deals, finding subcontractors or future employees. It expands the horizons of PR and conveys the right message on all fronts.”
It does not matter what point in your startup you are, there is going to come a time where you need to pick up the phone and call someone for assistance. There is a reason Greek life and other organizations succeed on college campuses; the same goes for military service in one’s late teens and 20’s. While business school classes do attract a more competitive type, that does not mean they are a bad place to develop relationships. There are untold stories of startups that came out of undergrad or MBA programs, such as Facebook, Snap, and Warby Parker. Another benefit is the alumni network as well as sources of angel money. Years after you graduate you will be pleasantly surprised by the response you get when you cold email an alumnus from your institution and they reply positively.
Trying out your idea
As we have covered in previous articles, failure can be harsh, and it is something to avoid at all costs when building a company. Do not avoid trying but avoid failing by ultimately pushing through to see your idea to fruition. University programs offer competitions where different teams can compete on an idea. Furthermore, you can start your business on the side, and later go on to grow it. While you are in school, you will be enveloped in a learning environment and can test out ideas in practice as you learn them.
If there is a forum where you can test out your idea, ideally with other people’s money, then go for it. You will learn about yourself, how you deal with pressure, and how you work with a team, ultimately leading to a positive experience. Think of this as bootcamp, and the world after graduation as the battlefield. That may seem harsh, but best to get your feet wet, and learn from your mistakes in a supportive environment such as school. When you get out in the real world you do not know if you will be able to find or create that same environment. Additionally, more programs are working directly with accelerators and VCs, so you will be able to understand how investors think before you even enter the real world.
Exposing you to different ideas and people
People assume when they launch their own endeavor they will automatically be exposed to different ideas and people, but that may not be the case. You may build a business focused on one subset of the population, resulting in a smaller pool of people with whom you will be interacting. We also tend to socialize and learn from people in our immediate circle, thus limiting our exposure to different ideas and people.
Diversity is an important aspect of a college education, and when you are in class with people from different backgrounds you have a chance to interact and learn from them. College creates a safe place where you can make mistakes and have your ideas challenged. Best of all, the cost of making a mistake is much lower than in the real business world. Once you start on your endeavor you will be so focused on the day to day survival of the business you will fall back on old mindsets you did not know you had. That is why being in an academic setting and being exposed to diversity is so important before you launch your business.
You develop a base of skills which will help you succeed
It is likely no one told you how important public speaking and writing are for your business. The ability to communicate effectively is probably one of the greatest indicators of whether you will succeed as an entrepreneur. If you cannot communicate your value proposition effectively and convince your customers to buy the product, you are basically dead in the water.
Like many things in life these skills can be learned, and what better place than in an academic classroom where you will be able to speak in front of your peers and improve your written form? Writing is one of the most important skills to have these days and can be used in any industry to stand out from your peers. It also helps you clarify your thinking. All these skills lend to creating future leaders, as what good leaders know how to do is communicate. As author and cartoonist Scott Adams famously developed regarding his concept of “skill stacking”: “it’s easier to be in the top 10% for a range of skills than to be the very best in the world in one skill. It is about having a variety of skills that work well together. Your specific combination of well-developed skills allows you to offer unique value.”
When you pursue an education, you are investing in yourself, and while some business gurus on social media suggest you drop everything right now and launch a business, know it is a cost-benefit analysis. You will look back upon these years and appreciate what you learned, the people you met, and how these experiences prepared you for the future. There is no rush to start a business and enrolling in an academic program could help you stack the odds more in your favor.