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How Do You Teach Entrepreneurship?

Some can do, and some can teach. The lucky few can do both.

Entrepreneurship, like many other general categories, is difficult to define, and certainly difficult to teach. I learned some time ago that just because you may be good at something, doesn’t necessarily mean you can teach it.

I learned this while trying to teach my youngest son how to ski. I can ski well, but I was not seeing success with teaching him how to ski, and it was making for a miserable day for both of us. That is, until my daughter took him and, within one run, had him still skiing significantly better than I had after suffering all day.

Now, of course, I made the argument that it was my compound teaching that finally broke through, even though I knew it wasn’t. It was really because she could ski and could teach skiing. I could just ski.

It is the same thing with entrepreneurship. Some can be entrepreneurs and some can teach and mentor entrepreneurs.

On that matter, I’m actually better at teaching entrepreneurship than I am at teaching skiing; that is something that I can both do and teach. I’m often asked to sit on the board of directors, or to mentor (off on the side) the CEO, the founder or the management team of an entrepreneurial startup. I’m happy to do that. But I’ve learned over the years, and I’ve paid some significant tuition to learn, that there are general principles applicable to teaching entrepreneurship, defining it, and being a mentor to an entrepreneur.

This was brought to my recollection recently when I was at this same son’s science fair. A chemistry teacher who was responsible for the fair gave some remarks at the beginning, which included the general rules he has for his class. Two stuck out.

Number one: Don’t lick anything.

We all laughed. But he was serious — more often than not, people (and not just kids) stir a solution with their pencil, put the pencil down, and later just mindlessly chew on the pencil.

I thought to myself, what a great, general rule that, in specific situations, has a huge benefit. And the specifics can be applied in all sorts of different ways.

Rule number two in his classroom is hot glass looks exactly the same as cold glass.

And yes, it definitely does. But if you think of the specific application of that rule, all sorts of broken glass, burnt fingers, yells and screams of pain can be avoided when you apply that very specific, but widely applicable rule, in all sorts of different applications.

Same thing with entrepreneurship. Same thing with teaching and mentoring entrepreneurs.

So I’ve developed a handful of rules that are universally applicable and useful in specific situations for entrepreneurs.

The usefulness of any rule, however, is in its ability to morph or translate into specific circumstances for which they apply and for which they can add value. Here are my general rules and in some cases, a drill down on their application based on some personal experiences.

Rule number one, and the most important: entrepreneurship, (if you’re looking to build a business) is all about generating cash.

Now, in the early stages, it’s about minimizing cash outflows while you use the runway provided by your investors or your own resources to build a foundation and to eventually reach a breakeven point and profitability.

You have to think of your business as an entity, a living organism whose sole job it is to produce cash. It has no other purpose. Cash is how you pay back your investors. Cash is how you pay your employees. Yes, you can do stock options and warrants and all sorts of other tricky things, but those are all future events. People can’t pay their rent, or buy their groceries with future potential events. They buy it with the cash that you pay them with every two weeks.

Don’t get blinded by shiny INC 500 highlights, speaking events, accolades, or press releases. Never believe your own press releases. Don’t lose sight of the fact that your business is there to generate cash. That’s the best thing for all of the stakeholders — employees and customers included.

Number two: Stay out of the details.

In mentoring entrepreneurs, there’s a fine balance between keeping focused on the big picture, and being involved in the details. The devil is always in the details, and you have to bounce between the two, sometimes spending very little time in between.

There’s a danger here, which speaks to another rule: you need to learn how to let go.

The last thing you want to do is hire good, competent people, and then engage in a daily tug-of-war with them. The opportunity cost of you spending your time working on things of minor importance, when you’ve employed (and are paying with cash, your limited resource) someone else to do it, is huge. Any time that you spend, any thought you apply, any emotional energy you expend, on doing something that you’ve paid someone else to do could be better used elsewhere.

Usually the things you should let go are the details. Where there is a process designed to make sure the details are handled systemically, don’t jump in the middle of it. What you don’t let go of is the big picture.

At the end of the day, your job is to sell the vision and to keep the team focused on the vision. Then over time, you slowly let go of the details, not just in concept, but emotionally as well. You hand it off to people that you’ve specifically hired to do it. Can you think of anything more frustrating and frankly, more foolish, than as your business grows, you employ someone to do ABC and then forever you’re circling back around and doing ABC for them?

The final rule, when you’re seeking to find or become a mentor, or improve your company’s most valuable asset (yourself), is to look for the good general rules, and transform them to apply in specifics.

For example: yes, my general rule is cash is priority one. Well, what does that mean for me and my business? What adjustments do I need to make? What priorities do I need to reset?

Work in the specifics, not in generalities.

That’s the process of entrepreneurship, there are very few specific rules that anyone can give you that will translate perfectly from one company to the next.

The challenge for you as the person in charge is to take those general principles, the generality that mentors and motivational speakers provide and translate those generalities into a specific action item.

I’m a big believer in the following quote:

“I teach the people correct principles and I let them govern themselves.”

That’s particularly true in entrepreneurship, where you have more to do than you have time, and relying on your team is critical.

Look at the general principles, the guiding principles for entrepreneurship, for your industry, for your startup corporation. Adapt them to your circumstance. Do that with a mentor, do it as a mentor. That’s where the value of mentorship comes in. That’s where you can add great value.

Entrepreneurship, fundamentally, is about taking a great idea that will fill a perceived need in the marketplace and setting about efficiently filling it.

That’s how you receive good mentorship. That’s how you become a good mentor. That is what entrepreneurship is all about.

Aaron Webber is a serial entrepreneur and CEO of Webber Investments LLC, as well as a Managing Partner at Madison Wall Agencies.

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Aaron Webber

Aaron Webber

Chairman and CEO, Webber Investments. Partner at Idea Booth/BGO.

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