These recent years have seen a proliferation of media featuring tech entrepreneurship, raising public awareness of startups and how working in one is like. Reality TV shows like Shark Tank and films like The Social Network and Jobs have portrayed the startup world as a challenging and exciting one, with the promise of great results if one succeeds.
All this has resulted in the greater acceptance of entrepreneurship as a career choice, particularly in conformist Asian societies like Singapore. A recent poll by Nanyang Business School shows that nearly 11.6 per cent of Singaporean adults had actively started a business, up from 4.9 per cent in 2006. It appears many people here have put aside their risk aversion for the challenge of building something themselves.
However, in education-obsessed Singapore, many people are still leery of taking the plunge due to their perceived lack of entrepreneurship training. This is bolstered by another result from the poll above, which states that just 27 per cent of local adults felt they had the knowledge, skill and experience to start a business, compared with 56 per cent in the United States.
So, then, are knowledge and skill really so important in creating a successful startup? Here, we, at e27, have brought together four experienced educationists in an attempt to answer this question…
G. “Anand” Anandalingam
Colin Tan is a professor at the National University of Singapore under the School of Computing. He teaches a module, Software Development on Evolving Platforms, that encourages students to create killer apps
Bernard Rassat is a trainer at Lithan Hall Academy, a private education institution that provides specialist education for professionals in Asia. He has successfully established new businesses in London and in Asia
Anuj Jain is a trainer at Lithan Hall Academy. He has built and advised e-commerce startups on the ‘Go to Market’ strategy. Currently, he is working to crowdfund his invention in lifestyle wellness through Kickstarter
G “Anand” Anandalingam is the Dean of Imperial College Business School at Imperial College London. He has received numerous academic and teaching awards, graduating more than 20 Ph.D. students
Excerpts from the interviews:
Some say entrepreneurship is about solutions to problems, others say it’s about innovative ideas. What do you think captures the essence of entrepreneurship?
Tan: I like to think of entrepreneurship as the act of identifying real or perceived problems, and creating good innovative solutions to address them. These problems can be either perceived, like that of Instagram users needing to modify their pictures through filters so that they look good, or real, like better distribution of water so that women can do more productive work instead of spending hours hauling water from miles away.
The key is in being good and innovative. Bad solutions just waste everyone’s time and money, and copying what other people are doing, particularly in the tech and apps industry, adds marginal value.
Rassat: Entrepreneurship is for me the ability to turn an idea into reality; you may have many ideas or you may be good at implementing other people’s ideas, but entrepreneurship requires both. It is the ability to act upon a hunch.
Jain: There are many definitions but my favorite one is by Harvard Prof Stevenson — “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled”. One needs to be inventive, creative, opportunistic, and persuasive due to constraints on resources.
Anandalingam: Put simply, entrepreneurship is the art of setting up one or multiple businesses. However, entrepreneurship encompasses the entire process of identifying and starting a business venture, sourcing and organising the required resources, managing everything from finance to marketing and people to products. An entrepreneur is also ultimately responsible for both, the risks and rewards associated with a startup company.
Recently, many business schools and institutions have started offering courses in technopreneurship. Do you think entrepreneurship is something that can be taught?
Tan: I think that as an educator, I can initiate an entrepreneurial spirit in my students and facilitate their progress, but that’s about it. At the end of the day, every person’s and every business’s situation is different and an entrepreneur has to rely on his experience, gut and hard work to work through every obstacle.
This is analogous to teaching someone to have fun. Some people believe that “being spontaneous and fun” can be taught. In some ways this is true – one can always learn the ways to view the world and be happy, and one can always learn how to dress themselves up and attend Toastmaster sessions, but at the end of the day a four-year course on “Bachelor of Fun and Life of the Party” does not a fun person make. It still requires a ton of effort and an actual experiential process to turn from an introvert to the life of every party, together with a dash of the right kind of personality.
Rassat: I have always be in two minds with regard to this question; on one hand, I feel that this is something that is hard to teach as entrepreneurship tends to answer a personal urge. However, you also have entrepreneurs who are such almost by accident; they either have been let go and they have little choice than to start a business, or they stumble upon an idea that is usually the result of a frustrating experience and they decide to start a business around it. For those people, entrepreneurship can be taught.
Jain: One could sensitise participants to the context, challenges and proven tools used to increase the probability of success in business world, learning proven frameworks and methods to assess the market opportunities, mapping, competition analysis and other business models. However, one needs to jump in the pool to learn swimming, as the saying goes. An instructor could teach the benefits of exercise and techniques of toning muscles, but in the end, one needs to do their own push-ups to keep fit. The best way is to educate oneself and follow experiential ways to understand entrepreneurship.
Anandalingam: A successful entrepreneur must also have business knowledge, an eye for an opportunity and an analytical approach — qualities which can be acquired, learned and developed over time and with experience. In addition, entrepreneurs are constantly building their networks and exposing themselves to situations where they can make new connections and maintain relationships with existing contacts.
An aspiring entrepreneur’s confidence in those situations can also be improved with knowledge and the right opportunities. First-hand experience and tuition are not mutually exclusive: learning entrepreneurship in an environment such as Imperial College Business School and first-hand experience complement each other. The sound business understanding and an innovative approach fostered in an academic environment can improve an entrepreneur’s likelihood to succeed.
I think it’s safe to say that most of you agree that many skills crucial for entrepreneurship need to be experienced first-hand in order to acquire them. Please comment.
Tan: It definitely has to be experienced. While I am not an entrepreneur in the ordinary sense, I have had to pitch project ideas to obtain funding for my research projects, and it’s a great growing experience to be criticised, and of course, to finally obtain the grants and put the projects into execution. It’s a great experience to see all the stuff taught in the classroom and simulated in research papers fail spectacularly in the field, to have to think quickly on your feet to resolve issues that come up at the worst possible moments. Most of all there’s nothing like having a satisfied customer.
I don’t think any of this can be replicated well in a classroom. You can have all the simulations that you can think of in a classroom, but nothing can replicate the stress of having massive liquidated damages hanging over your head because a project is delayed, or the satisfaction of knowing that a bet paid off.
Jain: Yes, it could only be understood when the rubber hits the road. I believe that everyone aspiring to be anything in the business world should experience selling and entrepreneurship sometime in one’s life.
On the other hand, would you say entrepreneurship is innate, and that only some people have it in them to become successful entrepreneurs?
Tan: I think it’s innate insofar as it requires a certain type of personality. To be a successful entrepreneur, you’d certainly need to like going out to meet people and network, must be able to take responsibility from your mistakes and learn from them. A successful entrepreneur must also have an appetite for risk. Even if the financial outlay is negligible, the outlay of time and effort never is.
Jain: It is innate to the extent of one’s worldview, beliefs and approach to life. A big part of entrepreneurship lies in an approach to life centered around attempts to solve the problems not usually seen by ordinary mortals. This part is largely a by-product of many factors, including our conditioning and beliefs, and cannot be taught in the hope of instilling the entrepreneurial spirit and worldview.
Anandalingam: Certain skills needed for entrepreneurship such as ambition and determination are innate character traits which cannot be taught.
What other factors play a role in influencing the success of entrepreneurs?
Rassat: Entrepreneurship may also be affected by the environment; someone who was raised by non-entrepreneurs may have a hard time conceiving entrepreneurship. But more than anything, entrepreneurship is about taking the risk to fail and therefore, to be different. Once someone accepts the idea that he or she can be different, entrepreneurship becomes a possibility.
If society values difference, entrepreneurship becomes a lot easier. For instance, the US has a culture of entrepreneurship because it values risk and individuality. The heroes in all the US movies always celebrate the rogue, the maverick — the person who dares to be different and who eventually conquers. A society’s risk aversion is usually a good benchmark to measure entrepreneurship.
Jain: There is an important role that industry needs to play, to provide mentorship and an ecosystem to nourish young ideas and potential in people who dare to try. Also, the social outlook towards entrepreneurship should change, particularly in Asia, where there is a pressure to remain safe and stable in the comfort zone.