Lecture 1
11 September 2012

I slipped quietly into the back of the classroom, taking my seat beside the videographer, poised to observe.    Amazingly, the room was already buzzing.  A pre-lecture orientation session had encouraged the students to read widely, to think about what they had read, and to come prepared with a possible business opportunity.  It seems they had done all of that and more – the energy in the room was palpable.

Get in line

Associate Professor David Austin took to his feet at 6pm, launching into a ‘first lecture ice breaker’ inviting the students to place themselves on an ‘entrepreneurial spectrum’ to demonstrate their current level of understanding.   With no apparent hesitation, the students arranged themselves into a line (of sorts!),  starting at left with ‘can barely spell it’ to a confident young man at the far right of the line who sees himself as the next Richard Branson.   A roar of conversation erupted as each student was asked to explain their choice to those on either side.  A fun icebreaker and an intriguing snapshot – it might be interesting to repeat the exercise in a few weeks time!

If all you want is theory, leave the room

As I listen I am starting to think that this may not be your average MBA subject.  And as if reading my mind David explains to the students : this is not conceptual learning.  This is experiential learning where you will learn not ‘about’ entrepreneurship but ‘through’ entrepreneurship.  It will be demanding, fraught with uncertainty, characterised by fast paced change, chaos, continuous reassessment of the offering and more work than you can possibly imagine!  And if previous classes are an indicator, David also expects success!  (It seems the bar is high too – 5 of the 7 student projects developed in last term’s class are currently launching).  I ponder my own education and estimate with some disappointment the ratio of conceptual to experiential learning.

What gets right up your nose is good for you!

A quick survey of the room follows, surfacing an amazing array of spontaneous ‘opportunities’. The students are pressed, almost interrogated, to identify what really irritates them – and David challenges them to provide indicative metrics.  Dirty air results in early mortality, frustrating user experience reduces the likelihood of repeat purchase, transport congestion impacts productivity and so on.  The learning?  If we assume the world is fabulously flawed, opportunity abounds.

No pricks please

As the students sit with this, David cues a video – a Ted talk of engineer Myshkin Ingawale, a gentle, self effacing engineer who has developed a prick free blood test. Take a look, it’s an inspiring story…

(If you are watching on an iPad, you may need to click here)

I’d actually seen this video previously and my lasting impression had been one of admiration for a guy who persevered in the face of repeated failure.  On second viewing my take away was surprisingly different. What struck me this time was the importance of the customer’s problem, not the entrepreneur’s solution.

Are you are any good?

Inevitably with any first lecture the assessment tasks were described.  In a word, they are onerous!!  Each week the students must complete the prescribed reading, articulate their aspirations for the future, reflect on how the course may assist in realising their aspirations, identify questions with which they are grappling, and suggest a potential strategy for addressing these questions AND they are required to interview both an independent and a corporate entrepreneur (or intrapreneur) comparing and contrasting their experience with the literature AND on a weekly basis present the Business Model Canvas that describes their evolving business model.  All this and a day job too!  (And in some cases a second MBA subject!!)

It seems that the pace of refinement of the Business Model is critical and David recommends an iteration at least every 48 hours.  Failure to iterate is almost sure to result in businesses proceeding on the basis of false assumptions – hardly a recipe for success. I’m curious not only to see the business modeling process, but to understand how it feels for the students to abandon what may have seemed like a great idea at the time.

Killing Babies?

David then poses a question out of left field… “how many of you have children?  Nieces and nephews?”  With the vast majority of hands raised, David then asked “how many have an ugly baby?”  Muffled laughter ensues.  This turns out to be a very powerful visual cue to the students – as parents we invest heavily in the creation and nurturing of our children and cherish them regardless of their appearance.  Similarly an entrepreneur invests heavily in the creation and development of his business idea (his baby), and often falls in love with something that is flawed, or ugly.  However an unwillingness to ‘kill the ugly baby’ can lead to heavy investment in a venture that is flawed, ugly and sure to fail.

Edward then took to the floor.  A quietly spoken engineer, he has completed David’s Entrepreneurship subject as an Engineering Elective and is keen to learn more.  (David also teaches Entrepreneurship to post-graduate Engineering students at the University of Melbourne.) Edward knows not only the pain of killing a baby, but the cost of failing to do so.  Here is his story…

To Share or Not to Share?

Another anecdote followed, again borne out of experience.  Danil is an energetic young Russian and some years ago saw an opportunity to sell advertising on the millions of single-use tickets validated by train commuters every day.  For fear of having his idea stolen, he chose not to share it.  Three years later, advertising started to appear on the tickets.

By way of response, David makes what to me seems to be a counter-intuitive observation – perhaps I have spent too much time in competitive environments!  David’s experience is that the entrepreneurial community is highly collaborative – with individuals quick to support one another.  And in his view, investors are reluctant to put money on the ‘one man band’ who cannot team with others as the risk profile is simply unacceptable.  A lovely segue into the final segment of the lecture.

Pitching your baby

Students had been asked to identify a possible business opportunity that they might develop throughout the course.  The opportunity was to be presented in the form of a pitch – a very succinct description of the client problem, proposed solution, competitive landscape, revenue streams etc – with the goal of forming syndicate groups to validate (or refine) these opportunities.

And with no shortage of volunteers, we heard from…

  • a dentist who has developed early decay detection technology;
  • an art enthusiast seeking to create Fine Art Clubs for the shared investment in and enjoyment of art;
  • an IT service provider who wants to make his customers’ life simpler;
  • a financial services professional who has an idea for an on-line brokering solution;
  • a team of bankers who have what seems to be an obvious solution to the ‘running out of cash a week before pay day’ problem;
  • a creative thinker who wants to relieve people of their clutter through a rental scheme;
  • a researcher who has developed an on line diagnostic tool that is ready for commercialisation;
  • a full time student who has an offering that allows people to ‘buy without being sold to’; and
  • an engineer who has a vision for reducing traffic congestion.

I’m staggered by the collective experience in the room – what an amazing group of highly educated, innovative individuals!

Take a quick look at the pitch process….

I was astounded not only by the maturity of their thinking, but by the confidence each had in delivering their respective pitches.  By now the three hour lecture has gone 20 minutes over time and (I sense with some reluctance) David draws the session to a close with a simple parting thought : “if it drives people nuts then it is probably an opportunity to create value – your challenge is to find a business model to capture some of that value”……..

(Not) Heading for Home

Expecting to see the room clear pretty quickly – after all most of these folk have demanding day jobs – the energy levels remained high as students clamoured to get more detail from those pitching business ideas.   As discussion continued and syndicate groups took shape, I became aware of the cleaner waiting patiently at the back of the room to start his work.  It’s almost 10 pm.

So what of all of this?  Exhausting, exhilarating, stimulating and inspiring.  A heady mix of theory, of practical examples, of emotional upheaval.  And as I head for home in the crisp night air I have a wonderful sense of anticipation at what lies ahead.

— Post Script —

A quick email from David this morning to let me know that one student has chosen to withdraw from the course already.  He feels he lacks the passion required for the subject – and David is respectful of his insight and foresight.

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