While we appear to be rebounding from our recent economic downturn, the consensus is we have miles to travel before we reach solid ground. Unemployment remains high, but with rent, mortgages, car notes, and tuition to pay, many are thinking seriously about how they can jumpstart their own economy by starting a business. Even young people-notoriously focused more on getting jobs than creating jobs-are showing interest in writing their own ticket. This has made the community college a powerful hotbed of entrepreneurial economic opportunity.
This exciting movement in the marketplace begs the question: "Are we giving those desperately searching for economic opportunity the best chance at success?” In other words, are the entrepreneurship programs springing up all across the country at community colleges really making the grade? Are we helping or hurting the budding entrepreneur?
Those who study small business at community colleges have always been eager to put their new knowledge to work right away. Most have to. But this environment has placed new demands on community college small business programs. Let’s be frank. Theory won’t cut it. Your students want to know what they learn in the classroom will really work in the real world. And many are doing their own homework, long before the college professor gives an assignment.
I have long been concerned about the quality of entrepreneurship education in colleges and universities because of the realities of teaching something many believe you can’t really teach. The problem is compounded by the resumes of those leading the charge. Most professors have not run their businesses, and many do not want to. And if they have, they are often removed from the day-to-day nuances and developments in the marketplace, meaning they may not be giving the best "stuff” to entrepreneurship students.
Entrepreneurs can really help in the classroom, but many entrepreneurs are unwilling to devote lengthy periods of time teaching aspiring entrepreneurs–particularly in a classroom setting. Most are concerned about how best to use their creative time to make more money and the semester format doesn’t lend itself to the entrepreneur’s ongoing involvement.
With these realities in mind, I thought I would share my view on how you might make entrepreneurship education more real at your institution during this critical time. Here are three tips:
Begin with a "Create A New Life” Plan
Whenever we speak about programs aimed at helping others start their own businesses the first thing we gravitate to is the standard refrain, "Let’s write a business plan.” I would like to suggest this is the wrong place to begin. I believe educators should do a better job of helping entrepreneurs think more about developing their own life plan, which will shape and be influenced by the business. What kind of lifestyle do they want? How do they want to operate? How much time are they prepared to devote to business building? How big do they want to grow? What kind of business culture do they want to have? How will the business change their life? While business plans can be very valuable, they can become so abstract that the new entrepreneur never really understands the implications and opportunities of the new business and how their life is about to change.
Continue with a "Win The Customer” Plan
Until you have a customer, you are not in business. Yet I find many entrepreneurs are more concerned about logos, Web sites, and the latest technology than serving those living, breathing human beings known as customers. I personally think the surge in dismal customer service can be traced back to the absence of a good grounding in what it means to have and keep a customer. I would challenge educators to spend considerable time with new entrepreneurs in helping them understand how to market to and service customers. The new entrepreneur must have a clear sense of who their customers are, how they think and why they would want to take advantage of their product or service. There is absolutely no replacement for in-depth customer knowledge and this is far more meaningful to the typical entrepreneur than what winds up in most business plans.
Develop a "Make Money” Plan
Once you know what you want, and what your customer wants, it’s time to really nail how you’re going to make money satisfying yourself and your customer. So often the answer to this question is buried in a 200-page business plan and the new entrepreneur never really understands how they will make money. I’m suggesting here working with the entrepreneur to develop a one or two pager that the entrepreneur can get their arms around: "If I sell this many of my product here is what we’ll gross. If I sell at this price, here is my margin and here is my profit.” The entrepreneur must have a clear understanding of the results of each transaction. You must also make sure the new entrepreneur understands that in most cases a sale is not the same as cash flow. Not understanding that can be disastrous for the new business owner.
If we help aspiring entrepreneurs understand these key elements, it will go a long way to helping them understand what it takes to succeed in the real world.
André Taylor is an entrepreneur, consultant, and author of the book You Can Still Win! He’s chief executive of Taylor Insight, a New York-based leadership development firm, serving entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial companies. He’s a regular contributor to ABC News Money Matters, and a community college graduate. More at www.andretaylor.com.