Playing Entrepreneur

Is entrepreneurship an art or a science?  Can entrepreneurship be taught, and assuming so, what is the best method to teach it?  Can you learn to be an entrepreneur by “playing entrepreneur”?  These are questions I spend a lot of time thinking about these days as a Professor teaching entrepreneurship at University of Nevada Reno and Sierra Nevada College.

The focus of many entrepreneurship classes and programs tends to be on creating business plans, pitches, and presentations.  Out of this numerous pitch competitions and business plan competitions have arisen.  Outside of the academic environment we have Startup Weekends, hack-a-thons, and more conferences about entrepreneurship, Lean Startup, failure, etc, etc, than anyone could keep up with.

The question is, is this really the correct way to teach entrepreneurship?  I took a number of courses on entrepreneurship and innovation during the elective phase of my MBA at Columbia University, London Business School, and Hong Kong University.  These courses seemed to follow one of three formats.

First, courses like Customer Centric Innovation at Columbia Business School, Marketing for Organic Revenue Growth at Columbia Business School, and Managing and Marketing Innovation at London Business School are taught by tenured, research focused professors and follow a typical academic format.  They are based on the findings of academic research with real-world cases and guest speakers mixed in to demonstrate applications of the research.

Second, courses like Napoleon’s Glance at Columbia Business School, Purposeful Communications at London Business School, and Deal Making in Asia at Hong Kong University are taught by Adjunct Professors or Lecturers who typically work (or worked) in industry and use their real world experience to tell the story of successes and failures and try to develop patterns and/or frameworks to help increase successes.

Third, courses like Steve Blank‘s Lean Launch Pad at Columbia Business School give students a chance to what I call “play entrepreneur.”  Students come up with a business idea, form teams, and spend the class trying to “start” their company.  Some student teams come with real ideas for real companies that they hope to start.  Many just come up with an idea for the sake of the class and go through the exercise.

All three formats have pluses and minuses.  Students complain that the first type of classes are too academic, that they don’t really relate to the “real word,” and the professors have never been entrepreneurs themselves.  Classes of the second type can fall prey to concentrating too much on one person’s experience, which doesn’t necessarily translate to business and entrepreneurship in a general way.  And classes of the third type, while promising a “real” experience, can start to feel like an academic exercise as the realities of being a student and the fact that the end result is a grade, not a profitable business, sets in.

However, I see benefits to all three types of classes, and in particular I see benefits to mixing all three methods, academic, real-world, and playing.  Perhaps the only rule of entrepreneurship is that there are no rules.  However, as entrepreneurship has become the focus of more and more academic research, there are more and more things we are learning about it (just as the typical MBA now teaches the finer points of management, marketing, operations, and leadership).  Classes taught by real-world practitioners tend to be inspiring and motivational.  And “playing” entrepreneur gives students a chance to get a “feel” for what it’s like, even when the exercise becomes somewhat academic.

However, in the end, it’s important for students to realize that if they want to be an entrepreneur, at some point the studying and playing has to end.  After school, it’s time to get a real job or become a real entrepreneur.  Building a company is not about writing business plans, going to pitch competitions, have entrepreneur club meetings, and entering business plan competitions.  It is about selling something to someone.  I encourage my students to learn all they can while in school, take advantage of all the different classes, competitions, clubs, and networking opportunities while they can.  But at the end of the day, the hardest thing about starting a company is actually going out and doing it.  And in order to do it, the playing has to stop.