4 Lessons Learned from Two Years as an Accidental Entrepreneurship Educator

In 2015, I became an accidental entrepreneurship educator. These are some of the lessons I've learned – entrepreneurship is a learnable skill, people trump content, diplomas are incentive traps. Oh, and I've discovered the teacher's hidden secret, 2000 years after Seneca (I guess I was late to the wisdom party.. again.)

I’ll never forget the evening of 2nd of September, 2016. 

I was in a coworking space in a 300 year old wooden building in Bergen, Norway. In the room was one big projector screen, a table and a bunch of chairs, 22 kebabs and 100 beer cans. Some tropical house music was playing from the speaker set, and my co-founder Christer and I were hanging around, not quite sure what to expect.

We were waiting for 20 young, curious students who we had accepted into our very first batch of Early Stage, the experiential entrepreneurship programme we had developed over the last twelve months. We had planned a great programme and a fabulous opening night. But we had no idea if anyone would actually show up. 

Luckily, at 7PM somebody knocked on the door. A bunch of smiling students stood outside in the rain, wondering if they’d found the right place. There were the aspiring economists, the soon-to-be engineers, a few designers, even a nurse or two who, the 20 most creative and promising people from a pool of 250 applicants. They were a diverse bunch of people to say the least – the only thing they all had in common was a strong desire to learn about entrepreneurship and innovation by doing it with their own bare hands.

I never planned to become an entrepreneurship educator. Yet, I became one somewhat by accident and serendipity after two years of teaching together with the rest of the ES team. While teaching 45 students a tiny bit about the vast art and science of entrepreneurship, I also picked up a few lessons myself. This is what I’ve learned so far. 

1) You Can Learn Entrepreneurship – but Only Through Practice

I no longer believe in the mythical, almighty “born entrepreneur”. I now believe anyone can learn how to bring ideas to life, to solve customer’s problems with new products and services, or to improve existing solutions in innovative ways. This is because I have seen it happen for 45 individuals over the last two years.

In short, entrepreneurship is a set of skills that can be learned through practice. Yet the practice aspect often gets lost in traditional educational settings. Being handed a business model canvas an a few books on LEAN startup isn’t enough to make good founders, innovators, entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs.

Getting Ready for the Deep End

Imagine you put little Johnny a in a lecture hall with 500 other kids, and make him listen to professorial instructions and read ill-designed powerpoint slides on how to swim for an entire semester (ideally from a professor who has never seen water himself).  Regardless of the absurd school fees Johnny pays, the amount of ivy hanging from the building, or the number of abbreviations after the professor’s name, Johnny is not very well equipped to be thrown in the pool after a semester of such passive instruction.

Bring Johnny to the pool, not to the classroom. (Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash)

But when it comes to learning entrepreneurship, putting hundreds of students in front of A Highly Decorated Professor of Entrepreneurship (who typically has never started a company in his life) is considered a good idea in universities across the globe. The results are typically as good as the swimming lectures. People with loads of study credits (or even entire degrees) in lecture-based entrepreneurship quickly sink when they’re thrown into the deep end of the pool that is the real world.

Frustration with such classroom-based entrepreneurial education was what made us start Early Stage in the first place. Having seen ever more examples of such book-based entrepreneurial teaching since then, my belief has only strengthened – entrepreneurship can be taught and learned, but it must be practised, not preached. 

2) Content isn’t King – People Are

The first time we ran an Early Stage programme, we were super stoked about the excellent content we had baked in. There were exciting workshops, fascinating guest speakers, engaging weekly challenges – you name it, we had in there.

However, we quickly realised that the content wasn’t the main value driver for the students, not by a long stretch. The students themselves made up most of the value of the programme. Simply gathering bright, curious minds under the same roof several times a week was inherently valuable for all the participants. Without Early Stage, they would not have had an arena to meet each other in a setting where entrepreneurial ideation, creativity and constructive discussion were encouraged.

The official structure of the programme, the content, the workshops, the speakers and so on, were indeed very valuable to all involved. But in hindsight, I see that these in some sense merely acted as great excuses for smart people to come together and play proverbial idea-ping-pong with each other on a regular basis.

While we are proud of our content, we’re even more proud of the new connections we have facilitated between people. I’m sure the skills the students learned in the programme will be valuable to them going forwards, but the network of people they met will probably be worth even more.

These guys > The programme content.

3) You Get What You Incentivise – Diplomas are Traps

People respond to incentives. Nowhere in the world are people more aware of that then at top tier business schools.

When we first got the idea for the programme, we went to the country’s best business school to propose a collaboration of sorts. As a student there myself, I knew for a fact that they needed something like what we proposed, as the school effectively offered zero entrepreneurial courses at the time.

While the professors we met with agreed that the school indeed needed such an initiative, they had one major concern. They were certain that nobody would apply. In their world-view, students require approved study credits to do just about anything.

They then generously offered to assist us in a 3 YEAR (!!) long process to, maybe just maybe, get our programme approved by the ministry of education. If that worked out, we could offer study credits, and then perhaps get some student applications.

We gracefully thanked them for their time, then swiftly decided to test their assumptions instead of wasting years of our time on red tape and paperwork.

We went out and spoke up about the programme at every student event we could find. Two months later, we had 250 applicants to a programme that did in fact not yet exist (we may have forgotten to mention that to the applicants). Of those, about 100 were from the very same business school we met with two months earlier. Go figure.

When we eventually met the students we had accepted to the first programme, we were astonished by their levels of engagement, drive and curiosity. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, these students voluntarily spend countless hours after school in a programme that don’t offer them any credits, no diplomas, no nothing – only pure learning.

Screenshot 2017-11-10 15.13.43
ES anno 2015: “Hey students, this programme definitely already exists (in our imagination). Apply now!”

At that point we understood that credits and diplomas are incentive traps. They incentivise the wrong people to do the wrong things. By not offering anything else than learning and fun, we effectively screened out all the diploma hunters and credit chasers from applying in the first place. Offering zero measurable credentials was the best decision we ever made.

Hands up for genuine, non-diploma-incentivised engagement!

4) The Teacher’s Secret: the Educator Learns the Most

I regularly figure out things that the stoic philosopher Seneca figured out 2000 years ago – for example that minimalism is key to a good life, that fasting is healthy and that pretending to lose everything on a regular basis will make you more resilient and courageous. In other words, I’m continuously late to the wisdom party, but always glad that I eventually arrive at all.

And now I’ve learned that teaching something to others is the best way for me to improve my own understanding of a subject. Seneca had an eloquent quote about that too, go figure.

“While we teach, we learn”. –Seneca

In order to teach LEAN startup effectively, I must have a deep understanding of it myself (or I’ll be exposed as a charlatan before you can say build-measure-learn..). In order to teach customer development, Christer must grasp the underlying principles of why certain interview questions work, and others don’t. To share best practises about outreach and networking, we better have used what we teach successfully in the past ourselves, if only for mere credibility reasons. So in the process of teaching to others, the people who learn the most are arguably us, the educators. 

Christer and I enjoy thinking in terms of “learning accounting”, meaning we try to measure how much we learn from embarking on certain projects or making certain decisions. If we try a project that fails miserably according to standard metrics (financial or otherwise), but we learn a lot from it, we consider it a success.

Early Stage has been one of the biggest net contributors to my “learning accounts” over the past two years. While I am grateful for the opportunity to have an impact on a bunch of other people through teaching vital, future-proof skills, the secret is that I perhaps am the one who learns the most of all from this process.

Thank you students, for giving me this excellent learning opportunity – I look forwards to learning more together with you going forwards!

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