Does education for entrepreneurs miss the mark?

Education, education, education...

Perspectives vary as to the role of formal education – particularly business education – in the entrepreneur’s journey. Champions of the path trodden by the likes of Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg might play down its significance. However, they miss the point that Branson and Zuckerberg both benefited from the know-how built into the ecosystem that helped them launch their venture.

Most entrepreneurs lack access to such ecosystems. For them, it is simply not viable to start a business, or grow one into a sustainable commercial proposition, without some formal learning about the processes and structures that lay the foundations for success.

Back to basics

One lesson all entrepreneurs will learn is the necessity of returning to the drawing board. Not only are their mission, model, and modus operandi in a perpetual state of revision, but technological shifts and changes in market dynamics are constantly shifting the goalposts too. For first time founders in particular, but also for those with more extensive experience of launching their own venture, this turbulent ride can be confusing at best and daunting at worst.

The ever increasing wealth of freely available online resources – from Wikipedia summaries and YouTube tutorials to highly specialist podcasts – has facilitated a problem solving approach for entrepreneurs, whereby it’s often more important to know where to find an answer when you need it than it is to have that knowledge all the time. But with a seemingly bottomless well of content created by an expanding army of ‘expert’ contributors and influencers, combined with the rapid pace of change that often quickly renders content obsolete differing views and – dare I say it – fake news, question marks hang over much of this easily accessible information.

How easy is finding relevant information online?

There is so much information available to entrepreneurs that the volume can be overwhelming and the quality wildly variable. Entrepreneurs find that it can be difficult to know which sources to trust, and impractical to sift through it all to locate the right advice at the right time for tackling a given situation.

This is a problem that forward thinking business schools are increasingly attempting to address. For some, entrepreneurship and business education have never been natural bedfellows. They might question how credibly schools can teach the ‘spirit’ of entrepreneurship, or they might simply have difficulty placing the college dropout stereotype within the context of an established business school. Indeed, entrepreneurship is still not the most common career path globally for MBA graduates, but what we have been seeing over the past few years is its growth as an alternative to the corporate or consultancy routes traditionally favoured by business school graduates.

For many, jobs in big companies no longer represent the golden ticket they once did. In fact, increasing numbers of those pursuing degrees in subject areas such as business, engineering, and science are seduced by the huge gains that stand to be reaped by founding – or joining – a disruptive venture. The independent lifestyle, the freedom to innovate and make a difference, as cliché as it might sound to the traditionalists, are common motivations for entering this domain, especially among younger students.

Overcoming exclusivity in business education

Naturally, the full business school experience is closed off from a huge number of those who might be interested by prohibitive academic admissions requirements and course fees. There is something fundamentally wrong with this. Entrepreneurialism is supposed to be a democratic route, an option open to all.

Some schools, including Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB), have turned to alternative course formats – notably Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), but also other distance learning platforms – to open the doors to more potential learners. However, these provide only a partial solution. The reach of valuable tools and teaching material is still limited to those who can commit to completing a specific course for a formal qualification. Not all aspiring or emerging entrepreneurs need this; many simply need just-in-time guidance on specific issues as and when they encounter difficulty.

Intensive, non-degree entrepreneurship education is also available – but again these types of courses require significant and concentrated time investment. Recently, I met with a multitude of students, GSB alumni, and entrepreneurs around the US and globally to find out more about this demographic’s unique needs. What I learned was that early stage business owners need guidance in their entrepreneurial journey, find it hard to stay motivated and often wildly underestimate how many times they will be required to return to the drawing board. It’s clear that business schools around the world need to be listening and evolving to provide access to relevant problem solving materials to as many people as possible, especially given the recent boom in entrepreneurship.

The most important lessons

Particular areas of interest for entrepreneurs looking for this kind of just-in-time learning include identifying their customers and understanding their needs, developing and testing prototypes, creating value propositions, defining go-to-market strategies, determining the right profit model and learning from other entrepreneurs how they addressed these issues. In the two to four years it typically takes to launch a venture, it’s likely that founders will struggle with all of these challenges multiple times. It is not unusual for an entrepreneur to revisit these issues every two to three months and seek guidance from other entrepreneurs.

This is why I joined forces with my Stanford GSB colleagues Jim Lattin and Baba Shiv to develop Stanford’s latest offering, Embark, a subscription based offering that combines frameworks and insights from our unique position in Silicon Valley with tactical steps necessary to launching or validating a sustainable business. The platform provides video advice from dozens of entrepreneurs about how to use these frameworks and is designed to support thousands of members. We plan to continue learning and growing this offering as we interact more and more with this community. In our opinion, the platform is just as much a living organism as a new venture from one of the entrepreneurs that will use it.

The future of teaching entrepreneurship must be aimed at a wider audience, without academic requirements or long-term commitment to a fixed curriculum or qualification, simply providing just-in-time, all-you-can-eat access to tools and content from a trusted source, enabling entrepreneurs to self teach their way to validating, launching, and growing their own business. If business schools do not start to provide these types of services, it is likely that they will quickly fall behind.

Stefanos Zenios is Co-Director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business