Can Anyone Learn To Be an Entrepreneur?

I just wanted something startupy on a blackboard. Someone is selling this as a poster. Seriously.

I firmly believe that almost anyone can learn to be an entrepreneur, but I’m also convinced that you can’t learn to be an entrepreneur in a classroom.

I’ve thought about entrepreneur education for years, from the very first time I joined a startup and flailed madly trying to get a lay of the land that was never going to materialize. That startup went from zero to acquisition in three years, and it was the most uncomfortable ride in the world until I figured out I’d just have to make almost everything up as I went along.

Which, I now realize, eleven startups and five exits later, is also not the answer.

But seriously, you can’t learn to be an entrepreneur in a classroom. I know this. I’ve helped teach an entrepreneur class at UNC Chapel Hill. I’ve guest-lectured both in and out of a college setting. I’ve conducted private sessions for major corporations who wanted their rank and file to “act more like a startup.”

Not that those efforts weren’t valid. They were even valuable, I hope. I’m pretty sure most people walked out of those classes with a greater understanding of entrepreneurship. But I don’t think I launched any careers that weren’t already springloaded.

I never found the sweet spot in that setting. I guess you can learn some of the nuts and bolts of startup in a classroom— the legal stuff, the financial stuff, maybe how to sling some code — but that’s left brain stuff, and I believe the vast majority of learned entrepreneurism is right brain stuff.

I’ve been trying to distill that right brain stuff into teachable chunks of content since my first company sold. I doubled down on those efforts once we started having kids, so they wouldn’t have to tread the water I had to tread. I’ve got volumes of lesson-ready matieral. But I’m still figuring out the delivery mechanism.

Can you imagine a class on leadership? I mean, I know those kinds of things exist, I’m just not sure how they keep everyone from stabbing themselves in the eyeballs before the first break. And how about motivation and persistence? Is that just a 90-minute slideshow of Successory posters set to Kenny G?

And something tells me that the decision to enroll in a decision-making class probably seals your failing grade.

I’ve been learning entrepreneurism for 20+ years, all of it by doing. And I don’t recommend that path. It sucks. It’s full of costly trial-and-error, painful mistakes, humbling failure, crippling stress, and general peerlessness.

Actually wait, I do recommend that path, to a certain extent. You have to go through most of that to truly call yourself an entrepreneur. You just shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Like everything I look at, I see the entrepreneurial journey and I want to streamline, reduce friction, and add more intelligence.

I believe you can apply those concepts to teaching entrepreneurism. But first you have to identify the right student.

I hedged a bit before when I said “almost anyone” can learn to be an entrepreneur and here’s why. Not everyone can learn to be an entrepreneur, but everyone should have a shot at it. One of the mistakes the general startup ecosystem makes is aiming its focus at a prototypical, even stereotypical, potential entrepreneur. Young, safety-netted, Type A, college graduate, nothing to lose. This is aiming way too narrow.

Young: I’ve written about this often, but the best entrepreneurs are going to be older, more experienced, have probably been through the corporate grind, and have preferably already failed at their own thing once or twice. Younger entrepreneurs seem more numerous because they’re more out in the open and they have less to lose, so they take bigger hacks. But I like taking big hacks, and I’ve got a lot to lose. The delta is all risk tolerance.

Safety-netted: I just made that term up but you got it right away, didn’t you? It’s very, very easy to tell someone to go for broke when they’re not going to end up actually broke. I’ve found that most startup education is biased towards someone who has some kind of cushion — a way to pick up all the pieces pretty easily if everything goes to hell. Most people don’t enjoy this luxury, it doesn’t mean they want it any less.

Type A: Not every successful entrepreneur is a personality machine. It just happens to be easier to find Type As because they tend to meet you more than halfway. Trust me, it’s much, much easier to hire in personality than it is to hire in visionary or a leader, because a lot of true visionaries and leaders stay relatively quiet until it’s time for some vision or leadership. Then they act pretty decisively.

College Graduate: We’re finally starting to look at entrepreneurism as an alternative to higher education, not as a way to tackle the world after higher education. There’s an elitism here that says the best entrepreneurs come from (or drop out of) Stanford and Harvard. False. Most entrepreneurs come out of large companies, those places filled with graduates from all kinds of universities. And others either never went to college at all or maybe tried a couple semesters at whatever was close by before they realized that wasn’t their path.

Nothing to Lose: Just like the lack of safety net, this implies that startup is more like a game or a lifestyle than a career. Yes, every entrepreneur needs skin in the game. Yes, to complete the high-wire-act metaphor, you need to not only be working without a safety net, you also need to be more than two or three feet in the air. But this isn’t always true. A good number of entrepreneurs are good at entrepreneurism because they already have a good work ethic. Just because you’re not starving doesn’t mean you won’t work hard.

So what are we looking for, in terms of the best kind of entrepreneurial student? I think it’s the independent. The rebel. The punk. The one for whom money and title and status don’t mean nearly as much as their mission.

If you want to be really good at identifying potential entrepreneurs, you create a system by which they can self identify. Because they will.

Anyone can be taught the left-brain stuff, but it takes a certain mindset to learn the right-brain stuff. Hell, half the time we don’t even learn from our own mistakes. I blame an education system that for about 100 years has defined success as the absence of failure.

Yeah. Think about how many times you performed in school based solely on the fear that you didn’t want to be digging ditches for the rest of your life. Think about how many times you crammed for a test not because you wanted to show off how much you learned, but you just didn’t want to fail.

That’s what they’ve been feeding you.

Entrepreneurs, even potential entrepreneurs, see things the opposite way. We perform because we’re feeding the curiosity of what that next level feels like. Whether this is inherent, born vs. made, will always invite an argument. But like I said, I think this type of entrepreneurial mindset can be learned by distilling chunks of lessons from almost every other aspect of life and placing those lessons into the startup setting, cementing the foundations of all those right brain concepts.

In fact, I also believe those right brain concepts must be learned before any of those textbook, left brain entrepreneurial concepts should be learned.

And none of that right brain learning happens in a classroom.