Are the skills needed to build an enterprise from nothing something you have to be born with or can they be learned?
It was a brief phone call three years ago that inspired an idea that could forever change the face of retail.
Entrepreneur Dipra Ray was chatting to a friend when the conversation drifted to the problems his friend’s fiancée was experiencing while looking for a wedding dress.
The bride-to-be was traipsing across the city to different wedding dress specialists, located kilometres apart, knowing that despite her best efforts she may still not find a dress that took her fancy.
She also knew that if she shopped online, she would likely receive a dress that did not fit properly.
Ray thought there must be a better way to purchase clothes that actually fitted. He recognised that different sizing was a problem faced by everybody when they shop online, and having to return clothes because they didn’t fit was frustrating for the customer.
And having seen people taking four different sizes of the same item into a change room, he also saw room for improvement in bricks-and-mortar stores.
So Ray began a journey that would result in the mPort, a phone-booth sized body scanning system which is currently being rolled out into shopping centres around Australia.
Users step into the mPort booth and the resulting scans, which provide accurate measurements of a person’s body, allow them to pick perfectly fitting clothes, or have clothes tailored, from mPort partners both online and instore.
It wasn’t Ray’s first foray into business. At 17 he launched his first start-up, a peer-to-peer school tutoring business in his hometown of Auckland.
At 20, he set up his first not-for-profit, SavY.org.nz, which promotes good financial habits among young people.
“I had studied at the University of Auckland and completed a degree with a double major in finance and accounting,” says 26-year-old Ray.
“I had followed this up with an Honours degree in finance. But much of my learning in terms of entrepreneurial skills came from the ventures I set up along the way. That is what teaches you what works and what does not.
“One of the big trends right now is that there is a great deal of interest in entrepreneurial thinking within existing businesses.” – Kwanghui Lim, MBS
“University gives you valuable tools that help to make business work, and the learning environment helps enormously if it nurtures and supports people that naturally show a leaning towards innovation and entrepreneurship. But for the best result, experience and teaching should work hand-in-hand.”
Major business, innovation and entrepreneurship schools around the world would certainly not argue with that.
The Institute of Design at Stanford, also known as “d.school”, has been developed to bring together students and alumni from different faculties to turn what it sees as “messy problems” into real-world solutions.
Creative and analytical approaches join to create actual business results in a process known as “design thinking”. Essentially it is about making the students learn by doing, rather than learn from a book.
And just a few years ago in Harvard’s MBA program Tom Eisenmann, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School and co-chair of the HBS Rock Centre for Entrepreneurship, introduced a new course in which all students were required to actually start a business.
Leading schools that previously did much of their teaching through business case studies are now ensuring their students have real-life business experience before they even graduate.
At the Melbourne Business School (MBS) within the University of Melbourne, Dr Ian Allsop is managing a collaboration between MBS and social enterprise organisation Social Traders.
“Businesses, individuals or start-ups apply to Social Traders to become part of The Crunch program,” Allsop says.
They must be one of three categories – one is where the social purpose is to provide employment for people who otherwise have difficulty finding employment. Another is where there is an obvious gap in the community but no private organisation has deemed it worthwhile to fulfil that need. The third is where you have a not-for-profit that sets up a separate trading operation to provide an income or revenue stream for that not-for-profit.
“Once Social Traders accepts an applicant into the program, they come to Melbourne Business School and we allocate student syndicates to work with them. They present their case and the students work with them to develop a business plan. Over six months or so the MBA students take that organisation right through to the stage where they can deliver the business plan in a pitch to investors.”
The great value for the students, Allsop says, is the real-life experience they gain in acting as consultants to clients who sometimes have little knowledge of the business world.
“As far as the school is concerned, we see it as integrating all aspects of the MBA because they have to look at marketing, market research, value propositions, operational details, management structure, finance structure, infrastructure details, distribution channels, etc," he says.
"Essentially they are applying everything from the MBA in a start-up, entrepreneurial situation. It is forcing them to think through channels they wouldn’t usually experience. It is a real-life case study.”
But what if certain students within the MBA program have no wish to become an entrepreneur, instead preferring to stay within a major corporate as a senior manager, perhaps?
Such positions will also require a great deal of entrepreneurial thinking in the current and future business environment, says Kwanghui Lim, an associate professor at MBS.
"I think the underlying trait a successful entrepreneur needs to have is a comfort with risk and uncertainty.” – Candice Edye, Lighthouse Business Innovation Centre
Lim says that in today’s business environment we need to rethink our definition of “entrepreneur”. Corporations are finding it is more important than ever to innovate and act in an entrepreneurial manner.
In fact, much of the increased demand for entrepreneurship training is coming from within the corporate sector.
“One of the big trends right now is that there is a great deal of interest in entrepreneurial thinking within existing businesses. Increasingly firms are realising that they can’t just compete in their own comfort zone,” he says.
“We are seeing a lot of existing firms realising they have to adapt their business models because the world is changing. You can’t just run a retail outlet, for instance, like you used to. Every business has to be concerned about innovation. As a result, institutions that are teaching innovation or entrepreneurship are experiencing huge demand from industry.”
So not everybody with entrepreneurial talent needs to head towards the traditional endpoint of owning a growth business, Lim says.
Those working within corporations may be asked to start their own business units, or to develop products, or to identify opportunities.
Lim runs a real-life experience segment of the Melbourne Business School’s MBA course. The intensive, week-long unit is known as the “MBS Innovation Boot Camp”. “They do creativity and design thinking sessions,” Lim says.
“These are key elements in any entrepreneurial setting. Then they head out in Melbourne and re-imagine how a current business might be redesigned. For the rest of the week we create a link between value creation and the business element of it. We connect the dots between creating new things and bringing them to market.”
The MBS Innovation Boot Camp has resulted in several practical and innovative real-world solutions, from ice-cream that can be transported in liquid form, to new luggage packing systems, to an app that analyses your baby’s cry to help understand what it needs.
“The idea is to teach students about the link between new ideas and market needs,” Lim says. “Then through the traditional MBA we give them the tools to make it all happen.”
If all MBA students at major educational institutions, as well as many people from within major corporates, are being trained in the art of entrepreneurship, does this mean that anybody can be taught to be an entrepreneur?
Anna Pino and Candice Edye say it is not that simple. The two co-directors of Canberra’s Lighthouse Business Innovation Centre collectively boast decades of experience in helping turn people with good ideas into successful entrepreneurs.
Their business incubator deals with everybody from academics to business advisory groups to individual business people.
And with the current shedding of jobs within Australia’s federal public service in Canberra, they are also seeing a lot of what they call “accidental entrepreneurs”.
“I get excited about success when someone talks about their idea with a great level of passion. That alone will help them surmount many obstacles.” – Anna Pino, Lighthouse Business Innovation Centre
These are people that never previously considered starting their own business, Edye says. But as they have interesting skills and niche abilities, some are quite well placed to do so.
Can they all be trained to become successful entrepreneurs? It is about more than education, states Edye. Succeeding in the entrepreneurial sphere has a lot to do with personality.
“I think the underlying trait a successful entrepreneur needs to have is a comfort with risk and uncertainty,” Edye says.
“Also, the type of person we find has the greatest chance of success is the person that is able to be trained, the person who is happy to listen and to appreciate the lessons of experience. Those that think they know everything are not likely to succeed. It is also important to not be married to your idea at the beginning. You must not be blind to what the market is telling you. You must have flexibility because the market is ultimately what decides on success or failure.”
Pino adds: “Another important trait is the ability to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start again. That is why successful entrepreneurs often have a number of unsuccessful businesses behind them. Each time they have had to pick themselves up they have learned from their mistakes. There is a term floating around at the moment called ‘flearning’ – it is all about learning through your failures. Nobody gets it right first time. The ability to take that failure and learn from it is a very important characteristic.”
Finally, Pino says, the vital ingredient and driver for a successful entrepreneur is passion. “I have been in this space for about 30 years and you do develop a gut feel,” she says.
“I get excited about success when someone sits down and talks about their idea with a great level of passion. If they are passionate then that alone will help them surmount many obstacles.”
So for the right type of person entrepreneurial learning, experts agree, is at its most powerful when theory learned in the classroom is combined with real-world experience.
“My best learning during my university years came from the not-for-profit that I started outside of the university,” Ray says. “But it was all carried out with the support of the university.
“The perfect environment for entrepreneurial education is the one that nurtures and supports development and learning in an applied, real-world environment. That is the best of both worlds.”
What you can learn from books
Fiona Adler completed a marketing degree and then grew an IT services agency with her husband.
After upskilling with an MBA from Melbourne Business School, she set up Word of Mouth Online, a business review site that now employs 10 people.
She’s found her success by combining formal business training with real-world experience.
What did you learn that couldn’t be taught formally?
The things you need to bring to the game yourself are personality traits such as drive and determination and not taking no for an answer.
Also work ethic. It’s the ability to keep working at something in different ways until you struggle through and find an answer.
Is it easier to launch a new business with a partner?
Even if you have a partner you must remember that you still have so much less support than you would have in the corporate world.
There are fewer skills around you. My background was in marketing so I wasn’t so great with accounting or finance, for instance.
If I came across an issue and had to get to the bottom of it, if I was in a corporate I’d have somebody to go to for an answer.
When you’re on your own or with a partner, there is often nobody to turn to.
Why did you choose to do the MBA?
It helps to fill in a lot of those knowledge gaps and arms you with the tools, frameworks and possible solutions for when you come across problems.
It gives you a better idea of where a solution might lie.
But you still need the character traits, such as persistence, to knuckle down and keep trying until you find something that works.
Where would you be if you had not sought education?
It’s impossible to say, but the level of your skills will probably limit how far you can take something.
If somebody has opened a cafe then they may not have the tools to turn it into a major growth business.
Somebody else with the right level of knowledge might turn it into a chain of 50.
Hands up for hands on
Bill Aulet, the director of the Martin Trust Center For MIT Entrepreneurship, is convinced anyone can learn to be an entrepreneur, it’s just a matter of having the right experience.
The former IBM executive who also helped launch several start-ups recently published Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 steps to a successful startup, a how-to for business owners to guide them through the often volatile early days of a venture.
Noting the pressing demand for entrepreneurship education today, Aulet has his sights on what’s wrong with the way entrepreneurship typically is taught.
Wheeling in a successful entrepreneur and getting them to tell their story or “clapping for credit”, as he calls it, simply leaves students floundering, he says.
Far better, he argues in his book, is to learn via a diverse set of skills through hands-on experiences.
Business incubation sometimes works best when it focuses in a specific field.
One such incubator is Hong Kong’s Cyberport Management Company, which nurtures start-ups and early stage businesses in information and communications technology (ICT).
“Anyone with the ambitions, great ideas and innovative thinking can be a great entrepreneur,” says Dr David Chung, its chief technology officer.
“Cyberport believes that education and mentorship certainly do help in nurturing entrepreneurial spirit among the young generation. This is why we have been organising education, training and internship programs for students of all ages to arouse their interests in ICT.”
The incubator runs initiatives from coding courses for children to classroom teaching to real-world mentoring to million-dollar funding rounds for early stage businesses.
As it’s based in Hong Kong the company is also well placed to guide businesses into the mainland China market.
The incubator looks for good management practice, a viable business model, a good connection to investors and great pitching skills, Chung says. He believes almost anybody can be taught to be a great entrepreneur.
“From our point of view, everything can be taught for entrepreneurship,” he says, meaning candidates simply require a degree of receptiveness to new ideas and a willingness to learn.
Where did they learn?
- Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg studied computer science and psychology at Harvard University but dropped out in his second year.
- Apple’s Steve Jobs ditched formal studies after one semester at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, but then spent 18 months “dropping in” on classes, including a calligraphy course. That’s why the Mac had proportionally spaced fonts.
- Founder of The Body Shop and activist the late Dame Anita Roddick trained as a teacher and also worked on a kibbutz.
- Google founder Sergey Brin studied computer science at the University of Maryland and completed his Master’s degree at Stanford University.
- Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson is dyslexic and at age 16, in his last days at the UK’s Stowe School, he was told he’d either end up in prison or become a millionaire. The next year he started his first business, a magazine called Student.
- Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma twice failed his entrance exam for Hangzhou Teachers Institute (now Hangzhou Normal University), but his third attempt was a success.
- Microsoft founder Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard University after two years.
This article is from the November 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.