Archive for December, 2010

Pursuing The Right Model: A Discussion of Entrepreneurship Centers

As part of the 2010 Conference of the Global Consortium of Entrepreneur Centers (GCEC) I was asked to participate in a stimulating panel discussion by summarizing the key points of discussion among the panelists and audience participants.  The purpose of the discussion was to explore best practices, regarding entrepreneurship center models.

The panel discussion was led by Sherry Hoskinson, Director, McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship; Co-director, Business / Law Exchange, The University of Arizona.  Panelists included:

  • Tom O’Malia, Director Emeritus, Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, University of Southern California
  • Michael Morris, Professor and N. Malone Mitchell Chair in Entrepreneurship Head, School of Entrepreneurship Spears School of Business Oklahoma State University
  • Anthony Mendes, Director, Murphy Center for Entrepreneurship, University of North Texas
  • Laura Hollis, Director, Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, University of  Notre Dame

The discussants ended up focusing on five specific topics:

  1. Red Herrings regarding peer evaluation and best practices
  2. Most pervasive obstacles to success, and ways to overcome them
  3. How to balance/manage stakeholder support to achieving center goals
  4. The value of the business plan as a tool
  5. Ideal outcomes and measures of success

Red Herrings

Centers have many decisions to make about engagement opportunities and models, collaboration, and new initiatives.  There is a great deal of attention paid to “peer practice” regarding trends across the industry.  The problem comes when centers chase red herrings—activities/initiatives that seem to be “all the rage” but, in fact, provide little return on investment.  The two red herrings that emerged in the discussion were false gurus and rankings.

There is an old saying among jazz musicians.  “If you make a mistake while improvising, do it a second time and folks will think you did it on purpose.  If you play it a third time, others will try to copy it.  While this may work for a jazz improvisation, it does not translate well to entrepreneurship centers.  Unfortunately, the entrepreneurial community has its share of “gurus” making assertions based on opinion rather than results.  Ask for evidence or stay away from them.

Reminiscent of the Senior Superlatives back in high school, where students were voted everything from most likely to succeed to best dancer, the US has become obsessed with rankings.  If you don’t agree, consider the popularity of TV shows like American Idol and Dancing With the Stars, where everyone has the opportunity to vote for their favorite.  As such administrators in higher education have also become somewhat obsessed over rankings, mostly because of the potential impact on enrollment.  While the group saw center accountability based on results as a good thing, the expressed concern was with the credibility and accountability of the ranking processes and methodologies.  Results based accountability is one thing.  A popularity contest is quite another.

Obstacles

It was agreed that institutional inertia was the most formidable enemy of entrepreneurship centers, and that it usually manifests itself in the form of committees.  Once the enemy was identified, the discussion quickly turned to the most effective ways to overcome this obstacle.  The two key takeaways from this discussion were to first, know when to engage the institution and when to act independently, and secondly to follow the very advice we often give entrepreneurs—quickly build, test, and refine (or kill) each new product, solution or initiative.  Not all ideas, activities, initiatives are the same.  Some require institutional buy-in to be implemented; others do not.  As such, the ideation, decision-making and implementation should vary accordingly.  When in doubt, it is usually more effective to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.

Balancing Stakeholder Support to Drive Results

First it is important to identify the many stakeholders associated with a university entrepreneurship center.  Start by recognizing there are internal (academics, researchers and university administrators) and external (entrepreneurs and business professionals) stakeholders.  Each has different needs and expectations and must be dealt with differently.  One way of avoiding schizophrenia in the process is to find commonalities and translate accordingly.   For example, it makes sense to establish metrics that measure and communicate ROI for your external stakeholders, since that is the language they speak.  It also makes sense to communicate external stakeholder benefits to internal stakeholders in a language that translates well to their desired outcomes.

Two additional take-aways:

  1. Regarding new programs and initiatives, it is best to take a bottoms-up approach to ideation, combined with a tops-down approach to implementation.  In other words, it is good to reach agreement on overarching goals and strategic direction with stakeholders up front, but during the implementation process, too many cooks can spoil the broth.
  2. Create multiple mechanisms to communicate with stakeholders.  Far too often, if stakeholders do not know what you are doing, they assume you are doing nothing.

The Value of the Business Plan as a Tool

There is a growing sentiment among center directors that the business plan as a tool is obsolete, and that business plan competitions’ time may have passed.  The arguments surrounding this debate are often as divisive as those surrounding healthcare reform, but I will try to provide the essence.

The business plan exemplifies the best and the worst of the current state of entrepreneurship education.  At its best, the business plan provides aspiring entrepreneurs with a framework for, and an understanding of, all the elements necessary for starting and building a venture.  The building a business plan forces discipline and provides focus—characteristics often found in successful entrepreneurs.  At its worst, it provides a teaching model that implies the process of starting and building a new venture is a linear process that looks something like:

Idea=>Research=>Fund=>Develop =>Make=>Sell=>Grow=>Exit

Anyone involved in a new venture knows, only too well, that there is nothing linear about starting and growing the venture.

As such the business planning and education process should be an inquiry process focused on de-risking key assumptions.  As one panelist put it, “Don’t tell me what you think.  Tell me what you know, and how you intend to exploit it.”

Ideal Outcomes & Measures of Success

Generally speaking, an ideal outcome is to identify student needs, meet them where they are in their understanding, and build from there.  In order to do this effectively there must be a proper balance of both academic and experiential learning opportunities for them.   To accomplish these measures of success the following desired outcomes were identified.

  1. Force accountability in rankings standards.
  2. Focus on preparing aspiring entrepreneurs with both the toolset (best practices) and the mindset (interest/passion and appreciation) necessary for success.
  3. Provide students with a multidisciplinary exposure to entrepreneurship by developing meaningful partnerships with other colleges and programs.
  4. Develop/provide the necessary resources—both academic and clinical—for students and entrepreneur that will help them navigate the entrepreneurial ecosystem effectively.

©Mark P. Loschiavo

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