Monday, 24 March 2008

It is not luck that drives entrepreneurs – it is timing

Getting a technology to market can take a long time. Ensuring its robustness, trialling it, researching markets, gathering resources are all long winded processes. By the time one can achieve this – it may be that a faster moving competitor enters the market and takes a dominant position. Or that by the time the technology comes to market the perceived need has moved on. Perhaps complimentary technologies of the relevant infrastructure is still many years away from making it all happen.

Under these various conditions of uncertainty – we come across the “window of opportunity”. When should we attempt to enter the market, when can we start to talk about our ideas? Who else is doing the same thing?

It would seem from the outside that entrepreneurial people have an uncanny knack for getting the timing right! On the whole they seem better able to make bets on when to enter a market or even when to get out – for example from holding shares in a company! They seem to be lucky, the chances are in their favour or they seem to have the ability to draw on serendipity!

Explanation of luck, chance and serendipity may all be correct in certain circumstances, but in reality all these are enhanced by people being alert to their environment, being among people who know what is going on, sharing tacit knowledge, market information and expert opinions.

As Gary Player (the golfer ) said:

The more I practise, the luckier I get,

He also said Persistence and common sense are more important than intelligence.

So be lucky – but don’t rely on it! You will need a great deal of depth and breadth of knowledge about the market place – much more than about your own product or technology. To understand market trends, customers’ hot buttons, convenience, reliability, cost advantages, existence of supply chains, the strengths and weaknesses of competition, the government regulations that might govern the markets you plan to enter, industry standards, safety criteria and much more.

This deep knowledge and ability to interpret the signals from the market has more to do with how you and your team build the business than with some element of luck. After all you are not betting on horses or playing a roulette table.

Sure there is luck that can go your way (or against you) because a competitor takes some action or there is an unexpected event – for example a disaster, but these are part of our understanding of risk and it’s management rather than a central part of a business plan!

Born or made entrepreneurs – It is not just in the genes!

"I never thought I had it in me" is a phrase I hear so often towards the end of an entrepreneurship course at the several Universities in which I have had the good fortune to teach or present a seminar or in some way be in touch with graduates.

Why? Because it seems that the formal education system is so weighted in favour of assessed learning - where we want our students to know things rather than know themselves.

There are also rather too many models of heroic leadership that seem to convey the impossible or perhaps the impression that being an entrepreneur is for those with the right genes!

But, if we think about becoming an entrepreneur as a career choice, it is not for everyone. This is not because we have to be born into such a career, anymore than we are born into academia or management or the armed forces!

Entrepreneurs are both born and made. So the argument is not to ask if they are born or made. We can make both assertions because there is no empirical evidence either way and we can refute both claims for the same reason. So what can we discern about the key entrepreneurial characteristics that may be unique to some people?

Entrepreneurs typically show higher levels of risk tolerance and ability to cope with ambiguity. They are also alert to opportunities, in the sense that they are able to make connections between apparently unrelated events and turn that into a business. They are also incorrigibly optimistic, creative in finding resources and solutions to problems. They are also highly self confident in their ability and have a strong belief in their own motivations and abilities.

Some of these characteristics may well be what we are born with, but they are shared with people from all walks of life to a greater or lesser extent.

The counterpoint is that entrepreneurs are made and this is also true, because we see that to be successful as an entrepreneur we need to be in the right environment where we either formally learn how to do it or absorb it from our families and surroundings. We also need a strong motivator. Either we grab hold of an idea and this builds and builds inside us till we get “Pulled” into the career of an entrepreneur or something happens in our normal day to day life and we get “Pushed” into it.

Under these “made” circumstances we need creative skills, living on meagre resources, being part of a community where opportunities flow past and have the managerial know-how to make things happen.

Fun and satisfaction then keeps people at it!

Monday, 10 March 2008

Creativity and business in entrepreneurship education

Over the past few years I have been involved with many events and activities that have tried to stimulate creativity and buzz among undergraduates in business. It seems to me thataprt from the whole ideas generation bit, unless these are tied down in later processes with howto then communicate the value of the idea, make sense of it, commercialise it either in a pure business sense or even as a not for profit sustainable project, then all we do is stimulate frustration!

So it has been great to help design a course at Reading University where we have taken students through a creative process, linked it to business lectures on marketing, finance, team working, legal implications and so forth and had them make presentations using props at an exhibition style event.

Ofcourse as University we look to see if they have learnt anything by asking them to write up plans and essyas and the like, Our business friends who come to judge the output look to see if the ideas are actually feasible in real life and are often moved by the passion of the student teams.

So - what should we measure as success?

Creativity: That students learn tools and techniques; they learn they are capable of being creative; how others "create"; group dynamics when the objective is uncertain...

Convergent thinking: How to shape a vague idea into a business proposition; what to establish as the critical success factors; gaps in knowldeg that need to be covered; the ability for the team work to agree; individual learning about the dynamics of converging a creatiev idea...

Business: when is an idea actually economically feasible; what numbers does one need to look at; at what point should one go pubicwith the idea; the tacit knowldge required in commercialising an idea; marketing and sales questions; cash flow and planning; team leadership...

Employers wonder about this too. They want to know of the students are more fit for purpose after University, what practical skills they might bring and how quickly they canhit the ground running as well as what the potential is for future personal growth and development that can then make a difference to the business itself.

There is much work to do in order to better understand entrpreneurship education, but one thing is clear - that the process of students' learning is so different when this approach is taken - because it is also fun, that something of a seed is planted. The release of energy and enthusiasm is evident - so that is clear and easy to see, even if not to measure!

Maybe entrepreneurship education methodologies should be looked at more carefully to see if they can be transported into other subjects at University.

Creativity and business