Power Play

Meeting Of The Minds

One of the fundamental elements of a successful technology-based venture is having the ability to build what Rice calls an "entrepreneurial team." This means a staff that not only works well together but also possesses the key strengths that keep a business competitive, including tip-top technical, marketing and sales skills. Within the last five years or so, says Rice, a number of factors have evolved to help high-tech entrepreneurs pull together the expertise they need to create these teams. At the root of these changes is the entrepreneur himself.

"It has never been easier to get training and education to develop the skills, attitudes and knowledge necessary to become an entrepreneur," says Rice. "We've seen an explosion of entrepreneurship programs, and there are more ways to learn about entrepreneurship than ever before."

More than just the blossoming of first-rate entrepreneurial programs, though, there's also been a move among educational institutions to meld entrepreneurship and technology programs, says Rice. Educators are realizing that to build competitive technology-based businesses, students must have an understanding of both the technical and business sides of the venture. As a result, some schools now offer undergraduate and graduate programs with an emphasis in technology entrepreneurship. The programs link the knowledge and experience from technical disciplines, such as computer science, with business management to create a well-rounded entrepreneur.

As more educators join this trend, leading technology schools around the country are increasingly infusing entrepreneurship into their core curricula. Among them: RPI; Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh; Baylor University in Waco, Texas; University of California, Los Angeles; University of Iowa in Iowa City; University of Colorado at Boulder; and University of Texas at Austin.

"The MBA program gave me a strong foundation for understanding technology and how to base decisions about technology," says Mark Bernstein, ILINC's co-founder and executive vice president, who graduated from RPI's MBA program in 1994. "It was also very helpful in understanding the basics of raising capital, the trade-offs involved in designing technology and how to stay focused."

Technology incubator programs at many universities are also giving high-tech entrepreneurs a leg up. Established in 1986, the University of Alabama at Birmingham's (UAB) Office for the Advancement of Developing Industries houses approximately 18 technology-based companies, providing them with below-market rates on laboratory and office space, access to UAB scientific expertise, and clerical and professional staff support. Others, like the Boulder Technology Incubator's Entrepreneurial Success program, offer high-tech entrepreneurs mentors, business advisors and introductions to capital resources.

Networking is another facet of entrepreneurial education whose importance for high-tech entrepreneurs can't be overstated. In today's collegiate environment, students from separate disciplines are encouraged to interact more than ever before, says Rice. Those with technical skills are becoming more aware of career opportunities in nontechnology ventures, while business students are pairing up with technical talent to build businesses.

"There's a lot of networking with students, faculty and well-connected alumni," says Flow Management Technology's Bayly, a 1979 graduate of RPI's MBA program. "To bring that level of people into your sphere of advice and influence is just an incredible advantage to your business."

Meanwhile, world-class universities continue to pump out students with cutting-edge technical skills. This has resulted in a highly talented labor pool, says Rice, enabling entrepreneurs to hire qualified staff in almost any part of the country.

And to further round out the entrepreneurial team, high-tech consulting and incubation companies have evolved to supply technology start-ups with expertise. For instance, Interactive Minds, founded in January 1995, provides online, multimedia and interactive media companies with interim management to develop strategic planning, raise financing or fill tactical roles like directors of marketing, sales or product development.

"High-tech companies are looking for resources to augment their businesses," says Randy Haykin, president of Interactive Minds in Pleasanton, California. "With a team of people with high-tech experience who've done this before, companies won't have to waste their time."

Even so, forming an entrepreneurial team in a high-tech company isn't without its challenges. For instance, with such a sharp demand for technical talent, the problem of key personnel migrating to other high-tech start-ups can be a tough problem for entrepreneurs.

Despite a long list of hurdles, high-tech entrepreneurs can still look to the future with well-founded optimism. Thanks to a recent convergence of opportunities--namely changing market needs and the evolution of technologies to address them, ready access to capital and a larger pool of talented technical personnel to hire or partner with--the odds have swung in favor of high-tech businesses in recent years. Overall, the message from all ends of the entrepreneurial spectrum seems to be loud and clear: Seize the day.

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This article was originally published in the June 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Power Play.

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