These days, colleges and universities are designing programs specifically for undergrads eager to learn how to launch companies — in fact, classes teaching startup skills are in demand and becoming a must-have for any school worth its salt.
According to Scott Petersen, managing director for Brigham Young University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, students today are thinking about life after graduation, and feel entrepreneurship skills will assist them in whatever careers they pursue. “The genesis of this new wave, so to speak, came with the crushing blow of the cratering of the economy of 2008 and 2009, and the prolonged inability of people to go out and get meaningful jobs.” Schools that do not offer entrepreneurship programs, Petersen says, will find themselves under pressure to develop them.
Forbes spoke with a few educators teaching the basics of entrepreneurship at U.S. colleges and asked them what, exactly, nooby startup founders need to learn in order to be successful. Here’s what they had to say…
Think like an entrepreneur
Making money means identifying a market, and Brigham Young’s program teaches that first. “(students) have to learn how to observe and evaluate what’s currently being done and what are the holes and gaps in those services,” says Petersen. “How would they innovate and change and offer something that’s unique and distinct?”
“The main thing that I am trying to teach here… is entrepreneurial thinking,” says Melissa Crounse, of Northwestern University’s newest entrepreneurship space, The Garage. “What I fundamentally believe is that regardless of what these students go on to be – a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a journalist – those skills that you learn, like creative problem solving and how to pitch your idea and how to take action on something, will serve them well in any job that they do and are in fact a critical skill for the future.”
Crounse, who only just took the reins at The Garage, brings a decade’s worth of experience from Silicon Valley, where she worked within organizations like IBM, Google, YouTube and Brit + Co., before cofounding her own enterprise—content-creation firm, Storylark. The Garage, an 11,000 square-foot facility, allows students access to workstations, office equipment, coworking space, prototyping software, 3D printers and even snacks. “It’s very collaborative in nature,” says Crounse. “It’s a place where we want students to feel that they can tinker with an idea or build a prototype and even, ultimately, fail. And we want that to be OK.”
Hiring a team and finding a cofounder will be some of the most important decisions an entrepreneur makes, says Crounse. “I believe that picking your cofounder is as important as picking your spouse. This is someone that you’re going to spend an incredible amount of time with, you’re going to build a business with—you’re going to share a bank account with them. You’re going to have good times, you’re going to have bad times and picking someone that you want to go through all of that with is critical. I’m not sure everyone gets that.”
Learn to pitch
Pitching is a big part of communicating your vision when you start a business, as well as raising capital. Young, would-be entrepreneurs need to learn how it’s done, says Crounse, and that means being concise. “So often, when you are working on a startup or an idea, you’re so far in the weeds that you get caught up in the details when trying to explain it to someone.”
The difference between an idea and an opportunity
It’s an important distinction, and one new entrepreneurs need to understand quickly. “A lot of people have ideas for businesses,” says Prof. Caroline Daniels, of Babson University, a school named the most entrepreneurial for undergrads last year by The Princeton Review. “But what we teach them is that an opportunity, to be viable, really has to have some structure to it in terms of, is there a market? Who is their customer? Can they deliver something of value to the customer?”
The Babson program puts students through its Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship course, which allows them to form teams and build small businesses. Each team receives $3,000 to $3,500 (which is eventually paid back) to launch their companies. Any profits wind up in the hands of charities, but students keep the experience.
What you care about
“The millennials really, really care about creating social value,” says Daniels. “In other words, what is the product or service I am providing and is it really of value?” In this thought process, young entrepreneurs also find that they question whether their products have an impact on the customer or, sometimes, the environment. Seeing the new enterprise as a mission beyond just making money allows young entrepreneurs to use the passion they feel for their companies as fuel for their efforts.
Before you create a big success, try creating a small one, says Daniels. Finding out whether customers are willing to pay for your product is really the first question entrepreneurs must be able to answer. “Make an investment in early experiments so that you find out if it’s going to work or not. That experimental phase – building the prototype and testing it with customers – is really essential.”
Early stage toil to verify a product has a market can slightly slow a launch, but could save time in the long run, says Daniels. “They learn where to focus and then make the effort, rather than getting something out in the market and thinking, ‘oops, time to redo.’”
Failure is good, sometimes
As many entrepreneurs will testify, failure and the lessons it imparts can be some of the most informative experiences that a business founder can accrue. One of the great things about learning startup skills in the controlled environment of an educational curriculum is that it allows students to avoid the soul-crushing fiascos that, in a larger business world, might send them into an unrecoverable shame-spiral. Says Daniels: “If you do the experiments and fail early and often, the likelihood that you’re going to fail big at one time is less.”
Numbers can be your friend
Heading up a business requires more than just dressing in a black turtleneck and coming up with brilliant ideas while pressing your thumb to your chin—it helps if you can read the numbers. Not everyone is going to be a genius of corporate finance, says Daniels, but Babson’s curriculum teaches students how to get a handle on money going out and coming in. “Once you’re building sales and you see your own costs, the numbers stop being an academic exercise and start to tell a story.”
Mitigate risks as you learn
To learn how to make it in the real world, it can’t hurt to practice in a fake one, says Dr. Thomas Lyons, chair of Baruch College’s Lawrence N. Field Center for Entrepreneurship. Baruch’s program puts students through its “awareness, simulation and incubation program,” which includes having students form a company and test their skills on a virtual, online economy using gaming tech. “It recreates a virtual credit system and other aspects of an economy so that when students do take their ideas out there and create a virtual business, they’re doing it in a simulated environment.”
You can probably teach entrepreneurship, as long as you get out of the classroom
“When entrepreneurship first became a field, the predominant theory was that entrepreneurs were born to be entrepreneurs; that they have innate traits or characteristics that make them successful,” says Lyons. “However, research has debunked that largely—nobody can find a single trait that is true across all entrepreneurs. So we’ve actually migrated from finding people who could be successful entrepreneurs and helping them, to actually developing entrepreneurs.”
It could be, though, that entrepreneurs learn differently or process information differently or in a different order, Lyons explained, and emotional intelligence could also be a factor in determining who has the Steve Jobs gene. Research into those possibilities is ongoing. What is accepted is that educators must place students in environments in which they can get their hands dirty. “You can’t just lecture about entrepreneurship,” says Lyons. “You have to give people opportunities to practice it and you have to have exercises or real-world situations. You have to let them shadow successful entrepreneurs.”
BYU’s Petersen makes access to mentors an integral part of his school’s program. “For universities to be relevant, in my view…, they have to have a combination of academic learning and experiential learning,” he says. “Entrepreneurship, at its roots, is experiential learning.”