Meeting the Acute Need for Entrepreneurial Skills


The Idea: The New Economy will have an explosive need for critical entrepreneurial skills. Universities are not equipped or inclined to provide them. You can’t learn them just by reading a book. We need to create a whole new ‘channel’ for entrepreneurial education. Here’s how it might work.

When I wrote Natural Enterprise my principal goal was to ‘reinvent’ entrepreneurship as a venture that would allow people to make a living, easily, joyously, without significant cost, risk or stress, with people they love. We can feel it in our bones, and in our three million year old DNA, that that is how making a living should be. My secondary purpose was to fill a gap in both high school and university commerce/MBA programs — teaching students how to start and run their own business effectively. The professors and students I have spoken to have confirmed the views of the readers of How to Save the World that there is an acute need for this. Yet publishers tell me, and I respect their judgement, that Natural Enterprise is not sufficiently different from other books on entrepreneurship already out there. I have concluded therefore that the problem isn’t in the books on entrepreneurship, but rather on the way in which entrepreneurship is (and is not) taught.

That’s what I was getting at when I asked the question last week “How could we effectively teach online the critical skills that take a lot of practice and one-on-one coaching?” Your answers suggest the issue of teaching online is just the tip of the iceberg — teaching these skills period is an enormous challenge, and good books and software and online resources only get us part of the way there.

Almost all the successful entrepreneurs I know learned the essential skills on the job. What are the essential entrepreneurial skills? In my experience they are the ones depicted on the mindmap above. So what would be an effective process to impart those skills to the millions of people around the world who would be happier and more effective as entrepreneurs than as cogs in a large corporate machine?

Here’s the process I have suggested to several universities.

  • Each ‘session’ would have as its theme one of the critical entrepreneurial skills in the mindmap above.
  • Students would be given a set of pre-reading consisting of both theory and stories about great entrepreneurial successes and failures in applying this critical skill.
  • Each session would be held, live, at the premises of a different entrepreneurial business, one with exemplary success at applying this critical skill.
  • There would be no lecture. The session would consist of (a) a tour of the premises, (b) a brief story told by the CEO of the history of the company and how they’d learned to apply the critical skill, and (c) a Q&A session where the students would ask questions of the CEO. The course facilitator would jump in with answers and clarifications based on what other entrepreneurs had done. No ‘large corporation’ examples would be used.
  • There would be no examination. At ‘mid-term’, the entrepreneurs who host the sessions would collectively grade the Business Plans prepared and presented by the students in one long Saturday session. The ‘final’ pass or fail would be based solely on whether the businesses proposed in the students’ Business Plans had been successfully launched or not.
  • Students would have access to ‘coaches’ on an ongoing basis. These could include existing entrepreneurs, course facilitators, legitimate entrepreneurial consultants

It’s at once a radical and a pragmatic approach, one that mimics as much as possible the learning that entrepreneurs get on the job. While the professors I have spoken to love it, the university executives higher up shudder at the thought of a curriculum with no classroom, no instructor and no lecturing. They find the concept threatening, and say it would be impossible to ‘sell’ to curriculum committees, which are, they confess, in the business of filling seats in their expensive real estate and defending the process of tenured experts lecturing as somehow a better way of imparting knowledge than letting students find things out for themselves. Rather than trying to change their minds, I have concluded that, since they have nothing to offer those who need entrepreneurial skills other than the ‘brand’ of the university, we’re better off finding a way to provide entrepreneurial education without them.

So here’s where you come in. Help me create a ‘business model’ for entrepreneurial education that meets these very difficult challenges:

  • We cannot expect much government money or support, since we are setting up an economy that will compete with and threaten the large corporations that currently have politicians in their back pockets.
  • Our ‘customers’, students and those disenchanted with wage slavery, don’t have a lot of time or money to invest in such education.
  • Those who have tried to offer such education in past, including various ‘get a better job institutes’ and many of the consultants who ‘serve’ the entrepreneurial community, are incompetent, exploitative, or worse, and have made many people cynical about entrepreneurial education.
  • Although the process I describe above is an improvement, we need some way for students to practice what they’ve learned, before they launch their own business. We need a modern equivalent of the ‘apprenticeship’ program under which many craftsmen honed their skills until they were ready to go out on their own. Ideally we’d like such ‘practice’ opportunities to be focused in the industries with the greatest entrepreneurial opportunity, like health care, education, recreation, community energy, food and biologicals production, and the ‘connections’ industry (personal networking and communications) — industries driven more than anything else by information and innovation.
  • We need a way to credentialize entrepreneurial consultants and coaches. None of the traditional credentializations for work with large corporations — MBA, CPA/CA, CFA, CMC etc — are adequate or appropriate for working with entrepreneurs. Legitimate consultants and coaches to entrepreneurs need to have the critical skills above and experience in an entrepreneurial environment.
  • We need a new type of network or channel that will allow all the ‘players’ in entrepreneurial education — existing entrepreneurs, students and aspiring entrepreneurs, facilitators, legitimate consultants and coaches, to contract with and help each other. It should be a robust, commercial network — people’s time is valuable, and it is reasonable that they be compensated for it.
  • We need to engage students early — junior high is not too early — and start getting them acclimatized to the new economy and the entrepreneurial landscape, so that they have longer to acquire the critical skills and don’t get diverted into more traditional educational paths that are now largely dead ends.

The business model needs to show (ideally graphically) how students would enroll, how facilitators, consultants, coaches, and entrepreneurs would be brought together and compensated for their time, how the educational curriculum and standards for programs, consultants and coaches would be established and upheld, how we would promote the programs and keep them affordable, how the outreach to high schools would work, how we could establish facilities or programs where students could ‘practice’ etc. Any ideas you have on any of these issues would be very welcome. Another critical area where I could use your advice is Where to Start? We need to walk before we run. What would a pilot program look like and who might sponsor it?

Entrepreneurs face a deck stacked against them by large corporations with huge budgets, (in some industries) massive government subsidies, and politicians in their debt and at their beck and call. Large corporations buy cheap because they’re considered low-risk and buy in volume. They are often organized into oligopolies designed to raise entrance barriers to their industries. They are patenting everything in sight, thanks to government collusion in broadening intellectual property laws, and they have the resources to destroy entrepreneurs who even come close to patent infringement. The ‘service’ industries are largely disinterested in them: Banks find them expensive accounts to manage for the amounts involved, good consultants (not quite an oxymoron) are far more interested in the big corporations that can give them 7-figure contracts than mean-and-lean entrepreneurs. Most of the valuable help entrepreneurial CEOs get today comes from other entrepreneurs. Most entrepreneurs need to improve their critical entrepreneurial skills too, and would benefit as much from the curriculum I describe above as students aspiring to entrepreneurship. And, just to make matters worse, the global economy is teetering, wildly overextended by reckless spending and debt at all levels of the economy, with price bubbles everywhere, dependent on cheap foreign sources of resource supply (natural and human), and utterly unsustainable.

But while this may be enough to discourage most of us from becoming entrepreneurs, and accepting a life of wage slavery instead, the truth is that for almost everyone in the generations up and coming there will be no other choice. Large corporations are shedding jobs, not adding them, even as their profits grow. Governments are shedding jobs too. All of the net private sector employment growth of the past decade in North America has been entrepreneurial. The alternative to biting the entrepreneurial bullet — facing the obstacles in the previous paragraph, acquiring the critical entrepreneurial skills and making your own living — is unemployment.

As a result I think there will be a rapidly growing appetite for quality, practical entrepreneurial education. There’s a need here. Do we have what it takes to fill it?

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5 Responses to Meeting the Acute Need for Entrepreneurial Skills

  1. This is a great start. I think many opportunities are in place, but the problem is that people are discouraged from making a business their primary income. One of the largest challenges is finding out what is needed and by whom. If you can find this information than any small business can outperform a larger corporation simply because of their locality and efficient size.This could be accomplish through the internet and tracking purchases as well as requests for service.In the beginning, the database will be filled with a small amount of businesses but would track people’s interests and suggestions. Eventually, entrepreneurs could draw from this resource to better understand their niche.In exchange for this customer information, businesses would open their books and allow their customers to see how much money is going where. Initially products competed on a cost basis, then it was a brand basis. Now we have the opportunity to compete on an honesty basis of transparency; something that large corporations could never tackle.Certainly you would need to teach skills and have business coaches, but the main issue is what will these people do. When you find that, you can begin to train people using a combination of online learning, and breakout sessions.

  2. Mike says:

    Dave,I’ve been a fan of your Natural Enterprise model for a while, so I’m sorry to hear that publishers are taking a pass. Here are some brief reactions to your new questions:1. First and foremost, don’t think that corporations (and by extension government) would oppose efforts to bring entrepreneurial education to the masses. Most large corporations grow these days by snapping up smaller companies. Without entrepreneurs filling the pipeline with innovative products, many companies would stagnate and even worse, miss earnings predictions. 2. Because of this, and the fact that you really want to reach people while they’re young, embrace corporations and governments as allies. I don’t see a business model in the sense that this program should be for-profit. It really seems more of a non-profit, grant and donation-driven endeavor. Then you could leverage corporate resources in a partnership.3. If you are committed to a profit-driven enterprise, maybe you’ll have to form an incubator of sorts? That way you can influence entrepreneurs while their businesses are in development. I’m not sure this is where you want to be, but at least you’d have a chance to make some money if successful.4. Donald Trump and Mark Burnett have made entrepreneurship sexy again. If you can repackage your pitch referencing “The Apprentice” you may attract more interest.5. Last point – credentialing is anathema to entrepreneurship. The only acceptable credential is success; everything else is academic!The first step in creating a successful business is finding a need then filling it. You’ve already found the need.

  3. Jon Clement says:

    The term

  4. Verkalac says:

    Have you heard of Sim City? It teaches how to build a city so that people will want to live in it. There probably is already a Sim for business but if not it is a perfect way to teach entrepreneurial skills. You can build a business and you succeed or fail based on your dicision. The school of hard knocks with out the real knocks….

  5. Cliff Allen says:

    The Kauffman Foundation ( has provided local entrepreneurial groups with educational kits for teaching entrepreneurship skills. I’ve been a guest speaker when the course gets to marketing, so I’ve seen the depth of knowledge and interaction in the course. I believe Kauffman would appreciate learning about your strategic approach to educating entrepreneurs.

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