Every year I contribute a portion of my time to commercializing startups which are part of a university business school / entrepreneurial program. It’s an amazing journey: nothing less than the hero or heroine’s tale (think Lord of the Rings® with intellectual property included). The collaboration between medical and engineering researchers and students, as well as mentors and professors, has more ups and downs than a Coney Island Roller Coaster.
The entrepreneurial experience ends up being a Defining Moment for the student teams.
I go about mentoring a bit differently: the CEO comes from the student team. The pitch to investors is created and delivered by the student team. Every step of the way, from value proposition to valuation, is completed by the student team in collaboration with the researchers.
Entrepreneurship is an applied science. Until you’ve walked each step along the way, you think it’s a quick A to Z process. Rather, it’s all about what happens during steps B to Y, along the commercialization pathway.
The student teams quickly find out that there is no Easy Button for Entrepreneurship and Startup Success.
At the beginning of each semester, eager students figure that if they get all the assignments completed, they will get an “A” and the startup will be awarded funding! Um, er, not so fast there.
Then comes Week 3.
That’s when the team realizes their Startup Baby isn’t so cute after all. It has warts, there may be IP issues, the founders may be at odds with one another, the venture may resemble more of a hobby than a serious endeavor, the science may be flawed, and on and on.
Student dreams of an easy button “A” go up in smoke.
At that same time, the students understand that there are real people involved in this startup. The startup wasn’t created as an exercise for class: it’s a real, living breathing business case. The livelihood, residence visas, household finances, credibility in the professional community for the founders are all caught up in the integrity of the startup.
The students have a choice to make during Week 3, and it’s a major pivot folks:
a) lose faith that they are not involved in a killer startup and resign themselves to doing a half-baked job and settle for a B- grade or worse; or
b) go “all in” because with their hard work they can salvage IP issues, business models, logistics and supply chain management, and create a silk purse out of the sow’s ear of their startup assignment.
My students haven’t failed me once.
They choose to rise to the situation. Our team decides they are “All In.” That moment defines them. They rise from the ashes of disappointment. They realize being part of a startup isn’t about role playing. They understand the emotional investment involved. They put in the extra hours and won’t take institutional “No’s” as acceptable answers.
It’s an amazing transformation. The students discover so much personal breadth and depth. They understand the naiveté in the expectations with which they first approached the class.
They walk out full-fledged entrepreneurs, ready and able to take their place within mature businesses as well as startups. Bravo!
Not everybody who graduates needs to become the CEO of a startup…. Yet. Today’s businesses can benefit from students who have pursued classes in entrepreneurship. Their entrepreneurial mojo and earned knowledge and experience are the fuel for economic recovery.
If you are thinking about who to hire in June, hire the students who have completed coursework in entrepreneurship. They understand how money walks through an organization. They’ve walked over a few hot coals along the way. I’d put my money on them! It’s my honor to work with them each year.
Babette N. Ten Haken, President of Sales Aerobics for Engineers®, LLC, catalyzes business transition, startup growth, and professional development. She works on revenue-producing collaboration strategies with non-traditional sellers, engineers, manufacturers, and technical startups.