As the world gets more complicated, more problems need solving.
Luckily, according to seasoned academics and successful entrepreneurs alike, out-of-the-box thinkers, problem-solvers and entrepreneurs aren’t born — they’re grown.
We saw how entrepreneurship can be learned in conversations with professors in the Department of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business and students who have launched their own companies at the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute. Now, we’re sharing that wisdom with you. Here are five concepts to learn how to become an entrepreneur:
1. Value the Housekeeping Skills
Getting yourself in the right headspace and tempering your expectations may be the thing that saves your startup.
“Entrepreneurship is often framed in this sexy, exciting, fast-paced light,” said Paul Brown, co-director of the Master of Business Creation program at the Eccles School. “But that’s a misconception. When you’re stepping into this field, you have to be prepared for the basic and boring as much as the sublime — you’re provided with a range of content you need to understand.”
It’s things that Brown calls “housekeeping” that you need to have down front to back.
He explained, “Do you have independent contractors or employees? What’s the difference? Should you form an LLC or a C corporation? Are you infringing someone else’s trademark? Are you handling your bookkeeping properly? Questions like this might put some people to sleep, but you need to remember — startups are vulnerable. Entrepreneurs are vulnerable. A mistake when it comes to the foundational things, what we might call the ‘mundane,’ can wreck a fledgling idea.”
And what better place to learn the foundations and basics than at school?
“We have classes on financial modeling, on business strategy, on data collection and use,” Brown said. “It’s all under our roof, the knowledge that can be the difference between sinking or swimming with a startup.”
And other schools across the nation are following this lead — more than 2,000 entrepreneurship programs teaching these core skills have popped up around the nation in the last decade.
2. Be a Doer
“‘Learn by doing’ is a common phrase in entrepreneurship — but that’s because it’s a tried-and-true method,” Brown said.
“Understanding the concepts is only the first half of the learning process,” he said. “The second half is the application.”
The process is called “active learning,” and it’s not just the University of Utah that’s proven its success — scientific studies in just the last year have shown that hands-on, engaged courses, and experiences are the way to really internalize new concepts.
The idea of “active learning” is nice, but Sasha Singh, a computer science major at the U and founder of “Life,” a healthy living app, said the formal structure of a college course helped her actually get started.
She enrolled in an introductory entrepreneurship class and hit the ground running with lessons on collecting data and analyzing trends — all the knowledge she could immediately put into practice.
“When I started working on my app, there were so many unanswered questions,” she said. “But through research and response from my fellow classmates, industry experts, friends, and family, I was able to come to the conclusion that I wanted to offer different package types in not just the price but also the kind of workout users wanted to focus on.”
For Brennen Woodward, founder of Blue Gecko Apparel, the option to learn in real-world environments is non-negotiable for start-up success.
“It’s one of the better (methods) for learning,” he said. “The only catch is that learning by doing costs money. It all depends on the safety structure you have around you — financial, personal, and even mental and emotional.”
One of the safest structures, Brown said, is college. That’s why he strikes a balance between evidence-based learning and practice in his classes.
“When we learn a new idea in class, I then have the students integrate it into either a real-world startup, if they have one, or in a project that’s modeled like a small business,” he said. “When you take an idea from the abstract and put it into the real world, you’re able to find the gaps in your knowledge and finally master the concept.”
3. Build a Network
And it’s not just professors you can learn from.
“Find a mentor in your same space and have frequent discussions,” Woodward said. “Too many times people are afraid of ‘competition,’ and they worry they’re going to give away their business strategy to someone they consider an ‘enemy.’ Generally, that’s not true. I work in an extremely saturated market, but I’ve been able to find others doing what I do, just in a different niche. From them you can learn what does and doesn’t work.”
Singh said she takes advantage of the world around her too, and has been able to improve both her startup and herself from diverse experiences.
“Schools and universities are like a miniature model of society,” she said. “You are constantly surrounded by people from all walks of life, professors that are doing world-changing research. Your friends might go on to open companies with billion-dollar valuations, revolutionizing their industries. There is so much you can learn from the people around you.”
4. Develop an Entrepreneurial Mindset
“In my opinion, entrepreneurs are very self-sufficient humans,” Singh said. “They believe in creating their own path and routine.”
But that doesn’t mean that they’re born ready to launch a startup — in fact, if you’ve got that personality, you may have even more cultivating to do.
“Necessary skills that I’ve focused on are effective communication, being assertive and practice, and developing an eagerness to learn and be taught,” she said
Those skills don’t come naturally, Brown insisted. In fact, he didn’t embrace them until well into his career.
“I was a 40-year-old lawyer at a large corporation when my entrepreneurial journey began,” he said. “I didn’t have that necessary shift in mindset until then, and I think that’s natural. We don’t all think like problem-solvers, like innovators, from the get-go. We have to want that, and then we have to be shown how by good examples.”
5. Recognize the (Un)importance of an Idea
Your idea might be the launchpad for your startup, but it’s not — and shouldn’t be — the driving force.
“An obsession with a concept, an abstract idea for a business, that can really inhibit learning,” Brown said. “Your idea or product is not your business, and it’s a common mistake of new entrepreneurs to conflate the two. Even great product or service ideas must be capable of being turned into great businesses.”
In fact, what students think are the best ideas are often run-of-the-mill.
“College students tend to come up with college student ideas,” Brown said. “Food trucks, transportation or parking around campus, textbook exchange ideas. While those are all good, letting yourself get constrained into your own world, and then blocking out feedback, that’s a bad recipe.”
That’s why Brown said one of the most important lessons you can learn in entrepreneurship is being okay with your starting point.
“I’d rather have a B- idea by an A+ entrepreneur than the other way around,” he said. “If you can master those business strategies and rules, both behind the desk and in application, the idea isn’t as all-important as many people think.”
Whether you’re a high school graduate looking at programs or a successful serial entrepreneur, Brown says you always have something to learn.
“At the end of the day, I think entrepreneurs are made,” Brown says. “No one is born with all — or even most — of these skills.”