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Turning a dreamer into an entrepreneur

Dec 10, 2014

Simple exercises like a bake sale can help people develop an entrepreneurial mindset, says Stewart Thornhill.
Credit Flickr

Once someone learns that I’m an entrepreneurship professor, sooner or later I’ll be asked: “Can you really teach entrepreneurship?” This seems to come from the long-held – and consistently disproved – belief that entrepreneurs are special and if you aren’t born that way (props to Lady Gaga), there’s no point in trying. So let’s get that out of the way right now. Yes, entrepreneurship can be taught and learned, and entrepreneurs are just like the rest of us.

I’ll go so far as to say that the only thing that makes someone an entrepreneur (versus a dreamer) is the act of trying something. Have an idea and stop – you’re a dreamer. Have an idea and act – you’re an entrepreneur. Pretty simple, really.

We usually don’t have to teach people how to have ideas. But we can teach them how to look actively for opportunities. And how to tell good ideas from bad ones. And to evaluate how well a given idea or opportunity aligns with their personal goals and ambitions. And how to estimate the cost and feasibility of a new business concept. So, that’s the first part, though there’s a lot more to it, and really good ideas are harder to find than you might imagine.

But what about taking that first step? Isn’t that risky? Don’t you have to have the right type of personality to take chances?

Yes, risk tolerance (or propensity to take risk) varies from person to person. It’s a mix of nature and nurture, but it’s not as simple as whether someone is a risk taker. I prefer to think in terms of mindset, which is something that you can affect in yourself and others.

Two important steps in establishing the right mindset are giving people role models to emulate and providing opportunities to try things themselves. Using Oprah or Elon Musk as a model may have aspirational benefits, but in the real world it’s best to look to someone who’s a lot like ourselves. If we’re similar to an entrepreneur, and they’ve been able to make something work, maybe we can too. I often invite recent graduates back to the classroom and the current students realize that it wasn’t that long ago that the guest at the front of the room was sitting in the same seat they’re occupying now. Sometimes all it takes is a small connection to ignite the spark that eventually turns into a new venture.

Learning by doing is also incredibly powerful. That doesn’t mean you have to raise money and launch a major enterprise. It can be as simple as making something and selling it. Think about bake sales in school. Or garage sales. Or any situation where we were able to create something that was valuable to someone else. Because really, that’s what entrepreneurs do – they create value. No value, no customers.

In our communities there are all sorts of organizations that create value, whether it’s the Boy Scouts teaching woodland skills, or Junior Achievement teaching how to create an actual business. And the earlier we start instilling a can-do mindset, the more time each nascent entrepreneur will have to seek out and find an opportunity worth pursuing.

So what’s The Next Idea?

Let’s not worry about being born into entrepreneurship, let’s focus instead on teaching through example and learning by doing. Let’s create opportunities for everyone, young and old, to try their hands at making someone’s life a little better (which is really what it means to create value for someone).

We can make the learning so much more effective if it’s OK to fail. Most new ideas aren’t great straight out of the box. Learning from what doesn’t work is an important part of the entrepreneurial mindset. Obviously we don’t set out with the intention of failing, but we should be prepared for setbacks and prime ourselves to learn from them when they happen. Our role models can reinforce that lesson, and sometimes it’s a very hard one to learn. But if you can pull it all together: spot an opportunity, do something about it, and learn from what happens, then before you know it, you’ve become an entrepreneur.

Fortunately, little learning experiments can happen virtually anywhere and at any age. For example, if five people each put $2 in a pot, you can see how much profit you can generate in one week with the initial $10 investment.  If you set it up as a competition, amazing things can happen.  When using this as a classroom exercise, I’ve seen little enterprises that generated hundreds of dollars based on little more than hustle and creative thinking. Within a community, outstanding ventures could easily share their experiences in broader online communities, though Facebook, You Tube, etc. The model works for fundraising or charitable organizations as well, because the profit isn’t the point, it’s the process. Make something. Sell something. Make a little more (using the profits) and sell a little more. Improve the product. Keep making and selling. It doesn’t have to be big or complicated. It just needs to be something that someone wants or needs enough to spend a little cash to get it.

And if no one likes the idea or wants to buy the product, there are two lessons to be learned. The simple one is that customers are hard to predict. The bigger one is that getting it wrong isn’t the end of the world. Both are great lessons to learn for a couple of bucks. And that’s really what mindset is all about. Taking “no” as a place to learn and move forward is the entrepreneurial mindset. Taking “no” as a final answer isn’t.

Share Your Ideas:

  •  Do you have any examples of grassroots entrepreneurship in your community? 
  •  What ideas do you have to encourage entrepreneurship? 

Join the conversation in the comments section below, on Twitter or Facebook, or let us know your Next Idea here

Stewart Thornhill is the executive director of the Samuel Zell & Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.