Two executive MBA students just came by the house to interview me for a class on entrepreneurship. Answering questions about the #1 quality of an entrepreneur, my #1 weakness, my #1 advice, I found myself translating true stories about what has worked for me into aphorisms that felt made up.
We have begun to think of entrepreneurialism as this discipline, this science, this profession, as if startups succeed via a formula, when the whole point of a startup is to do things differently not the same. We can teach people to paint the Mona Lisa by numbers, but it won’t be art the second time around. And we can dissect entrepreneurialism like a frog, but the frog usually dies in the process.
This is probably why the students’ questions made me feel like the disappointingly ordinary Oracle in The Matrix. When Neo asks if he’s The One, The Oracle says, “But you already know what I’m going to tell you?”
“I’m not The One?” Neo says.
“Sorry kid,” The Oracle says. “You got the gift, but it looks like you’re waiting for something.”
What these very intelligent, eminently fundable MBAs were waiting for was an idea, and the belief in themselves to follow it through. I wanted to tell them that the whole reason to start a company is to be yourself, not to imitate someone else, especially not me. Their program won’t help with that.
The world would be a much better place if all the folks in an executive MBA program would master a creative skill instead. Why isn’t there an executive master’s program in computer science, design or materials science? I’d enroll today.
We need to educate people who have already begun a career because too many miss their chance in college. The number of students studying business has steadily increased over the past decade, to more than one in five undergraduates, at the expense of the creative arts and sciences.
For life after college, a whole new genre has emerged of self-help for entrepreneurs. By Amazon’s count, more than 12,000 books on entrepreneurship have been published in the past decade, at a rate of three per day, every day.
Many of those books and programs are inspiring and useful; I have organized a few, contributed to some, and benefited from more. But if I had to say what needs more emphasis, it would be the product, not the process.
Outside of Paul Graham and Eric Ries, many entro-pundits have little interest in actual products. The worst purveyor of gimmicks is Malcolm Gladwell, who argued in last week’s New Yorker that entrepreneurs are predators who succeed because of their business acumen at driving hard bargains. Gladwell based this theory on two unlikely boots-trappers: a silver-spooner who inherited a massive media empire and a Wall Street trader who bet more than $100 million that the housing bubble would burst.
Both of Gladwell’s role models are very good business people, but that doesn’t make them entrepreneurs – even if one of them, Ted Turner, later developed into one — creating a news network he loved so much that he compared its eventual acquisition to female circumcision. But Turner started his business career the old-fashioned way: getting the better of somebody on a deal. It’s a zero-sum game that doesn’t create anything or delight anyone. And creating something is what entrepreneurs do that the MBAs sometimes don’t always seem to get.
This isn’t to say that entrepreneurs are better than MBAs. In fact, the problem I have these days is that what makes you successful as an entrepreneur may limit you later on as a business person, a topic we’ll have to take up next week. In the meantime, if you know of any good executive masters programs in computer science, or any boot-camps with that emphasis, leave a comment and let us know.