Some exceptional folks in entrepreneurship at HBS just announced Harvard was closing their NYC-based Startup Studio. Considering the program’s ambitions matched the leadership of the Entrepreneurship program and the largesse of the school, the outcome offers a great window into the challenges of teaching entrepreneurship.1
Here’s what they had to say:
“The survey confirmed that NYC’s community of HBS founders is indeed strong, but revealed limited need or desire for programming…One-on-one mentorship meetings and industry networking events organized by the Studio were popular, but case discussions and skill-building workshops were poorly attended — due in part to a proliferation of excellent programming available elsewhere in New York City, especially for early-stage entrepreneurs.”
The effort and its post-mortem point out three challenges to teaching entrepreneurship:
- There is a significant difference between what entrepreneurs need and what entrepreneurship programs can deliver. Most programs adopt a “least common denominator” approach by teaching people those skills that work for all founders in all industries, addressing any problem with any kind of solution. But those are rarely the skills that will make a difference.2
Reality presents a hidden asymptote for the effectiveness of most entrepreneurship programming. For someone who’s just getting started, we can teach the basics and inspire their first steps. But once an entrepreneur or founding team figures out what business they’re in, their needs quickly shift from general advice to specific tactics. This creates a hidden asymptote in entrepreneurship education, when local knowledge and networks become more relevant than classroom skills. Value can even decay if it means encouraging people to spend more time learning than doing.
- While programming is most valuable in the earliest stages, that is also when any given program’s value is least discernable from the rest. In other words, in the land of the novice entrepreneur, any one-eyed instructor/mentor/advisor can be king.3 As the Center’s leadership noted, there is “a proliferation of excellent programming available elsewhere in New York City, especially for early-stage entrepreneurs.” I’m not sure how gracious they mean to be, but these days anyone can download startup curriculum on line, open an incubator, makerspace, or program, and find entrepreneurs who know less than them.
The challenge for any entrepreneurship program is to maximize the value they create. At the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, we spend a lot of time thinking about how our programs add value and, as a result, our programs are constantly evolving. More on that in another post.
- Don’t blame the leadership for the studio failing. Failure is good, right? Either way, Thomas Eisenmann, the Faculty co-Chair of the Rock Center for Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School, produces and teaches terrific material on entrepreneurship. And HBS isn’t exactly counting pennies. So if they couldn’t pull this off, I’m not sure who could. ↩
- Consider the NVCA tracks seventeen specific industry sectors (e.g., software, biotech, healthcre, energy, entertainment, and financial services). New ventures in each sector face distinct paths to market and require local knowledge and networks to be successful. ↩
- Not to say that all programs are baseless. The problem comes also from something called the Hudnut ratio (aka the Nightingale Ratio). It’s that intuitive ratio you recognize when there seem to be more people in a region trying to help startups than there are startups—more widwifes than mothers, more shovel salesmen than miners. ↩