Business development 26 April 2016

Can you teach people to be successful entrepreneurs?

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Is it possible to educate entrepreneurs to success?

Is entrepreneurship a born gift or a learned trait? Writing for Business Advice, Small Business Charter chairman and ByBox CEO Stuart Miller muses on whether its possible to educate entrepreneurs to success.

Entrepreneurs are critical to the long-term health of any economy for one simple reason – successful entrepreneurs create jobs. Given the importance of sustainable job creation, it is no surprise that the UK government has fallen in love with entrepreneurship education.

The failure rates of entrepreneurs are so eye-watering that anything we can do to improve the chances of success are worth a go. But does any of it actually work? Put simply, can you teach people to be successful entrepreneurs?

Business schools get it

Business schools are clearly optimistic that they have a role to play in shaping the future of the next billion-dollar-business. Virtually every UK business school has a course or module with the words “new venture”, “entrepreneurship” or “startup” in the title. Would-be entrepreneurs are equally enthusiastic, as evidenced by the popularity of these modules on MBA courses and the like. But what is in the curriculum and does it contain magic dust?

At first glance, the content makes a lot of sense to anybody committed to building a business from scratch. All of the basics are covered, from business planning to pitching your plan to managing cashflow. The ‘real world’ is also accommodated by providing ready access to a new breed of entrepreneurs-in-residence who are more than happy to share the pain and the glory of their start-up journey.

But what about creating the idea in the first place? Most people mistakenly believe that at the heart of every great business is a great idea. Investors typically disagree, preferring instead to back great people rather than great ideas – average people with a great idea will mess it up, whereas great people with the wrong idea will change it until it works. But even when it comes to generating and evaluating ideas, business schools have new words and courses for that too. Just enter “ideation at a business school” into a search engine and you’ll get the gist.

If most schools are offering courses with appropriate entrepreneurial content, how do young upstarts select the best place to progress their startups? Help is at hand through the Lord Young-inspired Small Business Charter (SBC).

The SBC provides the kite mark for UK business schools to validate and showcase their capabilities in the world of entrepreneurship and SMEs. Schools applying for SBC accreditation have to satisfy 30 criteria, ranging from evidencing entrepreneurially-focussed “growth programmes” to engagement with SMEs.

Is that all there is to alchemy?

So there we have it. Roll-up and enrol at an SBC-accredited business school. Go on the course, turn the handle and out pops a successful new venture and job creation machine. Sadly, it isn’t as simple as that. I’ve been fortunate to have experienced all of the areas outlined above. I did a business degree at Loughborough University, am on the board of the SBC and an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Glendonbrook Centre for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship, as well as an industry advisor at the Said Business School. I’ve been an entrepreneur for over 20 years, helping to create well over a thousand jobs. There is absolutely no doubt that business schools have a crucial role to play in increasing an entrepreneur’s chances of success. But they cannot teach the magic ingredient.

Being an entrepreneur has been likened to a number of other vocations. Personally, I can see many parallels between entrepreneurs and street photographers. Both are fundamentally creative activities. Both are rebellious and disruptive. Both are often pursued by individuals who are curious about people, the world and how it works.

And neither vocation is for the feint-hearted. Bruce Gilden is a contemporary street photographer known for committing to boundary-pushing and brilliant work. His style could be described as shoving a camera in someone’s face with the flash on and seeing what happens. He was asked recently how he overcomes the fear involved in taking these sorts of photographs. His answer is as relevant to edgy street photographers as it is for budding entrepreneurs: “you don’t overcome fear with courage; you overcome it with passion”.

Therein lies the missing link. The X-factor. The magic dust. Creating jobs by starting a business from scratch is one of the proudest things you could ever do as a human being. Generating meaningful work for other people is an incredibly satisfying achievement. And whilst business schools have a tremendously important role to play, nothing can replace the single most important part of an entrepreneur’s DNA – passion.

Stuart Miller is chairman of the Small Business Charter and CEO at supply chain management startup ByBox.

Read more from Stuart on why the UK is a brilliant place for entrepreneurs, and why we should all stop making excuses.  And, if you’re a micro business owner looking for lessons in everything from funding to recruitment, sign up for our fast approaching one-day Small Business School.

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