Schooling the competition

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When red is the new black, classroom becomes the new boardroom

Since the markets began falling a few months back, there’s been a great deal written on how the current economy is ideal for launching a startup.

by Harley Finkelstein

Although I might agree, I think there’s a much more effective course of action. For the last three months I’ve had the unique experience of studying for a master’s degree in business, while at the same time trying to master my own business. Although I’ve always tried to balance running my companies while studying full-time, doing so while taking an MBA has been a very different experience.

From my own experience, learning about business intelligence (BI)from an expert at a leading Canadian BI firm nine-to-five and then, in some instances, applying these lessons to my own ventures just a few hours later, has been ideal. It’s allowed me to better understand my own shortcomings, while meeting daily with an experienced ‘board of directors’ comprised of business-savvy professors. They’re able to relate course material to practical applications, and this can directly affect my company’s bottom line.

Historically, the university environment has been an incredible ecosystem for supporting young entrepreneurs. It provides infrastructure and guidance in a venture’s early stages. And in recent years Canadian universities, particularly engineering schools, have begun offering commercialization services to students looking to take projects to market. Canadians schools are at the forefront of helping students monetize inventions and research, with the intent of building a business and raising the school’s profile. This provides a setting for students to plan and conceptualize a product, seek feedback and build a business model, and at the same time to survey industry experts – even their own professors – on how to launch.

Need evidence? In 1984, Len Bosack and Sandy Lerner launched what today is Cisco Systems while teaching computer operations at Stanford University. Fifteen years later, Larry Page and Sergei Brin wrote the code for their beta version of what is now Google while at the same faculty. In fact, the original search engine’s domain was google.stanford.edu. And while Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg – both having quit school shortly after conceptualizing Microsoft and Facebook – may have found it easier to maneuver outside academia, in today’s startup environment the school-plus-business combo is just the ticket.

In October, I read a case study documenting an executive who wanted to grow his customer base while reducing overhead. My solution was to hire an external sales rep and pay a commission. But at the very same time, I reduced the amount of sales pitches I myself was giving for my promotional apparel company as I allocated more time to launch of our new licensed T-shirt site, smoofer.com.

I felt that this neglect reflected my need for greater internal sales support, but with already higher garment prices my margins couldn’t afford the beating. With the case study in mind, I met with some talented and highly networked salespeople who knew many of my target customers. We eventually structured a sales agency deal.

A strong legal mind once said: “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, (and) the lesson afterwards.” However, in the case of taking on a full-time MBA while running a bunch of young companies, I was able to apply expert opinion in real time. Lesson first, execution later.

Organizations: MBA, Cisco Systems, Stanford University Google Microsoft

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