Sramana Mitra, 02.26.10, 6:00 AM ET
I know I am entering highly contentious territory. Academia generally looks down upon entrepreneurs even as they teach entrepreneurship in business schools and other university programs around the world.
Meanwhile, I have come to observe that most business school programs have an extensive emphasis on fundraising, especially from venture capitalists, and very little pragmatic understanding of what it really takes to get a venture off the ground. As a result, business schools launch students into the real world with completely unrealistic expectations, set up to fail.
Last week I launched a discussion on my blog asking my readers in academia to weigh in on teaching bootstrapping in business schools. It generated an active discussion from which I will synthesize a few points.
Robert Hacker is representative of the kind of dismissive attitude prevalent in academia. Hacker writes: "I have been teaching entrepreneurship at FIU in Miami for five years. Focus of the course is on building big companies (revenue over $100MM) rather than self-employment or family businesses. I generally focus on friends and family as the first round of capital because of the importance of capital raising in most growth businesses. I generally discuss bootstrapping in the context of capital efficiency and certain business models/industries that lend themselves to this approach, such as certain Web businesses with high margins and low start-up costs."
Hacker comes from a finance background, and when you are a hammer, of course, everything looks like a nail. Hacker misses the point that a business can only become big if it can first get off the ground. The problem with his assumption is that his students are most likely to come out and try to raise money immediately and mostly bump around against solid walls. Today's reality? Investors fund businesses that have already taken off, not a slide deck or a business plan. (Read The EJ Methodology: How To Check Infant Entrepreneur Mortality.)
Hacker also assumes that you can only build mom-and-pops with bootstrapping. How very wrong! Ask Frank Levinson and Jerry Rawls of Finisar whose bootstrapped venture went public at a $5 billion valuation. Or ask Christian Chabot of Tableau Software, who raised his Series A from NEA at a $20 million pre-money valuation by bootstrapping the early stages, when typical valuations for that round are in the $2 to $5 million range.
Rob Fuller at UC San Diego agrees that bootstrapping is critical. "As a serial entrepreneur who has started a few businesses of my own, and an entrepreneurship educator, I can tell you that I am a firm believer in bootstrapping," he says "Our new venture creation courses in the Entrepreneur Development Program at UC San Diego ALWAYS involve a discussion of bootstrapping. Unless you are a bio tech/hi-tech/clean tech darling with 'many multiples' return potential, VCs won't talk to you. Angels are also particular about their portfolios these days, so if you are not one of the above that pretty much leaves you 3F financing (family, friends & fools) or bootstrapping to launch your new venture."
Tim Berry, founder of Palo Alto Software, and an adjunct faculty at University of Oregon acknowledges: "Yes, I do think bootstrapping is undervalued in business schools, and under-represented in the curriculum, for several reasons: 1) Academic inertia, meaning that business schools teach entrepreneurship as being about developing a business plan and getting financed by investors, and they have for a generation or so (well, at least half a generation) now, and it's hard to change; 2) The visible successes in entrepreneurship, meaning the Googles and Yahoo!s and Apple Computers take the high road, meaning, again, developing a plan, getting financed by professional investors; 3) Bootstrapping is harder to teach, it's a much broader range of possibilities, takes a lot more flexibility and case-by-case thinking. 4) The literature, textbooks and such tend to emphasize the business plan and get investors variety of entrepreneurship."
While the pace of change is slow, indeed, many professors of entrepreneurship at a diverse range of business schools have adopted their curriculums to the realities of the modern day world where credit is tight and equity elusive for the early stage entrepreneur.
Jeff Cornwall at Belmont University, George Deriso at the University of Colorado's Leeds School of Business, Trey Goede at St. Louis University, Ken Harrington at Washington University in St. Louis, Jay Azriel at York College of Pennsylvania and SherRhonda Gibb at University of Southern Mississippi are all representative of this neo-entrepreneurship faculty that appreciate the practical success factors of young entrepreneurs. Perhaps it is necessity that drives their curriculum design, as access to venture capital or even angel investors is elusive.
Karen Southall Watts sums it up this way: "Because entrepreneurship education is still relatively 'new' as a discipline, what schools offer is often reflective of the faculty involved in creating the programs. I teach at Bellingham Technical College—most of my work has been with community colleges and small business centers—and I always include bootstrapping and the concept of non-debt start-up in my courses.
"Entrepreneurship education has gone through some phases; from a focus on personality type to an emphasis on business plans and loans and finally now (at least in MY courses) a focus on strategies and competencies that lead to success."
Southall Watts' students, quite likely, would never be able to access venture capital or any other kind of major financing.
In fact, unless you are teaching at Stanford or MIT, or a handful of institutions with similar access to the financial community, you better come to terms with the fact that your realistic path to grooming successful entrepreneurs is through bootstrapping. So don't mislead the students, don't set them up with unrealistic expectations.
Don't set them up for failure.
Sramana Mitra is a technology entrepreneur and strategy consultant in Silicon Valley. She has founded three companies and writes a business blog, Sramana Mitra on Strategy. She has a master's degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her three books, Entrepreneur Journeys, Bootstrapping, Weapon Of Mass Reconstruction, and Positioning: How To Test, Validate, and Bring Your Idea To Market are all available from Amazon. Her new book Vision India 2020 was recently released. She also runs the 1M/1M initiative.