Q&A With Harvard’s Top Entrepreneurship Professor

To what extent do you think you can teach entrepreneurship?

People who study entrepreneurship debate this endlessly, but I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t think it could be taught. We can definitely make people better at it.

There are a lot of misconceptions about entrepreneurs, when really they’re just people with a lot of very different personalities. And so the notion that an entrepreneur is an avid risk seeker is not true at all. Some of the greatest entrepreneurs are great at shifting risk to other people.

Do you think there are any entrepreneurial skills that you can’t teach?

The Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs talks about Jobs creating a reality distortion field. That idea has been around since the 80s from Star Trek. It means that Jobs was so mesmerizing and charismatic when he talked about his ideas that anyone he spoke to would just fall under his spell. They would become so captivated by the idea that they would want to follow him and would want to help him succeed. His original Macintosh teams put in 90 to 100 hours per week for the span of a couple of years.

Some of our finest student entrepreneurs have that reality distortion field going, but I don’t know if I can teach that. I can really just show it, put a camera on it, and point it out to students.

Do you ever try to talk your students out of ideas?

So I view my responsibility in the MBA program as mostly to teach them. And if I think they’re going to learn something from working on a bad idea for a little while, I’m ok with that because a lot of ideas I think are bad can pivot into something very, very good. Entrepreneurship is all about failure, so there’s a great deal they can learn from discovering why a bad idea is a bad idea.

I’m not too heavy handed in terms of steering people away from ideas. If I think something is just silly or has some obvious flaws, I will intervene. The place where I weigh in is when they are about to come out and launch their startups. At that point I make them promise me that they will set a deadline for themselves where I check in with them and ask if they’ve made progress and hit those milestones.

What is the worst idea you’ve heard from a student?

In the 2009 graduating class, James Reinhart started thredUP. But the original idea was to have 25-year-old hipster males swap shirts by putting one in a bag and sending it. I told him, ‘James really, maybe there’s 10,000 people on the planet who want to do that.’ But in the process of developing that bad idea, he quickly learned that families of small children have an amazing need to swap clothing. And that eventually exploded in a good way. He has raised $20 to $30 million from top firms. So sometimes I can see it. Sometimes I can’t.

As entrepreneurship continues to change and evolve, what skills will students need to develop?

We talked about the sales thing a couple of times. It’s always been in entrepreneurship, and we’ve never done a great job in teaching it.

I also think that in Silicon Valley people have a really refined sense of product, and a great entrepreneur is someone who recognizes a great product. So I would say today’s students need to understand design thinking and acquire a designer sensibility to understand a great product.

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