Entrepreneurship can be taught, say educators

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It is easy to see the attraction of being an entrepreneur for Will Drevno, co-founder and chief operating officer at 3D printing business Twindom. The company’s office space, in a back street of Emeryville, close to Pixar’s animation studio and across the bay from San Francisco, looks part student dorm, part laboratory.

Dotted amid the sofas, laptops and games consoles are miniature, strikingly realistic models of people that are the core product of the business. Across the room a team of coders tap away at their laptops, and beyond them is a makeshift booth built by Mr Drevno and his team that can make a full body scan of Twindom’s customers for production on a custom-built set of 3D printers.

Mr Drevno, a former student at Berkeley, met his two co-founders, Richard Berwick and David Pastewka, in an application development class at the university. While Mr Drevno studied engineering, Mr Berwick and Mr Pastewka were taking classes in entrepreneurship as well as accounting and marketing. But for Mr Drevno, the business itself has been his classroom.

“Those two certainly learnt a lot of good theorems about how to approach things you find in running a company,” Mr Drevno says. “However, there is often a problem when you try to apply that learning in the real world because there are so many other variables you do not cover in business school.”

In seeing entrepreneurship as a skill best acquired by doing, Mr Drevno is typical of many founders who shun formal learning as a way to become a business founder.

It is a viewpoint with which Steve Blank, who teaches at the Haas School of Business, has a lot of sympathy. Mr Blank had been starting and building companies for 21 years before he took up academic teaching posts and recalls how people who knew him from the start-up world refused to believe that his attempts to teach entrepreneurship could succeed.

“They said that someone such as [Steve] Jobs were born an entrepreneur, so you cannot teach this stuff; it is hard-wired,” he recalls, adding that he struggled to change this viewpoint for 10 years.

He has been able to challenge this notion with a method of teaching known as lean start-up activity, where students are taught how to keep testing their ideas in order to develop better businesses.

During his time teaching the subject he has become convinced that, while entrepreneurship and leadership skills can be taught, there are only certain people who will be able to apply them well.

The problem, as he sees it, is that universities and business schools have been treating entrepreneurship as a technical subject, such as accountancy, when it should be taught more like a creative subject, such as art, where practical exercises are as important as the theory.

“I realised that for entrepreneurship, we have been asking the wrong question,” Mr Blank explains. “It is not whether we teach entrepreneurship — of course you can do that. It is who you can teach it to.”

The way academic institutions can overcome this problem is by employing experienced founders to teach. In the US, this is done through adjunct professors, who are brought in to teach rather than produce academic papers, las the faculty staff do, Mr Blank notes.

He claims to have had some success with this, in part by creating his “lean” framework for teaching entrepreneurial behaviour. In just four years, it has been adopted by 160 colleges across the US.

It is not just the material being taught, and who is picked to attend these courses, but how it is delivered to students that may be of relevance. Many founders are reluctant to go to university or business school because the idea of committing themselves to months or years to study full-time for a qualification on a campus is anathema to them.

Educational tech start-ups, such as the massive open online course providers Coursera and Udacity, are starting with purely online models for imparting skills.

Meanwhile, the UK-based Digital Business Academy has created an online entrepreneurship course aimed specifically at time-poor ambitious founders who want to hone their skills in growing a company. The DBA is a partnership between University College London, Cambridge university’s Judge Business School, Founder Centric, an entrepreneurship teaching start-up, and Tech City, a government agency.

Each of DBA’s courses, which range from deciding on an idea to running a digital marketing campaign, are free and online, enabling students to complete them at their own pace. The DBA has also added games and case study discussions, so that students do not just watch videos, a common complaint about pure online learning.

Certificates are awarded for completing courses and practical rewards are on offer too, such as free workspace, mentoring and help accessing finance.

The DBA is only a few months old, but it has already discovered that the kinds of people looking for these skills are not just 20-something founders such as Twindom’s Mr Drevno. Around half of the 14,000 people who have signed up since the DBA launched last November are more than 35, says Richard Dennys, head of the DBA at Tech City.

Creating an online network where people can hire others and find jobs with businesses is just as important as the teaching, Mr Dennys adds.

“It is not just learning but connecting people with employees,” he says, noting that he is now discussing partnerships with employers, such as the online network Mumsnet, to connect DBA students with them for job opportunities.

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