Can Anyone Learn To Be An Entrepreneur?


You can't learn to be an entrepreneur in a classroom.

At least, I don't think you can.

I've thought about this for years, from the very first time I joined a startup and flailed madly trying to get a lay of the land that was never going to materialize. That company went from zero to acquisition in three years, and it was the most uncomfortable ride in the world until I figured out I'd just have to make shit up as I went along.

Which, I now realize, ten startups and five solid exits later, is also not the answer.

But seriously, you can't learn to be an entrepreneur in a classroom.

I guess you can learn some of the nuts and bolts -- the legal stuff, the financial stuff, maybe some code -- but that's left brain stuff, and I believe the vast majority of learned entrepreneurism is right brain stuff.

Can you imagine a class on leadership? I mean, I know they're out there but how do they keep everyone from stabbing themselves in the eyeballs. How about motivation and persistence? Is that just a 90-minute slideshow of inspirational quotes on idyllic backgrounds set to Kenny G?

And something tells me that the decision to enroll in a decision-making class probably seals your failing grade.

I've been learning entrepreneurism for 20+ years, all of it by doing. And I don't recommend that path. It sucks. It's full of costly trial-and-error, painful mistakes, humbling failure, crippling stress, and general peerlessness.

Actually wait, I do recommend that path, to a certain extent. You have to go through all that to truly call yourself an entrepreneur. You just shouldn't have to reinvent the wheel. Like everything I look at, I see the entrepreneurial journey and I want to streamline, reduce friction, and add more intelligence.

I believe you can apply those concepts to teaching entrepreneurism. But first you have to identify the right student.

Not everyone can learn to be an entrepreneur, but everyone should have a shot at it. One of the mistakes the general startup ecosystem makes is aiming its focus at a prototypical, even stereotypical, potential entrepreneur. Young, safety-netted, Type A, college graduate, nothing to lose. This is aiming way too narrow.

Young: I've written about this often, but the best entrepreneurs are going to be older, more experienced, probably have been through the corporate grind, and preferably already failed at their own thing once or twice.

Safety-netted: I just made that term up but you got it right away, didn't you? It's very, very easy to tell someone to go for broke when they're not going to end up broke. I've found that most startup education is biased towards someone who has some way to pick up all the pieces pretty easily if everything goes to hell. Most people don't enjoy this luxury, it doesn't mean they want it any less.

Type A: Not every successful entrepreneur is gregarious. It just happens to be easier to seek these people out because they meet you more than halfway. Trust me, it's much, much easier to hire in sales expertise than it is to hire in a visionary or a leader.

College Graduate: We're finally starting to look at entrepreneurism as an alternative to higher education, not as a way to see the world after higher education. There's an elitism here that says the best entrepreneurs come from (or drop out of) Stanford and Harvard. False.

Nothing to Lose: Just like the lack of safety net, this implies that startup is more like a game or a lifestyle than a higher calling. You need skin in the game. To bring the metaphor totally to a high-wire act, you need to not only be working without a safety net, you also need to be more than two or three feet in the air.

What you are looking for, in terms of the best kind of entrepreneurial student, is the independent. The rebel. The punk. The one for whom money and title and status don't mean nearly as much as their mission.

If you want to be really good at identifying potential entrepreneurs, you create a system by which they can self identify. Because they will.

Anyone can be taught the left-brain stuff, but it takes a certain mindset to learn the right-brain stuff. Hell, half the time we don't even learn from our own mistakes. I blame an education system that for about 100 years has defined success as the absence of failure.

Yeah. Think about how many times you performed in school based solely on the fear that you didn't want to be digging ditches for the rest of your life.

Entrepreneurs, even potential entrepreneurs, see things the opposite way. We perform because we're feeding the curiosity of what that next level feels like. Whether this is inherent, born vs. made, is an ongoing argument. Personally, I think this type of entrepreneurial mindset can be learned, and furthermore it must be learned before any of the right-brain entrepreneurial concepts can be learned.

And none of this, by the way, happens in a classroom.