Date posted: 1/12/2016 6 min read

Are entrepreneurs born or bred?

Are you born an entrepreneur, or is it something anyone can learn, given the right education, experience and mentoring?

In brief

  • Entrepreneurial degrees teach the skills to identify business opportunities and organise finance
  • Schebesta believes a degree in entrepreneurialism is an academic exercise and not necessary
  • In Australia it is estimated that one in three new small businesses fail in their first year

Since Benjamin Franklin was a boy, many have grappled with the question of whether entrepreneurs are a special breed of humans. Are they born into the world with a formidable drive and need to win, which the rest of us mere mortals don’t possess?

Another school of thought, led by the likes of the University of Adelaide and the University of Otago, insists entrepreneurs can be shaped through education, experience and mentorship.

Entrepreneur school

The University of Adelaide’s Entrepreneurship, Commercialisation and Innovation Centre (ECIC) offers bachelor, masters and doctorate programs for budding entrepreneurs and the University of Otago has an online Master of Entrepreneurship. As you’d expect, there are fees to negotiate which, if you think about it, a potential entrepreneur could treat as a business start-up cost. To complete the full bachelor degree through the ECIC, for example, the three-year degree will cost almost A$56,000 — there are 24 units at A$2,300 a course. For the Masters in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, there’s a A$30,000 fee for the full degree — but significantly less if a student has completed some TAFE (technical and further education) studies, according to Professor Noel Lindsay CA, Director of the ECIC. If you’re an international student considering studying to be an entrepreneur at the University of Otago, expect to pay NZ$40,200.

Lindsay says: “If you have an interest in developing innovative businesses, or seek to innovate within an organisation, our degrees equip you with the tools to make a significant impact on markets, economies and communities.

“We offer the knowledge and practical skills required to assess and implement new ideas, create and manage ambitious new ventures, develop entrepreneurial management practices and create supportive environments that foster and enable innovation.”

A member of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand and a former venture capitalist, Lindsay freely admits an entrepreneurial qualification won’t guarantee a graduate will be the next Steve Jobs or Sir Richard Branson.

“There are certain entrepreneurial skills that are applicable to a whole range of jobs,” he says.

“It’s like if you want to be a doctor, accountant or lawyer, there are certain skills and ways of thinking you can teach people. It’s then up to the students to embrace those behaviours.”

Entrepreneurial studies such as those offered in Adelaide, Otago and more commonly in the United States, focus on teaching students how entrepreneurs think, according to Lindsay.

“Not having a degree wouldn’t have stopped Sir Richard Branson. But having a degree will stop students going down blind alleys and will show them where others have made mistakes.”

Entrepreneurs by the book

Fred Schebesta, director and co-founder of comparison website finder.com.au doesn’t think you can learn how to be an entrepreneur from a book. Schebesta, who has a finance degree from Macquarie University, is an entrepreneur who became one of Australia’s youngest self-made millionaires when he sold his first business, digital agency Freestyle Media, at the age of 26. In July 2015, Schebesta and his business partner Frank Restuccia launched an American version of the website, called finder.com

Schebesta says: “You need to be an enterprising person and you’re either enterprising or you’re not. It’s like Monopoly. You either like playing it or you don’t.

“There’s those people who hang around stands at trade expos and go to entrepreneur events. None of them are actually successful entrepreneurs. They love the idea of being entrepreneurial and those people will take up those degrees. Academics go to university — that’s what it’s designed for.

“Can you imagine an entrepreneur with a PHD selling lemonade as a kid, or baseball cards to buy a CD machine to sell CDs to his friends? They’re not going to say I need a degree to be an entrepreneur. If you want to be an academic with an entrepreneurial degree, write a book.”

Schebesta, who admits to a few false starts, originally wanted to be an actuary.

“But I was struggling at university with these probability exercises, which is not something I’m naturally strong at. I spoke to a lecturer about a basic probability matter. I said ‘Hey man, I don’t think I’m getting this’.”

His telling response to Schebesta was, “I know”.

Schebesta then asked the lecturer where this left his actuarial career prospects.

“The lecturer told me that I was going to be the guy that talks to the clients,” he says.

“That was the moment I realised I should hire these actuaries and build a company myself.”  

As an entrepreneur, you have to engage both sides of your brain to look at the marketing, people and technology issues. Then you would engage the more quantitative rational left brain skills and work out if you can make a buck out of this.
Professor Noel Lindsay CA Director of the ECIC

Opportunity and risk

An entrepreneurial degree gives students the skills to identify business opportunities and organise the financial support to bring an idea to market, Lindsay says.

“Students are taught how to solve problems and the underlining characteristics of an opportunity. [To be a success] is about reducing the risk of failure and being aware of what professional investors are interested in.”

This is an important point given the large numbers of business start-ups that are forced to close their doors. Estimates in Australia, for example, suggest that one in three new small businesses fail in their first year of operation, two out of four by the end of the second year, and three out of four by the fifth year. There is no specific data on how many entrepreneurs fail, however as Lindsay argue, it’s quite difficult to define the differences between an entrepreneurial operation and a regular small business.

“Entrepreneurs create value in the community and most innovations come out of small entrepreneurial businesses,” says Lindsay.

“At the same time many small business owners don’t like the entrepreneurial label.”

More than the numbers

Having the financial skills delivered by an accounting qualification is invaluable to an entrepreneur, according to Lindsay.

“However being a successful entrepreneur involves more than just the numbers,” he says.

“You have to be able to identify the opportunity and it’s a case of engaging the left part of the brain and the right part of the brain.

“As an accountant, the basic skills are left brain and the more creative skills are right brain. As an entrepreneur, you have to engage both sides of your brain to look at the marketing, people and technology issues. Then you would engage the more quantitative rational left brain skills and work out if you can make a buck out of this.”

Lindsay argues that a standard MBA focuses on marketing principles tailored to a larger corporate.

“We focus on how you market a product without any money and how to be resourceful without a big company behind you,” says Lindsay.

“We try and instil in our students what investors are looking for.”

Lindsay, for example, worked as a director of an A$22m venture capital fund that invested A$1m-A$3m in growth-oriented entrepreneurial operations for three years.

“We looked at 360 business plans and invested in seven,” he says.

“There were a number of reasons why so many ideas got knocked on the head including the fact they added no obvious value, there were too many risks involved, or because the budding entrepreneurs failed to package up the opportunity properly to entice an investor.

“An MBA doesn’t teach these skills, although they sometimes have entrepreneurial courses, but they don’t teach you how to set up the business.”

When it comes to risk, Lindsay says business and finance risks are the primary factors. “But investors break it up further and they also look at development risk where you can’t develop a prototype,” he says.

“They also consider the production risk, where you have a prototype but can’t develop it.”

There are also market risks that there is no market for the prototype and management risk.

“Will [managers] run it into the ground or make a buck out of it,” says Lindsay.

“Our degrees are about risk reduction and opportunity recognition, as well as being an action learning course where students work on their projects.”

Cut through with entrepreneurial education

The ECIC has licenced its programs in France and is setting up incubators across the globe, “which will enable our students to get their hands dirty”.

That said, whether entrepreneurial studies such as those offered at University of Adelaide and the University of Otago are achieving cut-through and creating a new class of highly-educated entrepreneurs is a moot point.

“It’s a developing area and there are so many variables,” says Lindsay.

“There’s no research on those who have done our courses and against those who haven’t,” he says.

“How do you measure success as not all our graduates start a business? Some are working in government to help formulate entrepreneurial policy and we’re also seeing plenty of lawyers and accountants doing our courses to help them understand entrepreneurial firms,” he adds.

“This will put you up the learning curve. What you get taught is what successful entrepreneurs have learnt and the mistakes they’ve made.”

Schebesta remains sceptical.

“If you’ve spent that much time mastering an entrepreneur degree there’s no chance I’m hiring you. I need to see some runs on the board.”

Lindsay returns the serve.

“Employers value these skills and wouldn’t be employing our graduates if they didn’t value them.”

This article was first published in the July 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.