It's a perennial question: study entrepreneurship in school or throw your cash on the table and start your company?
What's working--and what's not--in entrepreneurial education is the subject of a new research initiative housed at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business. Earlier this month, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a large private foundation devoted to entrepreneurship, awarded a $1.5 million grant to Yael Hochberg, a leading researcher at the Jones School, to study the effects of entrepreneurship education on startup success. The five-year project will track the outcomes of a group of startups receiving a free, concentrated entrepreneurship curriculum.
The effort should, in time, help identify which classroom topics and skills are valuable to students--and which ones require, instead, deep immersion in real-world practice. It's high time entrepreneurship programs get this level of scrutiny, says entrepreneur Nate Barr, 33, founder of 17-employee Zootility Tools.
"I think they should consider including a group of startups whose founders spent their time on the streets trying to build companies instead of in classrooms listening to theory," says Barr, who studied business and entrepreneurship at UMass-Amherst but was caught off-guard in his twenties when it came time to start his first few companies. He struggled to attract funding for his ideas, which involved monetizing in-app ads within Pandora and the Zynga video game FarmVille. "In my experience, that is how I learned my most useful skills that led to successfully building a new business."
This sentiment isn't surprising to Hochberg. She noted that isolating which skills requiring real-world immersion--and which ones can be taught in classroom-type settings--is largely the motivation behind the study in the first place.
It stands to reason, she says, that any entrepreneur could benefit from classroom instruction about concepts like the cost of customer acquisition or the terms used on term sheets. Likewise, if an entrepreneurial education included formal mentorships and networking opportunities, how could that be a bad thing? Hochberg plans to survey entrepreneurs--including those with no previous business schooling--about the specific components of their educations--be they term sheets terms, mentorships, networking, etc. The data will help her and her team learn which of those components the entrepreneurs still find valuable, at various stages into the companies they've launched. The surveying will also be controlled for founder ages, previous education levels, and other variables.
Hochberg adds that the prevailing dichotomy in entrepreneurial learning--whereby you're either a classroom learner or a real-world doer--is a false one. "Any cutting edge program today teaches skills and provides frameworks, then they ask you to put it to work in a real life experiential scenario," she says. "If not in your own business, then in someone else's." For example, at Northeastern University in Boston, professor Kimberly Eddleston's students provide marketing consultations to local businesses as a means to learn from real-world challenges.
The point is, entrepreneurial education is not an all-or-nothing decision, where you either sit in class (or at your laptop in a virtual class) and study...or you take the leap and launch.
The actual experience of most young entrepreneurs is a mixture of the two. In fact, as Hochberg points out, most courses are a mixture, where classroom instruction is complemented by real-world projects. What's more, it's easy to forget that every founder is different. The learning mixture that works best for one founder--or for a particular startup the founder is considering--might not work best for another founder, or another idea.
In addition, most entrepreneurs in their twenties are still discovering who they are. Most startups, on some level, are a manifestation of the founder's principles--what she believes in, what she's willing to fight for, what she's willing to invest in. Which means it's entirely possible the company you'll start in your twenties will be different than the one you'll start in your thirties, when you've seen a bit more of the world and refined what matters most to you.
Today, Barr can attest that this is true for him. His most successful venture to date, three-year-old Zootility Tools, is an end-to-end designer and manufacturer of handheld tools based in Portland, Maine. The company is completely bootstrapped. There's no outside funding. And it makes all its products in Portland. Nothing whatsoever happens overseas.
All of which is by Barr's intentional design, thanks in large part to the lessons he learned in his twenties, both in and out of the classroom. As a business minor with a concentration in entrepreneurship (his major was mechanical engineering), he says, "I was taught the same thing that gets taught at campuses everywhere. You put together a business plan. And part of it is, you seek investors. Once you have that, they advise you how to get off the ground."
"The reality is, the model they teach you is broken," he says. He was repeatedly shot down by investors for his lack of experience. "You can't use that model [of finding investors first] unless you're an industry veteran, or you get extremely lucky," he says. Worse, he adds, the stories of the lucky few--the young and inexperienced who get funding--get inflated and passed around by the media and academic institutions, perpetuating a false impression that starting with investors is the wise and practical move.
"I found I was chasing these really big ideas that required large investments and a huge burden of proof,” he adds. "I would have rather spent that time working on building a startup rather than sitting in a lecture hall, even when listening to high profile CEOs. Working on building a startup--even a failed one--I think is more powerful than any prescribed startup methods."
With Zootility, Barr has found that he enjoys "having total control of it." Instead of aiming to please investors, he could aim to please customers, and iterate accordingly. In November, 2012, he launched Zootility's first tool--the PocketMonkey--on Kickstarter. The credit card-sized tool, which is a combination of screw driver, wrench, bottle opener, phone stand, and orange peeler, was a smash hit. In 14 days, it had more than 1,900 backers and raised $27,000.
Since then, Zootility Tools has sold more than 500,000 PocketMonkeys in more than 1,500 stores. The company has grown new product lines, including the Headgehog (a comb that fits in a wallet and also serves as a screwdriver and a bottle opener) and the forthcoming WildCard (due out in March), a super-light and thin stainless steel knife (1.1 ounces, 2mm thin) featuring a prybar, screwdriver, and bottle opener.
There have been hiccups to bootstrapping. For the past three years, during the holidays, Zootility Tools has sold out its inventories, inventories which are intentionally small for the sake of cash-flow responsibility. After all, manufacturing a product yourself isn't cheap. You need to buy or lease the equipment. The metal laser cutter that the company uses to make the WildCard cost $250,000, a sum that the company is paying off at the rate of more than $3,000 a month over a five-year term. That's a lot of cheddar for a 17-employee company with $1.5 million in annual sales, most of which occurs around the holidays.
But to Barr, the cost is well worth it, as is the experience. And that's something few entrepreneurship professors would argue with.