$50 million. That’s how much Google paid Nathan Stoll of Stanford University and his team to acquire their search-engine company, Aardvark. My business team eagerly takes notes as we hear his story. The next day, another team talks to a senior executive at Comcast, inquiring about the market for interactive TVs. We’re in ENGR 409, a two-week, one credit course offered through the University’s Center for Entrepreneurship.
The CFE, formed in 2008, offers a growing number of courses and resources available to all students interested in business and entrepreneurship. ENGR 407 hosts a weekly lecture series that invites accomplished entrepreneurs to speak. Most students don’t know about these opportunities. Fewer know that the Engineering label is misleading — anyone can take advantage of the classes offered by the CFE.
Let me stop you before you steal your friend’s great idea and imagine mass amounts of money flowing into your bank account. Though “The Social Network” might lead you to believe otherwise, a great idea plus start up money doesn’t necessarily equal profit. My other CFE class, ENGR 520, debunks this myth, teaching us how to identify whether our ladder (our idea) is leaning against the right tree (market validation).
Some more debunking: While it might be inspiring to hear how successful entrepreneurs turned their passion into a lucrative reality, most entrepreneurs don’t have such success. But you just don’t hear those types of lectures. How often do you hear an adult say that following his passions screwed him over in the long run?
Don’t let this deter you. Not everyone can be a wealthy entrepreneur, but everyone can be a bit entrepreneurial. At the recent LSA career fair, a recruiter told me he was seeking students who display an entrepreneurial spirit. He meant he wanted a student who generates productive ideas, effectively leads groups and knows how to make things happen.
Notice how such skills are different from those exemplified by good students. Being a student trains you to accomplish predefined tasks and to game a certain system. Entrepreneurship requires gaming a different system — the market, in which the grading rubric is blurry. You can’t become innovative by studying its definition from a PowerPoint slide. You develop such skills by pursuing self-designed projects and learning from your mistakes. CFE creates such a space, showing that entrepreneurship isn’t only about hi-tech start-ups. It’s also about assessing what value you can provide and how you can provide it, regardless of your major or skill set.
Ben Casnocha, entrepreneur and author of “My Start-Up Life”, believes that entrepreneurship is a lifestyle. In his book, he says that he believes in “thinking different, challenging the status quo, striving for impact, and generally maintaining a commitment to carve your own life path and not outsource that vital task to anyone else like a parent or professor.” These attributes describe Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi and Bill Gates. Their goals might have been different, but they all demonstrated entrepreneurial abilities in achieving them.
Let’s define the student entrepreneur. He isn’t only interested in building businesses. He’s also the political science major who starts a political organization, using it as a platform to connect thinkers from other disciplines. She’s the art major who sets up her own exhibit, inviting artists from outside the area with the intent to enliven Ann Arbor’s art community.
He plays the student card: Students would be amazed at what they can achieve by cold calling people in positions of power and saying “I’m working on this project. Could you offer any help? I’m a student from the University of Michigan.”
Most of all, the student entrepreneur acknowledges that the time for taking risks is now, that the cost of failure — for flip-flopping ideologies, experimenting and pursuing all sorts of projects — as a student will never be lower.
In ENGR 409, we learned to conclude our “elevator pitches” to customers with a call to action. Here’s mine: The University presents unparalleled resources to think like an entrepreneur, but it’s too easy to miss these opportunities. If this column has piqued your curiosity, let’s talk about how we can be a bit more entrepreneurial in our University lives.
Erik Torenberg can be reached at email@example.com.