May 31st, 2012 by Megan under Electives, Entrepreneurship. 2 Comments.
Entrepreneurship and New Ventures: previously an elective all about writing business plans, now a fast-paced “Survivor”-esque challenge where grades are based on real profits and karma points. Sounded…interesting. But for the first few days of class, I was a bit skeptical that things would shape up how Professor Goldfarb had envisioned. As a former business owner, I embraced the ambiguity of the challenges, yet wasn’t sure that it would work out to be an enriching experience as a course – especially since we only had seven weeks to work out all the details and actually turn a profit. I also questioned my own ability to put forth the extra effort that would undoubtedly be necessary to succeed in running a five-week business, and accepted the fact that I, and my colleagues, would likely be half-engaged.
However, with the first challenge – a two-hour business with $5 seed money – I started to understand that this was going to be a completely different, innovative and competitive class. I was amazed at the variety of businesses imagined by our cohort, and found myself engaged on multiple levels of interest; much the way I felt as I was starting my own business. I got excited about the creative ways an entrepreneur can define a market and innovate to address its needs, and enjoyed debating the merits and challenges of the many concepts put forth by my classmates.
The business I ran with two partners, Cafe Dingman, was quite straightforward: good coffee and lunch delivery to a captive audience (i.e. business school students, faculty, and staff). We became the temporary darlings of the school, and although it took up a lot of our formerly free time, it was fun, relatively easy, and called upon our collective experience and knowledge of the hospitality industry. We negotiated discounts with suppliers and local restaurants, carefully navigated campus regulations and department networks, and truly provided a service that was in high demand.
We were rolling along quite nicely, making profits and growing our business, until we were voted out by our classmates on one of the challenges, despite being an obvious front runner in the class/competition. Our team was a bit blindsided by the vote, which appeared to be the result of collusion between the other teams. There was a lengthy debate, both sides with high emotions and high stakes in the game. My teammates argued that we were here to learn to grow a business, and we were doing exactly that – why should we be excluded because we didn’t play “the game” the others were playing? Few teams had made any money all, as with each weekly challenge at least one team was excluded and had to join other teams or start new ventures. As our grade was based partly on the amount of profits we generated, they took the opportunity to bring down the competition on this subjective vote on “best use of tools” to define our businesses. Our customers were shocked and confused, angered, even (people really love good coffee), as we tried to figure out what to do next.
It was during this turmoil that I truly understood the innovative brilliance of this curriculum. As I reflected on my experience to that point, I realized that my classmates and I had been SO engaged, we might have missed the lessons that were subtly – yet incredibly effectively – being taught to us through this “Survivor meets Entrepreneurship” class format. We didn’t need to go to business school to learn to run a coffee cart – I had successfully run a catering company in Washington, DC before returning to school, and had managed several popular restaurants over the previous decade. However, I had never fully appreciated the importance of navigating relationships with competition, developing strategic alliances, and making compromises for a collective benefit – we had been successful as a business, but we hadn’t built any bridges or hedges to maintain our lead.
The subjective vote, and its timing near the end of the semester, was specifically designed to teach this lesson. Having been so disappointed by the vote, and having a chance to reflect on the reason the professor designed this challenge, I started to realize all of the lessons I had been learning during the semester; lessons I never learned as a former business owner, yet which would have been highly beneficial to our company’s success. Entrepreneurship is more than a good plan and money in the bank – it’s a journey that is constantly in flux and riddled with uncertainty, ambiguity, risk, and excitement.
Having participated in this curriculum experiment, I can’t imagine entrepreneurship being taught in any other way. Early in the semester we read an article titled, “Trust Me, Your Idea is Worthless,” explaining that the only value of an idea is in its execution. I was fortunate to have been with two very motivated partners, who were dedicated to to that idea – we made a rough sketch of our concept, and just went for it, pivoting as needed along the way. We made real decisions, negotiated real contracts, sought real advice from our professor and other advisors, and made real money. I wouldn’t trade that experience for an “A” on any number of creative, yet unexecuted, business plans.