Can You Learn to Start a Business?

Lifelong Learning

Learning by doing seems to be the new thing. But can you learn by doing while in school? Check out Arizona State University's Center for the Advancement of Small Business for the latest in entrepreneurial education. Far from your typical MBA program, the center is a joint venture between the university and the surrounding business community to provide entrepreneurial guidance and learning to ASU undergraduate students. "The center was the vision of an accomplished entrepreneur who [wanted to] create genuine economic impact by combining the very best of university and academic theory with the very best of business practice," says Mary Lou Bessette, director of the center.

Started in 1998, classes are taught with an emphasis on learning from the trenches: Local businesspeople are often asked to teach the students, many of them non-business majors. The core classes include sales and market development, accounting and finance, working relationships and operations, and planning. Classes are structured so that local businesspeople come in and discuss current issues they're dealing with in their own ventures, and students partner up to come up with innovative solutions and ideas. In fact, according to Bessette, there's a waiting list of about 500 companies that want to be involved in the program.

Learning to Fail

MBA programs often teach aspiring entrepreneurs all the basics to building a business: writing a business plan, attracting investors, creating a management team and growing the business in the future. But can an MBA program teach an entrepreneur how to successfully fail-i.e., survive a business failure, pick yourself up and move on? Yes, according to Chris Pohl, a 2000 graduate of the Executive MBA Program at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.

Pohl spent his two years in the program structuring and refining his business plan-he wanted to start an application service provider targeted to the U.S. academic market. In lieu of a graduate thesis, students were allowed to write a business plan, to be critiqued and revised with the help of fellow students. "The [business] plan was garbage when I first briefed my classmates," says Pohl, 35. "Because of the MBA program and the unique nature where people [have incentive] to critique, it molded quickly and became a well-thought-out business plan."

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After graduation, Pohl pursued his business idea full time, seeking venture capital to get it off the ground. While VCs were impressed by the plan, nobody wanted to invest. "I realized it was not going to be realistic to pursue the business plan as it was written," he says, "that I'd have to scale it down dramatically and basically change the entire model to attract any capital."

Pohl credits his MBA training with motivating him to move on to the next business idea. "I would say they did prepare us for failure," says Pohl. "It was not uncommon to hear at least once in every class that a failed business plan is not a failure-that people have to go through failures sometimes before they hit a point where they are a success."

The closeness of the MBA classmates was yet another point of strength for Pohl. Because they spent the better part of two years together, it was like a built-in support group. With that and the knowledge he's gained from his first failed attempt, Pohl is looking to start another business in the near future: "When I'm going forward on my next venture, I'm identifying the [void in the market] upfront and making sure it's a very simple and well-understood [void] that's easy to communicate [to investors]."

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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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