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What Colleges Should Teach When They Teach Startup Entrepreneurship

What Colleges Should Teach When They Teach Startup Entrepreneurship

Professors Need To Understand Entrepreneurship In Practice In Order To Teach It

Entrepreneurship has become a very hot and exciting area. All students these days seem to want to start startups, given the fact that the IT giants are laying off engineers and there is no job security anymore. Also, the value startups can add to the economy, there is a lot of support for the Indian startup ecosystem from the government as well, which is happy to fund startup incubators and accelerators to kick start and catalyse the system.

The naive belief is that just like any other skill, entrepreneurship too can be taught – and who better to do the teaching as compared to the IIT and IIM professors – after all, aren’t they world-class? After all, if Stanford University can do it, then why can’t we?

This is why a lot of universities are starting entrepreneurship courses for their students. While the US model is great to emulate, because professors will actually back their students by investing in them, the sad truth is that Indian professors are a completely different breed (with a few notable exceptions such as Professor Anil Gupta of IIM-A who are the outliers and stand out because they are so different from their colleagues).

Most professors in these institutions are academic and inbred. They live in their own little ivory towers and know all the answers. They think of this as just another course to teach, and are happy to regurgitate the theory they absorb from textbooks and blogs. However, they don’t have any real understanding of the startup system, because they have never taken a risk in their own life. They don’t understand the trials and tribulations of being an entrepreneur and are not able to prepare their students to become successful entrepreneurs because they have no first-hand experience of how chaotic and fragile a startup is.

Learning Entrepreneurship On The Job Is Expensive

Using them as faculty to teach students entrepreneurship is a bit like the lame leading the blind! It often messes up things completely, because while they may be good at being able to teach the theory of entrepreneurship, translating this into real life requires a completely different set of skills.

One way of fixing the problem is by getting these professors to put their money where their mouth is. Only those who are willing to invest some of their own hard earned money in the startups will be allowed to teach the course, because this is far more likely to increase the chances of the founder’s being successful! It’s also important that they invite real life entrepreneurs to participate as guest faculty in these courses, just like Stanford does.

My worry today is that a lot of the stuff which they teach maybe great as far as theory is concerned, but has no bearing with the real life problems founders will need to tackle. Learning on the job can be expensive! These courses may actually cause more failures partly because they present a very rosy picture of what entrepreneurship is and what they teach is based on what foreign authors write about the startup ecosystem in other parts of the world. This has very little bearing with what’s actually happening in India today, so that students who may think they are “qualified” to become entrepreneurs because they have graduated from this course, will mess up royally when they actually start up and will have no one to fall back on.

I requested Sourish Dasgupta, co-founder, Rygbee (Assistant Professor on leave at DA-IICT, Gandhinagar) – to provide his opinion, and this is the critique he kindly offered.

What Needs To Change When Colleges Teach Entrepreneurship

“Overall, the essay captures the most important fallacies of entrepreneurship courses. I guess the intention was not to cover university eCells as well (or was it?). However, there are several key comments that I would like to make:

  • After being in DA-IICT for almost 6 years now, and being one of the rare species of faculties who mix significantly more with the students than with their colleagues, I can tell you that the primary reason for the startup craze in premier institutes is not the job crunch. There are several other wrong reasons for which one enrolls in such a course or joins a university eCell to play a “startup game” for a couple of years.
  • Being a “CEO/CTO” and being called a co-founder is cool. Girls love it and if I am a girl then it’s a very strong statement to make to the boys!
  • Startups can make me a multi-millionaire within the next 3 years (if not billionaire)
  • I get total freedom and am not answerable to seniors (or anyone for that matter).
  • Raising money is not going to be tough. We will have a dollar bath.
  • Lots of booze parties, fun trips, fancy offices….
  • Media attention and being the hero of the campus.

You have truly identified that what applies to Silicon Valley just don’t work in the Indian ecosystem (at least it’s still not that mature for that). Some of the YC or Techstars “desired characteristics” that will quite counter-intuitively fall flat on most occasions are:

It’s great if founders are year-long buddies: This is usually extremely detrimental to most Indian college startups. Too much of emotional dependency, lack of holding each other responsible in a professional way, and the tendency to think “negatively” alike kicks in, which often is not great. In startup courses, such potential dangers are usually not talked about as it all begins very gaga.

Launch fast: This is often misunderstood by students. They do not do their homework properly in terms of the real need of the users, and if that need exists then whether they will be willing to pay for it. Usually they want to do a startup (for all the above wrong reasons) and then they rack their brains trying to come up with an idea. It’s not a pain that they are genuinely passionate to solve, not as a startup to begin with but just as a project. And, that can be disastrous since more often than not that would imply they have no idea how the market behaves.

Most courses have to be generic, not much can be done about that, and the specific one-to-one mentoring that Techstars does (by the way, that’s the reason why they only take 10 divine chosen ones!) is always going to be missing. Every startup has its own unique DNA – it usually stems from the team dynamics.

Lean Startup: You may have a full two-week lecture series on what Eric Ries has to say but it may not be useful to these college kids. This is because of the very fact that they are “college” students who have a whole set of curriculum AND extra-curriculum to deal with. These kids are still not sure what they really want to do, and are highly susceptible to “knee jerks,” being totally unknown to the specifics of the roller-coaster ride that is coming up. As Paul Graham (YCombinator founder) rightly mentioned in a lecture at Stanford, you are either doing backpacking in Thailand while being a student, or you are doing a startup and are NOT in school any more.

 What Should Colleges Teach When They Teach Entrepreneurship

I agree that most professors like to live in their own ivory towers. However, the “know it all” facade is usually towards students (not among peers). But again, that really does not help much specifically because they are not receptive to tough questions that demand research and study on their part. Prompt answers are usually the norm in these sessions and that can be either disastrous or over simplification/generalization or many times reiterating the obvious.

Definitely the faculty has not taken entrepreneurial risks in their lives and they cannot be blamed for that since that’s not what they have signed up for in life. Some of the ambitious ones do take other kind of risks though – more related towards their own research projects. Some other take risks related to internal bureaucratic politics.

But a sharp, intelligent observer who keeps oneself updated all the time should be able to behave like the “shark mentor” smelling the potential pitfalls way ahead and helping the students out. Unfortunately, that’s a rarely seen engagement in Indian campuses.

Putting the professor’s money at stake may not be a good idea. As you are aware of (and have also started a thread on the topic recently on LinkedIn), there are so many angel investors who are really not qualified to be a mentor. The most important issues that I see are: lack of time, lack of resources to conduct due diligence not just at the onset of investment but also to keep track of the growth metrics, & extreme ROI orientation. And these 3 issues will be even more predominant among “rich professors” (a rarity by themselves). So I don’t think I can agree on this point.

As far as guest lectures are concerned, I think for college students initial lectures on “It’s absolutely fine if you don’t startup” are a lot more important. There are many other ways in which talents can be utilised in the startup ecosystem. A proliferation of startups can be a danger.

We should encourage joint collaboration whenever there is enough alignment. A really strong team is important if we have to give a tough fight to the people at Silicon Valley. Also, failure stories should be highlighted and analysed right from the beginning. Startups are only for a mature mind and, we have to remember, we do not live in a Harvard or Stanford campus.

The “napkin idea” days of entrepreneurship are gone. Even top tier accelerators are not keen to take up startups that do not have some traction (forget about a product prototype). So, if Airbnb came to YC today telling them they have been on noodles trying to sell air mattresses door-to-door, pretty sure their application would not even have been looked at. The kids need to be aware of these things.

[This post by Dr. Aniruddha Malpani first appeared on LinkedIn and has been reproduced with permission.]


Aniruddha is Director at Solidarity Investment Advisors
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