Bill Aulet on “What I’ve Learned About Teaching Entrepreneurship”

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This post is an excerpt from USASBE’s Annuals of Entrepreneurship Education and Pedagogy, Vol. III, edited by Charles Matthews and Eric Liguori.

I have had the great honor and fortune to teach entrepreneurship for over a decade at MIT, and it has been a journey of continuous learning and improvement. While I could write books on what I have learned about how to teach entrepreneurship, here is a selection of 13 key lessons learned that I encourage you to consider incorporating into your teaching strategies.

1. Define your terms. I’m an engineer by training, so I was taught that the first rule before solving a problem is to define your terms. This is excellent advice here as well. What do we mean by entrepreneurship? What is the difference between SME (Small & Medium Enterprise) and IDE (Innovation-Driven Enterprise) entrepreneurship? What is innovation? What’s the difference between entrepreneurship and innovation, and why does that matter? These differences matter, and too many people treat entrepreneurship as a catch-all term or as a single-minded focus on billion-dollar ‘unicorn’ startups. The problem is that if you don’t define entrepreneurship, you can’t define your learning, and hence, your teaching objectives. Hint: At MIT, we believe entrepreneurship is about more than just startups.

2. Understand your mission and don’t get distracted. Beyond the individuals who alone or with others are engaged in driving entrepreneurship, there are three major groups play a key role: 1) Economic development organizations (e.g., publicly funded regional development initiatives); 2) Investment organizations (e.g., venture capital and angel investor groups); and 3) Academic institutions (e.g., colleges, universities, and academic centers). Each is important and has different objectives. Economic development organizations have the goal to produce a large number of companies. Investment organizations’ success metric is ownership percentage in companies that grow to become valuable companies and provide a very attractive return on investment. Academic institutions should be focused on creating entrepreneurs by educating them on how to succeed in entrepreneurship. Blurring the lines between these three categories is very tempting and easy to do but in the long term it is extremely destructive. In particular, by having academic institutions take on the roles of creating companies or investing in companies, makes academic entrepreneurship education dramatically less effective.

Incentives almost immediately are at cross purposes and the students figure this out quickly. Do the students look at us as educators who are there for their personal development or are we investors who have a vested interest in a positive outcome? Should they be open and honest with us or should they try to impress us so they get us as investors? What happens to those we do not invest in, what signal does that send to the broader market? The moment we are something other than 100% educators is the day we lose our “honest broker” uniqueness relative to the first two organizations. Being an honest broker educator to me means that we are always completely looking out for our students’ best interests. Measuring our success by the number of companies we prod our students to start is not the right metric. We should determine what constitutes success in entrepreneurship education, and then assess our success in teaching those elements. Vanity metrics like companies started, money raised by companies, jobs created, awards won and the like can distract us from our unique mission.

3. Entrepreneurship can be learned. Historically, there has been a widespread perception that entrepreneurship success is nature rather than nurture. In fact, I believed this when I first started teaching. My friend and mentor, MIT Professor Ed Roberts, showed me data that demonstrates the more times a person engages in an entrepreneurship venture, the more likely they are to be successful. As I thought about this, it became more obvious that this is true. Having been a serial entrepreneur, I knew much more the second time around than the first and even more the third time, because I learned so much each time I went through the process. We get better over time in most things in life, so why should entrepreneurship be different? It isn’t. The data do not lie. The question then becomes, can we teach it? As my other lessons demonstrate, I believe that we can.

4. Entrepreneurship is a craft. A breakthrough for me was properly framing entrepreneurship. Part of the frustration people have in thinking about entrepreneurship education is that they want the field to be a “science” i.e., deterministic. That is, if we do A and B and C, we will get outcome D. That is not how entrepreneurship works. If we do A, B and C, our odds of getting outcome D increases significantly, but the outcome is not assured. This frustrates all of us and makes our problem much harder, but it is the reality. This does not mean entrepreneurship is an “art” that is abstract and success comes only to a gifted few. Entrepreneurship is a “craft” which means it is accessible (something that everyone can do) and yet it produces unique products. It is also learnable because there are fundamental concepts that increase your odds of success. Like a craft, it should be taught in an apprenticeship model where the theory (fundamental concepts) is applied through practical application to convert knowledge into capability. This mental model helps educators and students understand what to expect on their entrepreneurship education journey.

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The sciences are well-defined and deterministic; art is the opposite. Entrepreneurship is a craft that sits between these two ends of the spectrum. Illustration credit: Marius Ursache

5. Entrepreneurship is not a spectator sport. A clear derivative of the statement above is that our entrepreneurship education offerings should be focused more on doing than leaning back, listening, and reflecting. Hands-on work and achieving results is one of the key tenets of an entrepreneur.

6. Entrepreneurship is a team sport. Research by numerous academics like Professor Roberts and USC Professor Noam Wasserman have shown that the odds of success are materially higher if you have a team of founders than if you have an individual founder. People focus way too much on having a “brilliant” idea, but pay much less attention to the strength of their founding team. That’s why a big part of our teaching methods involve having students work in teams on their projects so that they learn how to do so effectively. They must also learn how to make the tough decisions to add and remove members from their team.

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The team is the most important factor in the success of an entrepreneurship initiative. Illustration credit: Marius Ursache

7. Spirit of a pirate. Entrepreneurship is all about doing something that has never been done or in a way that has not been done before, so entrepreneurs have to be willing to be different and venture into new areas. If all the fish are swimming one way, entrepreneurs must not only be willing to swim in the other direction, they should also enjoy swimming in the other direction. For an entrepreneur, it all starts with the first of our four H’s — Heart. The “spirit of a pirate” includes not just a willingness to be different, but also an understanding of the difficult journey ahead, as well as the belief that success is still possible at the end of this journey — and that it is well worth the effort. In the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, we live up to the Steve Jobs quote, “It is more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy,” and we even incorporate the spirit of the pirate into our center’s logo!

Capturing and reinforcing the entrepreneurial spirit every day through our logo. Illustration Credit: Marius Ursache

8. Implementation skills of a Navy Seal. Once our students understand entrepreneurship and are excited and confident about it, we cannot send them into battle without proper training. That is the essence of our next two H’s, the Head and the Hands. We must teach our students the first principles and knowledge that will optimize their chances of success — this is the “Head.” Some of those principles (consolidated from many sources) are documented in the Disciplined Entrepreneurship [1] books I have written and we use in our classroom. We then must create projects where students learn by doing, allowing them to translate their knowledge into capability — the “Hands.” This combination of theory and practice is essential because it reinforces and deepens both the theory and the practice. This creates the excellence in execution skills that is required to do something that has never been done before with minimal resources.

9. Entrepreneurship education is in its infancy. We have to recognize that entrepreneurship education is relatively new compared to other disciplines such as law and medicine, as well as other business areas such as finance, accounting, strategy, and organizational design. As a result, there is not a large, mature, rigorously curated body of knowledge in the field and our knowledge is rapidly evolving. This has created a situation where demand far outstrips the supply of rigorous, high-quality entrepreneurship education. We must avoid filling this gap with less than rigorous “storytelling,” [2] which at times assumes that assembling successful entrepreneurs in front of students so that they can spout platitudes about working hard is sufficient to prepare them for the great challenges of entrepreneurship. Storytelling has a role in fostering spirit within potential entrepreneurs, but is not a substitute for teaching rigorous fundamentals. It is also critically important that in such a dynamic evolving field, we as educators stay current with the latest developments.

10. Systems thinking is essential. I cringe when I hear simple solutions to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is a complicated multi-faceted challenge which requires a systems thinking approach rather than a linear mindset. We have to constantly look for connections and relationship between the different parts of the system. We also have to understand that there will most likely be a time delay between an action and the full effects of that action. This is daunting when teaching because it makes it difficult to assess the success of any one program. Systems thinking is the only way to create the high-quality entrepreneurs we need for the future.

11. An open system with a common language is the best way to scale. The collective wisdom of the group is always greater than that of any one individual. Entrepreneurship knowledge will not come from any one person, institution or country. We all have to work together to build a body of knowledge that everyone can contribute to if we really want to create a discipline that is respected by academics, practitioners, and students. We frame our educational approach using the metaphor of a toolbox, and we constantly incorporate tools from many sources if they are appropriate for our students. The new tools are curated and integrated with the existing ones. When new concepts are proven worthy, we can easily incorporate them without throwing out all the previous good work we have done. Instead we build off what has come before and continually improve each tool and the overall toolbox, and then we share the toolbox with the rest of the entrepreneurship community through books and articles, workshops, and many other ways.

12. The 4th H — “Home” — is most often overlooked. The role of community is most often overlooked and not yet well codified into our educational efforts. This is the fourth and final “H” which stands for Home, or the ability to build and be a productive member of vibrant and sustainable communities. The godfather of entrepreneurship studies at Harvard Business School, Professor Howard Stevenson, famously defined entrepreneurship as “the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled”[3] — the key point being entrepreneurs have to be able to creatively marshal resources they do not currently control, including knowledge, networks, and emotional support. Entrepreneurs do not have the luxury of big companies that have considerable resources under one roof. Entrepreneurs have to be efficient and embrace decentralization. They need to have a core set of skills, but build community with other entrepreneurs and partners both to ensure the success of their individual companies, and of the community of entrepreneurs as a whole. Anyone who has worked with me knows my favorite quote, from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book: “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” Each entrepreneur has to be strong in their own right, but the “pack” makes them so much stronger and they can achieve so much more.

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The 4H’s that form the central themes of our educational efforts. Illustration credit: Marius Ursache

13. Have fun when teaching. This point might seem trite, but having a sense of self-deprecating humor and humility is important for entrepreneurs. While entrepreneurs must take the job of creating a business very seriously (it is hard and important work), they can’t take themselves too seriously. Failure is part of the entrepreneurship process and if they take themselves too seriously, not only will they not survive, but their organization won’t either. As instructors, we teach by our actions at least as much as with our words. So when teaching, let’s not take ourselves too seriously, but let us take our responsibility of teaching very, very seriously. Enjoy the good times and teach our students how to celebrate them as a team, because there are always lots of bumps in the road on the entrepreneurial journey, and we all need to keep our spirits up to survive and thrive.

William Aulet is the Managing Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and Professor of Practice in the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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References

Bill Aulet and Fiona Murray, “A Tale of Two Entrepreneurs: Understanding Differences in the Types of Entrepreneurship in the Economy” published by the Kauffman Foundation, May 2, 2013 — https://www.kauffman.org/what-we-do/research/2013/05/a-tale-of-two-entrepreneurs-understanding-differences-in-the-types-of-entrepreneurship-in-the-economy

“Cutting Your Teeth: Learning from Entrepreneurial Experiences”, Charles Eesley and Edward Roberts, SSRN-id909615, 12–16–10.

Bill Aulet, “Entrepreneurship Is a Craft and Here’s Why That’s Important”. Sloan Management Review, July 12, 2017 — https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/entrepreneurship-is-a-craft-heres-why-thats-important/

Noam Wasserman, “The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup”. Princeton University Press. 2013.

Bill Aulet, “The Most Overrated Things in Entrepreneurship”. The Sloan Experts Blog. December 17, 2015 — http://mitsloanexperts.mit.edu/the-most-overrated-thing-in-entrepreneurship/

Much credit goes to Professor Steve Gedeon of Ryerson University from which the 4H model emanated, building off his 3H model which we have discussed over the years in highly productive discussions about assessment. The four H’s are in order, Heart, Head, Hand and Home.

Bill Aulet, “Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup”. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2013, and

Bill Aulet, “Disciplined Entrepreneurship Workbook”. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2017.

Bill Aulet, “Teaching Entrepreneurship Is in the Startup Phase: Students are clamoring for instruction, but it’s hard. There are no algorithms for success”. Wall Street Journal. September 11, 2013 — https://www.wsj.com/articles/teaching-entrepreneurship-is-in-the-startup-phase-1378942182 .

Stevenson, H.H. (1983), “A Perspective on Entrepreneurship.” Harvard Business School Working Paper #9–384–131.

USASBE is an inclusive community advancing entrepreneurship education through bold teaching, scholarship, and practice. Learn more at www.USASBE.org.

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