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Teacher's Pet

Searching for a business partner in college? Don't rule out your professors.

You know that your professors are wise in the ways of business. They may even have experience running their own successful companies. But you may not have thought that the brilliant business-person teaching the class could become your next business partner.

That's exactly what happened for David Wu when he attended Wharton West in San Francisco, an extension of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Wu was taking a managerial economics course taught by associate professor Kent Smetters. Initially, Wu asked him to serve as an advisor on another project, but seeing a lack of potential in the idea, Smetters declined. "He's probably one of the most-approached professors on campus," says Wu, 37.

After he completed the class, Wu took his idea for an online, interactive fantasy sports community called Rotohog.com to Smetters and asked him for advice. This time, Smetters saw a definite market opportunity. "He said, 'I can be your advisor, or we can be partners,'" recalls Wu. "I said, 'Let's be partners,' and it really took off from there."

A year later, in 2006, the company officially incorporated in Inglewood, California. Since then, Smetters and Wu have made a smooth transition from a professor/student relationship to an equal partnership. "I'm the nuts-and-bolts execution guy, and he is the bigger vision [person]," says Smetters, 40. "We complement each other."

To make a partnership with a professor work, you need that clear change in perspective. As a student, you may admire and respect the professor because of his or her accomplishments, "but that's just not sustainable," says Smetters. "You can't have that hierarchy. Is that professor willing to change from a professor/student relationship to a partner/partner relationship?"

That's just one of the many important questions you need to ask to make this kind of partnership work. Approach professors who you think could help you in your business, but don't be offended if they choose not to get involved. It may have nothing to do with your business idea; it just may not be their forte, or they may have a greater understanding of business theory than real-world implementation. "At the end of the day, [professors] are just human beings," says Smetters. Your best bet is to present the idea clearly and concisely, showing the professor why it's a great opportunity. To avoid ethical and conflict-of-interest issues, wait to officially partner up until after you've completed that professor's class.

It worked for Wu and Smetters, who project 2008 sales of about $2.5 million for Rotohog.com. Although Wu had gone to Wharton in part to network and partner with people who were as passionate about business as he was, he says finding a partner in his professor was still a surprise. "I knew I could find somebody of top caliber to work with," he says. "In my wildest dreams, I couldn't have imagined that an actual professor would be that partner."

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This article was originally published in the May 2008 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Teacher's Pet.

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