How can business schools capture the imagination of entrepreneurs and small business leaders ?
Ten years ago, ‘business school’ would have been an oxymoron to most entrepreneurs. Their businesses were predicated on breaking rules, whereas schools relied on embracing them.
Things could not be more different today. Entrepreneurs who are serious about creating purposeful enterprises grapple constantly with speed, scale and risk and Britain’s business schools can help with all three of these core challenges.
Earning your go-faster stripes
Entrepreneurs are in a hurry. The realisation that you have the solution to a problem that needs to be solved is like having a catchy song stuck in your head. Every waking moment is spent obsessing with how to drive your idea from concept to current account before the money runs out. Business schools can help in a few powerful yet fairly obvious ways.
Going faster during the start-up phase often involves raising seed capital and central to a successful funding round is getting a strong business plan in front of a number of active investors. Unlike other parts of the entrepreneurial journey, preparing a business plan is something that absolutely can be taught – and business schools are ideally placed to teach it. Not only does this save entrepreneurs time, it also dramatically increases their chances of success. Don’t forget, you can’t create a first impression twice, so you need to create the best chance of success when you are in front of potential investors.
Once investors are on board, the real work begins. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that social media will sell your product for you, although it might help down the line. At the outset you will need to get to the people who will buy your product. The reach of business school networks is phenomenal and leveraging them can be the difference between success and failure for a start-up.
Dream big – plan bigger
Over the last few years, we have seen the focus in the UK shift from start-up to scale-up, largely in response to the realisation that serious job creation happens beyond microbusinesses. But the harsh reality is that you cannot simply think yourself big; there is no substitute for strategic planning.
‘‘Entrepreneurs are in a hurry. The realisation that you have the solution to a problem that needs to be solved is like having a catchy song stuck in your head.’’
Strategy is actually very difficult. It is also one of the first things to be ignored during the hectic growth phase. But if entrepreneurs are to fulfil their ambitions for scale, they must commit to constantly reviewing and revising their strategic plan. Engaging with a local business school that understands the real-world of scale-ups is an ideal way to maintain this discipline.
Run the business, not the risk
The once-popular image of entrepreneurs as devil-may-care-die-hards has been partially replaced by flip-flop wearing teenagers who have been told to fail fast. Both images – and approaches – are ridiculous. We have to stop trotting out trendy new theories that failure is the new success. It isn’t. The objective is to build businesses that create jobs and generate tax revenues – it is not about wasting investors’ money and failing. Of course, failure is a constant threat (and being too timid is in itself a form of failure). And you must be tough enough to bounce back if it happens. But as all cyclists know, looking at a pothole means you are bound to ride into it.
To avoid failure, you have to recognise and respect risk. An effective way of doing this is to work with a mentor who has trodden the path before, and business schools are great marketplaces for mentors. They might be labelled differently (‘entrepreneur-in-residence’ being the most common title), but they all exist to steer you through the precarious journey from start-up to scale-up.
Business schools must keep innovating, too
Entrepreneurs and business schools have clearly found some common ground over the last decade, but the best entrepreneurs are restless and relentless.
‘’Business schools must continue to reinvent and refine their teaching and course formats if they are to remain relevant.’’
With more and more British people starting companies in their twenties, one trend that must be taken seriously is the increase in the number of younger entrepreneurs. This is both an opportunity and a threat to business schools.
It would be foolish to expect the same format of undergraduate and postgraduate courses to be appealing to would-be entrepreneurs who are limited in both funds and patience.
Business schools that are committed to flinging open their doors to entrepreneurs would do well to be just as open in their view of the course format. Lower-cost, flexible programmes with an appropriate mix of theory and real practice are likely to appeal to these young upstarts. Business schools can clearly help entrepreneurs to go faster and scale up with reduced risk. What they cannot do is provide a bullet-proof business ready for stardom: ultimately, it is the drive and tenacity of the entrepreneur that is the X-factor.
Stuart Miller is Chief Executive of ByBox and a member of the Small Business Charter Management Board.