Pittsburgh is a city built by entrepreneurs. Some of the names are familiar – Carnegie, Mellon, Westinghouse, Frick – and provide a high bar for the leaders of today’s start-up businesses. In general, the intellectual pursuits and accomplishments of the city’s educational, medical, and high-tech companies have created an exciting atmosphere for people interested in starting and building a business. Although local writers and business leaders sometimes lament that we don’t have more start-ups and entrepreneurs, Pittsburgh has achieved an enviable record in recent years. This supports the region’s economy and bodes well for the future.
The Katz School and its Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence are engaged in this great entrepreneurial community to give students opportunities to “catch the fever.” This month we celebrated the Big Idea Competition, supported by the Randall family, which gives potential entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch ideas and secure funding. The event was a great success and ideal networking opportunity for those interested in starting, funding, or helping new businesses. Over the past four years, the quality of the “Big Ideas” has improved substantially and several start-ups have been born. For example, Pitt senior Micah Toll has won support on multiple occasions and in doing so has generated expectations of considerable future entrepreneurial success.
From observing our evolving community, I have three observations for would-be entrepreneurs. First, dedication and hard work are locked in the DNA of successful entrepreneurs. Steelers coach Chuck Noll once said “champions are champions not because they do anything extraordinary, but because they do the ordinary things better than anybody else.” The same might be said about champion entrepreneurs, in part because great ideas may fail if they are poorly executed. The point is that entrepreneurs are driven to succeed and you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room or someone with a brand new idea to be an entrepreneur. On the other hand, you need to have the determination and fortitude to invest great amounts of personal time and energy in a concept that has a market. Entrepreneurs ease frustration, solve problems, and demonstrate the value of options that people have not recognized.
Second, the victors have an ability to assemble a strong team of dedicated people and a good cadre of potential customers and inspire them to be devoted to the cause. Yes, this means that entrepreneurs can be loners (think of J.K. Rowling writing her books), but most valuable ventures are too complex to be orchestrated by a single person. Thus, an entrepreneur needs to understand his or her limits, when to secure help, how to identify talent, and how flexible to be in these activities. Entrepreneurship is a networked activity – and whether the networks operate in personal or digital space, they must be actively managed to generate optimal outcomes.
Third, entrepreneurs have a way of seeing things that others miss or ignore. This often leads to extraordinary confidence in the value of the product or service they are extolling. In addition, entrepreneurs practice the opposite side of this virtue: they are able to ignore external factors or interruptions that distract others. By applying passion to their focus and efforts, entrepreneurs become attractive examples to others.
It is easier to be an entrepreneur than it seems. Everyone has some strong interest that makes him or her excited. People who are entrepreneurs simply think about ways to monetize the interest. What can you do if you are great with kids; an expert marksman; blessed with a green thumb; fluent in multiple languages; an excellent writer; someone with extra time; or a closet inventor? Entrepreneurs act with discipline to generate value from that interest. This leads to the paradox (and potential contradiction of the first sentence in this paragraph) that entrepreneurship is not easy. Many examples exist of individuals who failed in business ventures. Champion entrepreneurs are not deterred by failure. They learn their lessons and try again.
The last point is an example of why few universities of business schools have done a good job of educating entrepreneurs in the past. Our organizations stress the shame of failure and reinforce that shame with parental, professorial, and recruiter advice to get high grades and outcomes. No wonder some of the world’s leading entrepreneurs were college dropouts. The Katz School and CBA focus on giving students the opportunity to fail in real-world projects. Our emphasis on experience-based learning (EBL) is intended to demonstrate the need to apply concepts and class-learning in a real setting. Failure in this laboratory is a benefit. And in coming years, we hope it leads more of our students to unleash their inner entrepreneur.