Photo: The Fresh Express
Business plan competitions are the air guitar championships of the startup world. This is the case when the requirements of these events don’t actually include building a real business or product. I mean, you don’t have to build an actual business—you can just mimic the movements and demonstrate something that looks like a startup on paper, without any of the necessary risk taking, lessons learned or even a fraction of the effort—all the stuff that investors like to see. Not only that, there’s a hugely disproportionate amount of time spent on pitching for money for these paper ideas.
“I have come to observe that most business school programs have an extensive emphasis on fundraising, especially from venture capitalists, and very little pragmatic understanding of what it really takes to get a venture off the ground. As a result, business schools launch students into the real world with completely unrealistic expectations, set up to fail.”
It’s true. We spend way too much time, particularly in and around the New York area, teaching fundraising versus company or product building. It’s as if the plan for creating a startup is:
Step #1: Come up with an idea.
Step #2: Pitch investors.
What ever happened to “build it”? When Marc Cenedella first started TheLadders, he build the first version himself after investing $350 in MySQL and PHP books to teach himself to code. Undoubtedly the code sucked, but at least he got something up and running.
The fact of the matter is, most startups, particularly ones built by young professionals with no network and no track record, aren’t going to get funded. So then, why are we teaching our students to trust fall without any revenues of their own to catch them? It’s a recipe for failure.
The local tech community is figuring this out, not surprisingly, way before the academic institutions are—and where it is being discovered by academia, it’s being done on a one-off basis by educational revolutionaries in the innovation space who aren’t stopping to ask their schools for permission or to change curricula. They’re just doing it.
HackNY is a terrific example of how academics should be inspiring innovation. Three academic types—Evan Korth, Hilary Mason, and Chris Wiggins, got together with a student, Trevor Owens, and decided that more students should be hacking on real projects, and be better connected to the innovation community at large. They didn’t wait for a curriculum change or some government grant money to come through (although they just got Kaufmann money for it). They didn’t wait until their universities hired a director of this new program. They just booked some space at NYU, threw up a fundraising page on Kickstarter, and started talking it up in the community. The end result was dozens of kids across universities all around the city writing real, workable code on their own projects—more entrepreneurial than any of the textbook projects they were probably stuck doing in class.
At the same time, in an effort to build up the base of “bench talent” in New York City, I’ve been running Product Manager School through nextNY. I always here that there aren’t enough good tech product managers in the city, so I figured why not just go and try to make more—or make the up and coming ones better. It took me all of 45 minutes to setup the program—I wrote up a syllabus for 5 sessions, solicited feedback from a dozen or so product managers I knew (most of whom volunteered to speak), and called up Micah at the NYU/Poly Incubator to get the space. No revenues, no costs. Bo from RoseTech even volunteered to videotape the sessions. I’ll be doing the same thing with Online Marketing school, CTO school, and there’s even been some rumblings about UX school. I’ve been working with a handful of people that will be taking the lead on those other classes, because I don’t scale. Hopefully, we can cycle through all of these twice a year.
Contrast that with the fact that when I wanted to change the name of my course at Fordham from Innovation & the Entrepreneurial Mindset to Innovative Entrepreneurship, I was told that I had to go through a curriculum committee and it would take several semesters to make that happen after the course was reviewed again. A name change—that’s all I wanted… to make the name more reflective of what was actually being taught. With overhead like that, it’s going to be impossible for the local schools to educate good startup talent at the rate that the community can educate itself. It’s not just Fordham—it’s generally like that at most places.
So what role, then, should local schools be playing in the innovation ecosystem? For years and years, New York City area colleges made a great business out of teaching kids to work for big businesses. It was easy peasy. Teach ’em Finance and Chase or Accenture will come and pick ’em up 30 at a time. Now, those big company jobs aren’t there, and the schools are turning with a renewed focus to entrepreneurship (somewhat similarly to the way NYC govt recently noticed the startup community when Wall St threw up on itself).
If schools are going to participate in the growth of NYC’s innovation ecology, they’re going to have to change the way they operate, or they’re going to get lapped and left behind. You can tell me all you want about how many patents were filed at Columbia or wherever, or what they do in revenues—the future of the innovation in NYC is not in hard technology. Most problems these days are business and design problems—technology is rarely the gating factor on innovation these days. Here are a few things that I think local schools need to do if they’re going to seriously play ball in the startup world…
1) recognise that you’re playing catch up. If there’s anything that hackers and founders hate, it’s an ivory tower attitude. These are the Davids of the world and they don’t care how big Goliath is—nor do they think you have much to offer them that they can’t do themselves better, faster, cheaper. So, instead of trying to wow the community with how smart your professors are or the IP you have in house, start position yourselves to ask questions, learn, and participate as peers in a changing world.
2) Eliminate the friction by empowering your people. If it takes eight meetings to get something going with a university, a startup could run out of cash in the meantime. Encourage faculty and administrators to try new things, take some risks, and apologise later.
3) Open source your real estate. There is one thing that schools have that brings together the community in an unparalleled way—one that is tough to replicate. Event and meeting space is tough to come by, but it definitely exists in universities. We’ve had BarCamp NYC at PolyTechnic in Brooklyn, and the NY Tech Meetup is moving to NYU, but those are all based off high level relationships. How does the average Lean Startup Meetup get event space at a school? Schools should want them there—and even promote it among their students. They’re essentially teaching for free! Schools need to become more physical hubs for collaboration—I’d love to see more schools contribute event space to the community. How about getting each school to pledge 5 hours of space per month to local innovation related meetups?
4) Get your faculty and your students off your campus and out into the community. David Lerner and Calvin Chu are the only innovation related university administrators that I ever see participating in the local tech community. Where are all the heads of entrepreneurship education and why aren’t they out there participating both online and offline in things that startups are going to? They’re front and centre within their own walled gardens, but I’ve yet to meet faculty or deans anywhere that entrepreneurs are after hours. If you don’t build a network of entrepreneurs around you—how are you ever going to figure out how to better educate them? How will you know who the investors are when one of your school-grown startups need capital? Same with students. It’s like pulling teeth to get my students to reach out and meet entrepreneurs they don’t know—and I’m absolutely sure that’s because I’m swimming up against the tide of what they see from the top down. Unless the people running your entrepreneurship program have committed to embracing and participating in the local community, your students will never follow.
5) Get business and tech working together—i.e. break the silos! Most B-school pitches I see involve “Step 1, hire a tech guy to build it.” That would be nice, if what they were pitching was the least bit buildable—or either that or what they have is already freely available via open source but they don’t realise it. There is a huge gap within schools between the average tech savvy of a B-school student and where the CS & Engineering programs are—and there’s very little cross collaboration going on to fix that. I’m not saying teach all the MBAs to code—but at least getting them basic product management courses or some insight into what’s actually easy or hard to build—or now to turn an idea into a product… that would be a start. It’s interesting to me that so many of the entrepreneurship activities at local universities are run out of the business schools, while the people in the best position to actually build real products are in your comp sci area. At the same time, these CS folks are often unaware of the business world’s interest in how what they’re learning can solve real problems. God forbid a school should get a little departmental cross collaboration going!
Ok, I think I’ve said enough. If you’re at a school and you want to seriously commit to encouraging innovation—as a faculty member, a dean, an admin—come talk to me.
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