On (not) teaching entrepreneurship
We have a semester together, and I promise you will learn nothing from me.
It is difficult to convince a man of something
if his salary depends on him not understanding it.
— Upton Sinclair
You are either a potential registrant for one of my entrepreneurship courses at the David Eccles School of Business, or you have registered for one of my courses, have received the syllabus, and are now freaking out and trying to figure out whether to drop this course or not.
I have written this essay to try to answer two questions that might help you figure out what to do next.
Let me try to explain why (1) what one would reasonably expect to occur in an entrepreneurship course does not happen in mine; and (2) summarize some things that might happen to you (and things that will definitely not happen to you) should you decide to take the course anyway.
My day job involves teaching entrepreneurship. This poses a problem, as I do not think teaching is particularly interesting or useful in the main, and whatever manages to occur in my classroom when I am supposed to be teaching entrepreneurship looks nothing like what my colleagues all around the world claim to be doing.
My colleagues think I’m joking about not teaching — until they drop in to one of my courses. They see that my classroom is basically me presiding over a raging dumpster fire. What is puzzling is that along with the students who have paid to be there, a bizarre cast of characters—startup founders, venture capitalists, and other shady types — keep dropping in as semi-invited guests. Occasionally I will have to negotiate seating, with paying customers getting the standard classroom spots and drop-ins surrounding them. It can get crowded and a bit weird, especially since the rule is that if you show up, you show up prepared. For paying participants, its not a good look when the startup founder or investor sitting next to them has gone deep into the reading and they are trying to skate through.
I have long regarded this state of affairs with amusement and suspicion. Since I don’t take attendance, or pay much attention who is actually registered for any of my courses, it’s hard for me to distinguish between paying customers and the riff-raff. It is still not clear to me my why anyone is showing up. For a while, I thought it was the pizza. Then, my pizza budget ran out and people kept coming. So much for that hypothesis.
Then the administration told me to keep non-paying customers out, but people kept coming anyway. I tried taking attendance—once—but that took too long because there were too many people there and no one would give me a straight answer. Finally, someone in administration came up with an with an innovative workaround, moving my class from a massive lecture hall in the Warnock Engineering Building into the bowels of the Eccles School, in a 50-seat classroom, and capped attendance. People kept coming anyway.
So now I “teach” in a tiny room where people line the back of the room and sit on the floor — a fire hazard. And all along, I have been doing basically the same thing — which, as I have already said, is nothing.
I am the elementary school substitute teacher of entrepreneurship education.
So what is it that I am not doing? Or, rather, maybe I should start with what, in some alternate universe where I teachified on the regular, I might reasonably be expected to be doing in the classroom.
It would be understandable, given my previous line of work doing “entrepreneur stuff” that I might presume to instruct my students in the procedural aspects of the practice of “entrepreneuring”, having done some of it at some point, long ago. I do not do this.
My approach to instruction is not driven by my own experience. It is driven by theory. Definitely not “entrepreneurship theory”, because most of what passes as theory in entrepreneurship is really people feeling all the feels and then sprinkling on a patina of college words to lend some legitimacy.
In any case, if the conventional approach to entrepreneurship instruction had any sort of underlying theory, no one would teach it anyway. Because—as I have been informed by Business Teaching Experts™—students are either unable to apprehend, or are not interested in, theory. That’s the story anyway. On face, this seems reasonable because—again, I am told by the aforementioned well-meaning Experts—that “theory” is the last refuge of egghead professorial types who have “never done something real” and thus must theorize about what it might be like.
This point of view underpins the conventional approach to teaching entrepreneurship, one that I mock and subsequently eschew. The instructor asserts that entrepreneurship education is a thing and they can teach it; participants pretend that it is useful. At this point, we are all on rails: we talk about some random technique that worked for someone someday, add a war story, name-check and flex, and assign some homework—an artifact borne out of this season’s entrepreneurial fashion. If you are Old School, the final project is a business plan. If you are are down with the New Way, you replace that with a Business Model Canvas or a “pitch deck”. Maybe at the end of the semester groups present their ideas, and the Expert Teacher evaluates them, or—since this is easier for the Expert, someone else does the grading—you bring in an Expert Panel and have some sort of Octagon Startup Highlander-Style Bake-Off. Apps instead of swords, and there can be only one A.
OK, fine, so I run my show a little differently. But let me clarify. The point of doing something different is not just to be different. Variance is interesting insofar is it generates outsized— better—outcomes. My claim is that my perspective on entrepreneurship instruction is superior. Note I am not ecumenical, let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom here—I am saying straight up that I am better, others are worse, measured by a set of clear outcomes. And by outsized outcomes, I mean that people somehow leave my classroom at the end of a few weeks with—among other things—value-generating businesses.
I must stress that starting businesses is not the point of the course. I am certainly not teaching people to do this, nor am I encouraging them to do this. In fact, I am actively discouraging this sort of activity, as it involves thinking for yourself and doing stuff. That seems like hard work for everyone involved. If you are a participating in my course, my main message is to eat pizza, be lazy, and when in doubt, swipe left.
But despite my best effort it would seem that all manner of businesses — many of which are venture-backed, a fair number of which are quite large, and some of which have made further employment optional for their creators — somehow emerge as a byproduct of all this pizza-eating, loafing around, and left-swiping.
The problem with teaching nothing, and generating better outcomes, is that it is really tough for everyone involved here (including me) to figure out what is really going on. Can we teach entrepreneurship at all? Should we be trying? If, so, what and to whom? How can we make an impact, and what are the mechanisms at play to help generate that impact?
What is curious about entrepreneurship instruction is that all parties involved—student and instructor—get a payoff from operating conventionally despite a lack of results.
Everyone in this entrepreneurship racket — professors, book hawkers, consultants, accelerators, participants — they all have a vested interest in believing that the process of “entrepreneuring” requires instruction, and that it will somehow help.
Authority figures benefit because they can keep working, generate no results, and explain that It Iz Complicated. The entrepreneur benefits from this as well because it is an opportunity to outsource responsibility to an Old or Authority Figure who can and will tell you what to do.
My classroom—and, more broadly, the Foundry experiment—are existence proofs that hint at another way of doing things. As a life aesthetic, I tend to not argue with people who have strong feelings about how things are. I prefer cut to through all the confusion and vagueness about what works and what does not work by producing an existence proof.
This is probably the only part of my startup background that makes it into the classroom, as most great startups also happen to be existence proofs. They take some social fact and demonstrate that what “everyone thought” was correct, isn’t. “No one” will give up their privacy to share personal information on-line (Facebook). “No one” will transact with total strangers (eBay) and they mos def will not rent a room from one (Airbnb) or get in a car with one (Uber). “No one” can open a restaurant like XYZ in location ABC. Oh, and by the way — back in the day, “everyone knew” the first-generation iPod sucked and Google would never survive.
All of these objections have the same underlying argumentative structure. You cannot do X because of my Fancy Feeling Y. My classroom, the Foundry, and the other projects I produce smash a cognitive wedge between some set of made-up social facts and the apparatus hell-bent on sustaining the made-up-ness.
Entrepreneurship is action. In my view, at the earliest stages it is just not that complicated. And in the later stages it’s not that complicated either. Yeah, it’s hard. But hard is not the same as complicated. At its root, it is just disciplined thinking and aligned action. It’s not something you need to be trained to do. It is a process of remembering something you have forgotten.
Now, let’s be clear. I don’t have a firm grasp on what I am doing, even to this day. And I know that entrepreneurship research community does not, either. Frankly, no one inhabiting a business school has the foggiest idea where the roots of new value are, or what value is. What we do know is that figuring out answers to these questions is super important.
I do sort of know one thing, maybe. It is that in my courses we are tacking closer and closer to an understanding of this question, or at least how to better formulate and specify the questions that we need to answer. I also know that the best place for me to learn more about how to form these questions and then hopefully answer them is to spend time with class participants and founders — not as a teacher, but as a participant and student. I teach to learn.
Being around and participating with a community of actors is the best way I know how to understand what entrepreneurship is, and whether and how to teach it. So that is why I continue to hang around in the classroom rather pursuing an outside option like perfecting my bottom turn.
Maybe, after reading all of this, you will decide to join me. I hope so, because I bet you can help us figure it out.