Does formal education tame the entrepreneurial beast? Or, does it create a more efficient breed of hunter?
Reached by phone in early September, Kyle MacNevin is running errands.
“I’m just trying on a dress shirt for Fashion Week,” he says. “We’re going to New York tomorrow so I gotta pick up a few new things, to make sure I look OK.”
MacNevin’s Fredericton clothing startup, Wear Your Label, was recently chosen as one of nine emerging design companies. The title came with a large perk: the startup got its own show in SoHo during Fashion Week. “It’s going to be phenomenal,” MacNevin says shortly before departing for New York.
Wear Your Label makes clothing that’s intended to encourage conversations about mental health. The company’s t-shirts and leggings are decorated with taglines such as “Sad But Rad,” “Stressed But Well Dressed,” and “I Live With Mental Illness, But I Define Me.”
Despite being a two-person startup with limited sales, Wear Your Label has benefited from a flurry of recent media attention. Just more than a year old, Wear Your Label has been covered by People magazine, The Today Show, and MTV.
The publicity has increased sales to about 500 orders each month (worth approximately $7,500). As a result, MacNevin and his co-founder, Kayley Reed, are hunting for a chief operating officer with the industry experience needed to help grow their startup. Among their goals: getting Wear Your Label clothes, now sold exclusively online, into retail locations across North America in 2016.
Wear Your Label is not lululemon. But it’s doing fairly well for a company started just 18 months ago. And MacNevin largely credits that success to the pair’s time in the University of New Brunswick’s Summer Institute, which is among the newest of the many entrepreneurship courses and programs taught at postsecondary institutions across Atlantic Canada.
From the University of Prince Edward Island’s business administration degree with a specialization in entrepreneurship, to Dalhousie University’s entrepreneurship and innovation major, entrepreneurship training options abound at local universities.
But can academics really teach someone to be an entrepreneur, or are they merely able to give students tools that help them become more effective entrepreneurs? In other words, can the early success of Wear Your Label actually be attributed to the lessons and mentorship received at the Summer Institute, or were MacNevin and Reed bound to create a vibrant startup through their natural talent and drive?
It’s a question Blair Winsor has pondered deeply in both academia and the private sector.
Growing up, Winsor’s family owned a string of convenience stores. He later worked for a tech startup in the U.S. (Thrucomm) that “went bust, spectacularly” during the dot-com bubble. Winsor earned his PhD and taught entrepreneurship in the U.K. for a dozen years. He now teaches the topic at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s.
Winsor says a good teacher can certainly provide an entrepreneur with tools to improve their approach. But can you teach someone to be an entrepreneur in the first place? Winsor believes so, but notes there’s no empirical proof.
Say a student takes his introduction to entrepreneurship course at age 19, but doesn’t start a company until age 35. Did Winsor’s teachings play a role? Perhaps. “Cause and effect is extremely difficult to prove,” he says.
It’s a nature-versus-nurture question that has yet to be answered (though Winsor is involved with a long-term study out of McMaster University that is aiming to provide some clarity). For Winsor, the more important question is this: Are Atlantic Canadian universities teaching entrepreneurship effectively?
In each of his classes, Winsor seeks feedback about his own teaching. He hands a marker to one of the students and leaves the room. The students are instructed to write on the board five aspects of the course or his teaching that should remain in place. They also must identify five elements that should change.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about entrepreneurship. And I spend a lot of time thinking about how to teach it effectively,” he says. “I think we need to do a better job at measuring our effectiveness.”
Concludes Winsor: “I personally believe… we need to do a better job.”
Similar thoughts inspired Gavin Uhma to create the UIT “startup immersion” program at Cape Breton University.
Uhma grew up in Sydney. At CBU, a decade ago, he enrolled in the bachelor of technology information program. Offered through the business school, it taught students both technology skills—such as programming and networking—as well as business skills like marketing and accounting. Uhma went on to co-create GoInstant, which San Francisco-based Salesforce bought in 2012 for an undisclosed sum.
The program Uhma took at CBU no longer exists. So he decided to design a modern version. Though based in Halifax, Uhma spends a good deal of time in Silicon Valley. That perspective influences the UIT program. The two-semester program aims to teach students the technical and business skills employed by the world’s most successful startups. “We wanted to rethink how we would teach technology and business,” Uhma says by phone from San Francisco.
Now in its second year, students take the UIT course fulltime over the fall and winter semesters. They start out learning various aspects of software development, from app design to database construction. They then delve into business topics such as product development and pricing. As the course progresses, students are challenged to apply those skills to their own product and business ideas.
“We call it startup immersion because what we try to do is really immerse them in what it’s like to run a startup.” Uhma says. “We had people last year who came into the program with no technology skills and no ideas, who now have a technology startup that they founded.”
The track of Wear Your Label followed a comparable path.
MacNevin and Reed met while working at a mental health organization. The twentysomethings bonded while sharing their experiences with mental illness (he has generalized anxiety disorder and ADHD; she was dealing with an eating disorder). They also connected over their mutual love of fashion. (Reed was a model, and MacNevin, as he puts it, really likes clothes). The pair eventually decided to launch a business that fuses those two topics of shared interest. (They’ve pledged to donate 10 per cent of their profits to mental health research and organizations.)
In the Summer Institute, the pair was mentored by both John Leroux, a Fredericton architect, artist and art historian, and Philip LeBlanc, an artist, designer and entrepreneur.
For more technical business or legal questions, MacNevin and Reed simply requested help. “We would just ask and the next day there would be someone there to answer our questions,” he says. “Without the three months that we had to really incubate our idea, we probably wouldn’t be a business today.”
The Summer Institute was created by Dhirendra Shukla, an engineering professor who chairs UNB’s J. Herbert Smith Centre in Fredericton.
Six years ago Shukla was working at Nortel. When the company went under he decided to try something new. He jumped to academia. In New Brunswick. The move generated odd looks and skeptical questions: “You’re moving to New Brunswick? Are you sure?”
Shukla wanted to put his industry knowledge to use in the university setting. He also felt there was a need to teach entrepreneurship differently. In his interview with UNB administrators, Shukla pitched a model of entrepreneurship teaching based on “experiential” learning. In other words, encouraging students to build real businesses.
“We said, ‘Let’s begin to create these companies. Let’s do something novel and new and exciting with tech,’” Shukla says from Fredericton, a few days after the second annual Summer Institute concluded.
Started in 2014, the Institute accepts select candidates (there were nine this year) who want to test and prototype their business ideas. Participants are paid a minimum wage salary for three months over the summer. The expectation is that they will work exclusively on creating a company. They are given prototyping funds, boot camp sessions on topics ranging from accounting to business structure, and access to the university’s significant R&D capabilities. The idea is to take an idea from seed to actual revenueproducing business.
“People ask often: ‘How are you doing this in three months?’” Shukla says. “The reality is that it’s very, very hands on.” He notes that participants’ work with mentors and have meetings with potential clients. “Our entrepreneurs have their sleeves rolled up and are making it happen.”
In addition to the Summer Institute, Shukla is launching a new masters program: Technology Management & Entrepreneurship. UNB’s recent efforts on the entrepreneurship front have garnered recognition. In 2014, StartUp Canada named the university Canada’s most entrepreneurial postsecondary institution.
Unlike most accelerators, the Summer Institute is focused on creating businesses in the creative economy: arts and culture, design. That approach has also generated outside interest. Earlier this year, the Institute was added to the Global Accelerator Network, a group of more than 50 of the world’s top startup accelerators.
“They thought we were bringing something novel to the table,” Shukla says. “The hope is to do something exciting in the region.”
There’s been an obvious explosion in interest surrounding accelerators, incubators, tech companies, and lean startups in recent years. And local universities are clearly jumping aboard, often inspired by the entrepreneurial potential of private sector technology accelerators— from Y Combinator in California to Techstars in Colorado and Propel ICT in Atlantic Canada. The Summer Institute and CBU’s UIT program are just two examples of that private sector influence.
But, can universities replicate the success and quality of private sector accelerators, or are such academic programs simply lame imitators of their industry cousins? Is it possible that university courses are actually weakening the quality of the region’s startups?
The best known of the recent university creations is probably Dalhousie University’s Starting Lean course. Co-developed by Mary Kilfoil, a Dalhousie management professor, it’s based on the Lean Launchpad Model pioneered by Steve Blank and Jerry Engel at the University of California (Berkeley). (Kilfoil attended a Lean LaunchPad Educators Program at Berkeley before launching the course.)
The Lean Startup methodology centres on asking not “if” a product can be built, but “should” it be built at all. Thus a central step in the “lean” process involves customer discovery: getting out and talking to potential customers about what they would want in your product and, most importantly, would they actually pay for it? Kilfoil says it’s a “simple idea” that many entrepreneurs fail to employ.
Starting Lean is unique in that it is open to students in any faculty. Kilfoil has argued that more students—not just business students— should be encouraged to explore entrepreneurship, and apply it to their area of study.
Perhaps the most visible company to emerge from Starting Lean is Spring Loaded Technology, which is developing bionic knee braces. Formed by three students (one from neuroscience, one from business, and one from engineering) the company was recently awarded the BDC Young Entrepreneur Award and its $100,000 grand prize.
Kilfoil bills Starting Lean as a first in Canada. It’s portrayed as hip and slightly different but it and its fellow lean startup newcomers are not fundamentally new, says Ellen Farrell, an entrepreneurship professor at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.
“It’s popular now. But it’s not exactly new. I mean Steve Blank has been around for a long time. And having students come to university and start businesses has been around for a long time,” Farrell says. She notes Saint Mary’s has, for two decades, run courses where students create businesses.
Farrell, whose teaching specialty is venture capital, is also a certified Lean Startup educator. Still, she’s quick to point out that Lean Startup is a brand, one that is well promoted. But that doesn’t mean its ideas and principles are novel when presented in a university classroom.
She points to the concept of customer discovery. “Years ago we called that the product-market fit. And before that we called it the marketing concept,” she says. “I’ve been around longer than most people in this area. So I can see the evolution.”
(Memorial’s Blair Winsor, who is teaching a lean startup course this year, disagrees. He argues the concept is new and unique. “It’s not just old wine in a new bottle,” he says.)
The lean concept aside, it’s clear there has been a recent increase in the level of attention paid to entrepreneurship, especially involving tech startups. Locally, that growing level of interest has been fuelled, in large part, by the massive exits of tech companies such as Radian6 and Q1 Labs, which were sold in deals totalling $1 billion.
The current popularity of startup accelerators is also undeniable. But that doesn’t mean they’re superior to university programs, Farrell argues. “For 20 years my students have come to class and gotten the experience of starting a business. But in the meantime they’re getting a university education as well.”
She notes that SMU students can take courses in innovation, social entrepreneurship, ICT business, family business and so on. Farrell teaches a venture capital course where the students raise money, conduct due diligence, and make investments. Earlier this year she was in Silicon Valley lining up VCs to help her students with those steps. Her point: university entrepreneurship training provides a broader experience than an accelerator.
“Our real interest is in building an entrepreneurial mindset,” she concludes. “With an entrepreneurial mindset you’re always thinking about the opportunities. You’re always looking for the value.”