They will need to provide communal workspaces, mentors with specific expertise and with contacts, and expert architects of networking; access to formal learning programmes about aspects of business; support in deve-loping business plans, and practice in pitching; and they will be offering concentrated ‘accelerator’ programmes for the development of new businesses.
Universities have been taken by surprise at the rapid rise of their Entrepreneur Clubs, and have yet to develop their response. So here are some ideas about how they might support their cohorts of budding entrepreneurs.
Like Watershed Bristol (http://www.watershed.co.uk) and ideaSpace in Cambridge (http://www.ideaspace.cam.ac.uk), universities could provide a large space of hotdesks where entrepreneurs can work together on their project, interacting and drawing from each other. (A film company in London provided big kitchens on every floor so as to encourage incidental discussion; Microsoft’s R&D facility at Redmond provided white boards above each desk on which people could headline their current problem in case someone who passed by might have a useful idea.)
The most recent mentoring programmes have made available large numbers of mentors whom budding entrepreneurs can first meet in staccato sessions (a sort of contact sport), which have then led on to both parties deciding who can help whom best – with feed-back, advice and/or contacts. Universities can draw on alumni, and in some cases, like UCL’s Smile, on mentoring services they have already set up.
Silicon Valley has an almost unique ability to link together entre-preneurs to stimulate, help or inspire one another – through its webs of social webs. Stanford University appointed an ‘Entrepreneurship Concierge’ (see http://goo.gl/Vc6EI) whose role in Stanford’s culture of collaboration is to ‘match students with a dizzying array of resources – from trustworthy mentors and potential investors to the half-dozen student clubs that focus on start-up creation.’ At its best, those who play this role have used their experience to develop a nose for generating fruitful contacts (like Heston Blumenthal with flavours).
Most universities have formal learning programmes which include finance, marketing, legal and HR, and mentors can help students to draw on the most relevant of these.
Many budding entrepreneurs often use their time at university, as did Sir Stelios for Easyjet, to develop Business Plans, either in his case for a new business, or often in the case of family businesses to further develop their existing business. Developing a business plan is an iterative task that in reality extends into and beyond launch, in which vision and reality collide. The University of the West of England has evolved an electronically-based programme for helping students to develop their business plans, for which the experience of several people is probably essential (maybe with the help of a ‘leading mentor’), providing technical help, business help, and help in relation to the product offering.
It seems more than likely that universities (and perhaps science parks too) will very soon offer ‘Accelerators’ to leading potential entrepreneurs – (http://www.nesta.org.uk/library/documents/StartupFactoriesv18.pdf) – 13 week programmes designed to help develop business proposals into marketable propositions for up to a dozen teams at a time, programmes that contain all of the above and more (like YCombinator in the US and Springboard in the UK.) Springboard’s experience suggests that these may be able to be funded by angels (of whom the university may be one) in return for equity.
These invariably culminate in Pitching Sessions, at which these proto-businesses pitch their proposal to potential investors. Pitches can fail at many levels, but most frequently because their entrepreneurs do not identify user needs clearly enough. The art of pitching is itself taught (with varying degrees of success to judge by Dragons’ Den), and learned essentially by practice – another role for expert mentors.
Directors of Enterprise/Innovation in universities may well be able to mobilise support from their enterprising alumni and mentors to capitalise on this new tide of interest in entrepreneurship.
John Whatmore May 2012
The Centre for Leadership in Creativity