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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.
December 1, 2001
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/46658

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]."

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]."

The Winds of Change

It seems, then, that straight theory-based training is not all the rage at business schools these days. James A. Goodrich, associate dean of the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine, suggests that MBA students today are learning mainly how to deal with change in their prospective business ventures. "It's certainly different from when I was in school," says Goodrich. "Now I think there's more of an assumption that you're going to have to do this [in your business]."

Goodrich also notes that while there is still an emphasis on the basics of business-building, like financing and accounting, there is a growing trend toward the strategic side of business-with an emphasis on going global. "There is less of a focus on the mechanics," he says. "[For example,] students think about studying abroad-they're looking outward more."

As far as learning by doing, the Pepperdine MBA program seems to combine the best of both worlds-sound business training with a combined emphasis on the practical (i.e., inviting serial entrepreneurs and real-life business owners into the classroom to teach). As Goodrich puts it, "the school of hard knocks."

So is learning by doing the way to go? Not necessarily, according to Goodrich. "I'm of two minds about that," he says. "Bill Gates doesn't have an MBA, but he hires MBAs. I suspect that in reality, more people will continue to [sign up for MBA programs]."

Final Exam

The truth about entrepreneurship is that it's ever-changing and constantly growing. If you choose to get an MBA or you'd rather learn at your own pace from a special mentor, there's one thing that all great entrepreneurs (and great people) know: No matter how much you know, there is always more to learn.

e-Biz Education After the Fall

The rise and fall of the dotcoms: good idea.go public...millionaires...dreams come true...market flood...money loss...layoffs...dreams dashed. OK, perhaps that's a bit of a simplification of a very complex economic process. But whatever the case, now that the get-rich-quick dotcom bubble has burst, entrepreneurial education is left with a question: How do you teach e-business after the fallout? Many top-notch business schools that reported booms in e-business classes in the late '90s are reporting a decreasing interest in such classes now. Does that mean e-business classes are a thing of the past?

Not quite, according to Jeff Shuman, director of entrepreneurial studies at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts. "The e-biz designator has gone away from business essentially," he says. "If you're going to teach business today, you have to teach technology. It's an integral component. It's fundamentally changing how companies operate."

Concerning the e-biz boom and the rise in interest in all things Web-related, Shuman is clear: "For a lot of folks, there was a suspension of reality when it came to what it really takes to run and build a successful business. I'm of the view that a lot of people who got interested in entrepreneurship...like it was guaranteed wealth creation, they've gone away. My attitude is, 'Great, they never belonged here in the first place,' because they weren't interested in building a successful business-they were only interested in getting rich quick."