Can You Learn to Start a Business?

In a word, yes. But if you're at all serious about entrepreneurship, you'll learn there's much more to start-up than classrooms and homework.

Teachers go to college for four years to train for their profession. Doctors go to college, then medical school for an additional four years. But there has never been such a tidy map to becoming an entrepreneur. There is no one school, no one skill, no one way into entrepreneurship-just ask the millions of business owners out there. Some people start with no formal training, while others spend years in prestigious MBA programs. But is a formal entrepreneurial education the inside track to business success? Can you learn to be an entrepreneur? Or are you better off jumping in feet-first and learning as you go? Or is it even possible to answer that question?

The consensus seems to be, yes, you can learn the art and science of entrepreneurship. In fact, it would almost seem necessary, as hardly anyone knows instinctively what to do from the start. (Well, maybe there are a few know-it-alls out there-but for the rest of us mere mortals, knowledge must be gained.) But entrepreneurial learning doesn't only have to come from a schoolhouse.

Doug Evans knows that to be true. This 35-year-old founder of Servador Inc., a print outsourcing provider in New York City, didn't have any formal training when he started any of his three businesses (Servador being his third). With only a high school diploma to his name, Evans joined the Army and became a paratrooper at 18. A graffiti artist in his youth, he decided to tap into his artistic background upon leaving the Army. A business in graphic arts and printing fit his meticulous nature to a tee-but he knew nothing about the graphic arts business. "I knew I was going to become a great graphic designer," says Evans. "And I think the lesson there was having a mission."

His desire to be a great graphic designer was stirred when he met a mentor-in Evans' opinion, the greatest graphic designer in the world-and soaked up all the knowledge he could about the graphic arts industry. In the tradition of many great professors, this mentor did not go easy on Evans. "He tore me apart," recalls Evans. "He basically told me I have no talent and to do something else." Determined to show he was capable of learning, Evans devoted hours and hours to his informal training.

One common thread running through all of Evans' businesses? His complete devotion to learning everything there was to know about his pursuits. When he was courting a big consulting account from a cosmetics company, he made it his business to know the ins and outs of the makeup biz-he researched in trade journals, talked to women consumers and basically wowed the company, and he won the contract.

Now with his third and most successful business to date, Evans expects Servador to bring in roughly $12 million in sales for 2001. And while he's certainly pleased with where he ended up, Evans is candid about the school thing: "In retrospect, I think the process of going to school would have [taught me] a lot of communication skills. I would've learned how to deal with people on a sophisticated level," he says. "I literally walk by college campuses and see these young kids having fun-so I feel a little bit of a void. I think I would've enjoyed [college]."

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This article was originally published in the December 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Can You Learn to Start a Business?.

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