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5 Ways to Push College Student and Academic Entrepreneurship

One of the interesting things that is starting to occur, based on my own anecdotal evidence, is that ‘being an entrepreneur’ is now a valid career choice. In the good old days of the boom this usually meant buying and ‘flipping’ houses or apartments. Anything else was seen as too risky. Now that reality has set in, there seems to be a growing feeling amongst recent graduates, researchers and students that indeed they could be aspiring entrepreneurs. So what is holding them back?

I think there are a number of issues at play here that might stop an interested younger person to follow in the footsteps of other entrepreneurs who started in their formative years. I think that entrepreneurship is latent in a lot of people. It is a bit like the often quoted comment that there is a great novel inside everyone, but only a very small number ever actually write one. There are plenty of stories of people who fall into entrepreneurship by mistake. If Steve Jobs had not been friends with Steve Wozniak would he have become a successful technology entrepreneur?

Look at the number of startups that the core team in PayPal have created since it was sold. Many of these may not have gone down this route if they had not been early employees in the company, something you are also seeing with early Google employees and in other tech startups. If William Shockley had been a different kind of leader, would Bob Noyce have gone of with the ‘traitorous eight’ and setup Fairchild and eventually Intel? There are many reasons why people create new ventures.

So what are the issues holding people back, particularly students or graduates?

1. The idea that entrepreneurs are solo: When I delivered the first module of the pracademic programme for postdoctoral researchers in DCU, what surprised me was so many of them approached me after the class to say that they were surprised that creating a new venture was about doing it through a team and not doing it alone. For a long time we have promoted the idea that the single entrepreneur has an idea and pretty much through force of will delivers the idea to fruition. In fact most entrepreneurial startups involve at least two people. When I attended the Techstars ventures event where eleven presented to investors, it was very much a team effort. Yes, there was a CEO or leader but the teams all were involved in the pitch and there was usually two, three or four of them. Venture creation is a team sport. A bit like Bono without the rest of U2, to use an Irish example of creativity.

2. Finding the right team: Again in relation to the postdoctoral programme, there were several cases of individual researchers who had commercial ideas from research but were afraid of making the leap to startup – they were conscious of not having a financial background or a sales background or a marketing background. Part of any mentorship process has to be helping them to create a team around them so they get to spend time doing what they do best. We have started this process but there is no mechanism for matching these people together or with the outside world.

3. Advocates in the corporate world: This has been mentioned on this blog before, but many of these young entrepreneurs can learn a lot from mentors in the corporate world. Even better, these contacts can help them to get access to the same corporates which is very helpful as many of these technology startups are in the enterprise space or would make good partners for these early stage companies.

4. Making entrepreneurship ‘cool’: There are plenty of cool tech companies out there and Generation Y and those coming after them are bigger users of technology probably than any generation before them. We need to ensure that when we evangelise with the student population that we go for this angle. Making it ‘cool’ to be an entrepreneur will help entice these people from taking a corporate job.

5. Helping them get a beta client: Success breeds success, and under lean startup methodology an early client or beta test is the best way to craft a product or service offering. If researcher or student entrepreneurs can see their products being taken serious and used, even in a closed beta test, by consumers or companies, it makes it more ‘real’ for them. And will increase their incentives to stick at it. With a recent close-mentored company we enabled them to get an initial sale and a lead on a potential 6 figure follow-on selling into a group of international organisations. The first product is nearing completion and even getting to issue an invoice was enough to get them to set up a company. Cart before the horse? Perhaps, but we had enough early analysis to identify a number of product lines and identifiable markets, and nothing sells entrepreneurship like a real live sale.

  1. Kader Mula
    March 1, 2011 at 08:39

    Hi Gordon,

    Great post, I think you really nailed exactly what’s needed. Team startups are really beneficial, especially when not everyone has the whole set of skills (and connections) that will be needed. Actually I think you could consider other team members (whether formally apart of the startup or not) could include mentors, academics, VCs, or other established companies maybe in a partnership/JV model. And for sure the beta client is a massive seal of approval and motivation boost.


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