In his book, Future Shock, the noted futurist and author, Alvin Toffler declared that today is the least amount of change you’ll see in your lifetime. He said this in 1970, before smart phones and 24/7 Internet access. Toffler believed that the very idea of a job would become obsolete and that lifelong learning was the future. As we enter the fourth industrial revolution, entrepreneurial education may provide a blueprint for the future of work.
“The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” – Alvin Toffler, Noted Futurist and Author, Future Shock
The Rise of Entrepreneurship
I believe there are several trends that have given rise to entrepreneurship. The 2008 recession, the growing gig economy, accelerated and constant technology changes and the popularity of startup culture.
The financial crisis of 2007 and the resulting recession of 2008 dramatically changed the way we think about work. As the number of displaced executives grew, many abandoned traditional job searches to launch new businesses and consulting practices. By 2010, roughly 8.7M jobs were lost and independent contractors grew in numbers and popularity. As of 2018, nearly 57 million U.S. workers had joined the gig economy, or more than one third of the U.S. population. Technology provides 24/7 access to job searches and hiring talent in real time. It has forever changed the way we work, play and buy. Examples of this new reality is all around us and includes companies like Craigslist which launched in 1995 and is now in 70+ countries; Airbnb which launched in 2008 and has grown to roughly 100,000 users on its site every month; The Uber App came out in 2009, and Lyft in 2012. The preoccupation with startups and their founders became a nationwide trend when the TV show, Shark Tank was released. Newly minted founders now had a global platform where the very notion of starting your company was celebrated and rewarded with lucrative investment partnerships. There are currently 400 million entrepreneurs worldwide.
It’s not surprising that the popularity of starting your own business has given rise to entrepreneurship programs, from less than 200 in 1990 to more than 2,000 in 2014. There are currently 254 Entrepreneurship Bachelor degrees offered in the U.S. and the number is growing. More than 300 schools offer programs in entrepreneurship and for more than a decade, Princeton Review has published a separate ranking for the top 25 undergraduate and top 25 graduate programs in entrepreneurship. Top ranked Stanford Graduate Business School, launched it’s Go-to-Market Program in 2015 for aspiring entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs to help them turn an idea into a business.
The rise of entrepreneurship education has also helped spread the myth of the lone genius founder.
The “Lone Genius” Myth
It’s easy to understand why college students have elevated founders like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg to myth status. After all, what is more alluring to an aspiring entrepreneur than the idea of a lone genius (and Harvard drop out) who changed the fabric of social discourse and created a new way of communication, with only his drive and imagination to guide him. Students, along with the rest of us, love to romanticize the quirky outliers with a burning desire to change the world, but the myth of the lone genius is just that, a myth. The reality is much less glamorous but also more realistic and much more attainable.
It is true that Zuckerberg created something extraordinary, but Facebook as we know it today, took years of hard work from a lot of people who believed in his vision and were willing to sacrifice years of short-term gains for long-term benefits. The lone genius is often the catalyst for a great idea, but you need the right team to help make your vision a reality. In the case of Facebook, it included designers, developers, business advisors, seasoned executives and investors.
Ethan Bresnahan, the co-founder of the Drexel student startup, Boost Linguistics, believes that the lone genius myth may have its roots in comic book super heroes. Just as our favourite hero saved the day, we like the simplicity of the lone genius narrative in the business world. It makes for a great story but the reality is that a startup is a complex ecosystem with many unsung heroes. The lone genius myth may also create barriers to scaling.
Ethan readily admits that he wished he’d let go of the myth of the genius loner sooner and focused instead on building a startup culture and growing the right team. As a founder, you wear many hats and at first, that kind of flexibility can be an asset. But as times goes by, the lone genius myth can make students feel uncomfortable about letting go of their own ideas and turn to seasoned experts for advice. Some see it as a sign of weakness to admit that they don’t have all the answers. I found that many of my students in The Close School of Entrepreneurship at Drexel University, focused much of their creative energy on trying to come up with something no one had ever done before, to be the first. As a result, they often missed the opportunity to improve on customer experience for existing products. Not everything needs to be built from the ground up. It’s time consuming and expensive. Carving out a niche in a known and lucrative market is a lofty goal and a smart business model. If you put aside ego, you can look for those opportunities and still be a successful entrepreneur.
The Power of Stories
Entrepreneurship programs teach today’s digital natives how to translate big data into usable metrics, develop a marketing plan for new products and take advantage of growing trends such as globalization. The best programs are also teaching them how to craft authentic and meaningful business stories. Maya Angelou once declared that “people will never forget how you made them feel.” This is especially true as technology outpaces our ability to process the changes it brings about. Data is plentiful but what we connect with are stories, not numbers. Studies have shown that consumers are much more likely to purchase products and services from companies they care about and can engage with, so it’s not surprising that storytelling now outpaces content marketing.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou, poet, singer, memoirist and civil rights activist
Storytelling is a powerful framework when talking about your startup. How does your origin story play a role in identifying who you are? Your ideal customer? More importantly, how does your story engage that customer and the investors you hope will invest in your vision to see it realized? That’s why the first step to building your brand should be to identify your vision and your core value as a founder and as a brand. Clarity of purpose helps identify products that are aligned with your vision and the type of customer who will want to buy them. It also helps focus your messaging so it’s less transactional and more relational. When your messaging focuses on competitive pricing, that’s transactional. Storytelling builds relationships and in the long run, that’s much more sustainable.
When founders don’t take the time to identify and strategically communicate their vision, they spend a lot of time throwing things on the wall to see what sticks. This lack of vision translates into unclear and confusing marketing that makes it harder to identify their ideal customer and quickly scale their business. It also hurts them when it comes to building the right team and that has a direct impact on their bottom line. A 2018 study by CB Insights shows that having the wrong team is the #3 reason that startups fail.
Source: CB Insights
Think like an Entrepreneur
Teaching in the Close School of Entrepreneurship at Drexel University, taught me that not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur—and that’s a good thing to discover while you’re still in your 20s.
I believe that the true value of entrepreneurship education may lie in learning how to “think different,” to quote the iconic Apple tagline. Entrepreneurship education turns students into empathic listeners, strategic thinkers and global collaborators who can pivot quickly, and effortlessly. These are the skills we will all need to succeed in the future of work. As Alvin Tofler predicted fifty years ago, the future is now.
Orly Zeewy is a brand architect and Facilitator of Lightbulb Moments based in Philadelphia. Before starting her consulting practice in 2001, she ran an award-winning design and marketing communications firm for 14 years and worked with national clients such as Cigna, Kraft Foods and Prince Tennis. In addition to helping startups cut through the noise, she is a public speaker and an adjunct professor in the MSSD program at Jefferson University. Her Marketing Guide for Startups will be published in 2020.