StartupIowa invites conversations and ideas from its many members and leaders across the state.  One such sharing of ideas is this guest blog post from Wade Steenhoek of Central College, who shares his classroom’s experience creating a “Startup Semester”

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Think back to your younger days when you took an entrepreneurship course or small business class in college. You probably learned about corporate legal structures, how to create a marketing schedule, assembling a team of advisors, and of course, the all important pro forma. All this was packaged neatly in the form of a business plan that was graded on whether you had the appropriate elements included. At no point was there any reality check on the viability of the business model and there certainly wasn’t any primary customer research done as part of the process. And where has that approach gotten us? Not far enough. Way too many startups fail unnecessarily because of an allegiance to the almighty business plan instead of learning from customers by talking to them during the search phase of their new venture startup. Well, we decided to take a different approach to how entrepreneurship is taught at Central College. Or more accurately, how entrepreneurship should be experienced in an educational institution. And the results were astonishing.

In building a new entrepreneurship program from scratch, we chose to view entrepreneurship more as an art than science. And if you treat it like art, wouldn’t you spend more time with a brush in your hand or clay between your fingers than lecturing and testing on color theory? We thought so and took the same approach with our advanced entrepreneurship class, dubbed Startup Semester.

During this experiment, 14 students started the semester with $100 of their own money to invest in their startups.  No textbooks. No lab fees. Just an eagerness to learn about real world entrepreneurship in a studio-based approach. Leveraging an online platform, www.Udacity.com, and it’s coursework offered by Steve Blank, “How to Build a Startup”, students learned to develop a business model and spent 12 weeks, mostly outside the classroom, vetting their model with actual customers, partners, suppliers, mentors, etc. The results of these real world experiments were fascinating, to say the least. Of the 6 teams, five of them made money with profits ranging from $105 to $1,500. Not bad for a test. Of the six:

  • One failed due to a lack of customers (better to learn than sooner rather than later, right?).
  • Three of the teams elected not to pursue their ventures due to low viability and sustainability (fail fast or pivot?).
  • The remaining two teams are going to pursue their businesses full time over the summer and appear to have a very good chance of success.

More importantly, all of these students have inched their way towards independence with demonstrated competence and confidence in building something from scratch. And when they’re ready, they can become significant contributors to a capitalistic economy built on entrepreneurship because they’ve been there and done that.

So, can entrepreneurship be taught? Our students can best answer that question.

 “The most important thing is that we were able to learn, make mistakes, and grow on our own. Doing most of our work outside the classroom gave us real world experience on what it is like to actually sell your product and speak to customers.” – T.M. Junior

 “This class was probably the best learning tool I have ever had.” – L.S., Junior

You couldn’t have gotten these responses from a course that focuses on a textbook, lecture or the completion of a stellar business plan.

So, can entrepreneurship be taught? A resounding YES! But only if you let students get their hands dirty and let real-world experience be the teacher.

 Wade Steenhoek, Director of the Martin Heerema Entrepreneurship Program, Central College, Pella, Iowa can be reached at Steenhoekw@Central.edu