Introducing The Next Level: Can You Teach Entrepreneurship?

By on December 14, 2012

Talk about needing an exit strategy. I needed one from the humidity, heat and mosquitoes of the Okefenokee Swamp. But how does one go from Swamp Road in Waycross, Ga., to running a global company? I’m sure there are other routes, but for me the fastest roads out were entrepreneurship and education.

I am passionate about both because neither cares where you come from, what your last name is or how well known you are when you start. Entrepreneurship is still what America does better than anyone else in the world. We may outsource jobs overseas but people who want to get ahead come here to pursue big ideas. We have earned our place as the start-up capital of the world.

But something happens to a large majority of those start-ups. Of all the start-ups that get past $1 million in revenue, only about one in 25 reaches $10 million. (Those numbers come from Doug Tatum, founder of Tatum L.L.C., an executive services consulting firm, and author of “No Man’s Land: Where Growing Companies Fail.”) Why do so many companies crash and burn after roaring starts? Because growth is hard, and because growth companies face many hurdles as they deal with expansion and complexity. The mission of my blogging here will be to show that combining entrepreneurship and education can help growing companies clear many of those hurdles.

I started in management at United Parcel Service when I was 21 – about the time U.P.S. began a transformation from a paper-driven trucking company to a technology powerhouse. During that company revolution, U.P.S. did me two great favors, promoting me to district manager at age 23 and investing time, money and resources in my development. I believe that investment paid off when I initiated and executed a technologically advanced help-desk system that saved the company more than $250 million a year. In return, the company sent me to get an M.B.A.

That education helped me create my own business, an information technology company, STI Knowledge, in 1995. We eventually opened offices in the United States, Britain, South Africa, India, Hong Kong and the Philippines, and beginning in 2000, we made the Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America three years in a row.

In my writing for this blog, I hope to dispel the myth that entrepreneurs are born with gut instincts that can’t be taught. I believe you can teach entrepreneurship. I wish somebody had taught me how to hire people before I tried to build a national sales team. I wish somebody had told me not to turn my first successful salesperson into the default sales manager. I wish somebody had told me not to hire C-suite executives from mega-corporations. Often, it seemed as if my gut instincts were working against me.

It was only after I sold my company that I realized that when it came to major decisions, we made two or three good calls and a whole series of bad ones that led to major setbacks. It feels better to know that Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, has said that if his team made five decisions, it hoped two were correct. Most of us don’t even do that well. I sometimes wonder how any start-ups manage to survive. There has to be a better way than learning through trial and error — time, money and patience are all likely to run out before the entrepreneur figures it all out.

After selling STI, I endowed the Emory Executive M.B.A. Program for Entrepreneurship which gave me an inside look at how entrepreneurship and academia mix. I have come to believe that the right combination is probably about 10 percent academia and 90 percent hard knocks. More recently, I have started an organization called the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. Basically our mission is to help the owners of fast-growing companies avoid some of those knocks — so that we can decrease the rate of failure and increase the speed of success. That’s what I hope to do here, on this blog, as well.

Of course, there are many paths to success. Debate and disagreement are tremendous learning and communication tools for entrepreneurs. I look forward to hearing from you.

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