For the past couple of years, I have taught an online course on “Entrepreneurship and Small Business Management” for a local university. The course, offered only to M.B.A. students in their final year, carries a pretty demanding workload. Students have to read an 800-page textbook, take a midterm exam (four essay questions), and prepare a business plan for a business of their choice, writing one plan section each week for eight weeks.
While some of the business ideas the students come up with will never work in the real world, I never grade them on that. What I expect to see is detailed analysis of the market, competition, and financial requirements that will help them (or an investor) determine if the business is going to be successful or not.
Every once in a while, I sense that the students aren’t putting in the time necessary on their plans – this tends to take place especially around the time the midterm exam is due – and I feel the need to give them a “pep talk” to keep them motivated.
Here is the e-mail I send my students when I feel the need to light a fire under their you-know-whats:
“I have to report that with one or two exceptions I am somewhat underwhelmed by the assignments most of you have submitted for the past couple of weeks. I realize these are tough assignments — a new type of project for some of you — and with the Midterm Exam looming I suspect many of you put your time in on that this past week rather than your business plan assignment (the midterm does have a much higher point score, and focusing on that is actually a very entrepreneurial approach to a class like this — if you don’t have the time to do everything perfectly, focus on the things that really count).
But remember at all times that more than 90% of all small businesses fail in the first year or two. Don’t fall in love with your idea – this is almost always the first step to business failure. You should be looking at your business with a cynical eye. Remember that if you decide to launch this business you will be working 24/7 for at least a year or two of your life trying to make it happen. You don’t want to waste that much time, because nobody gives it back to you. Think about what you would do (or want to do) to someone who wasted that much of your time in a personal relationship!
By all means try to sell your idea, but don’t gloss over its faults and weaknesses — criticize it ruthlessly and make the idea prove itself worthy to you (and to me). So far the business plan sections you have submitted (for the most part) have been way too cursory and the information presented too superficial. I want to see research in these sections, I want to see numbers, graphs and charts if they are available (and appropriate), I want to see you ‘drilling down’ into the details, I want to see how well you understand people and what motivates them, I want to see you citing to outside sources backing up your points, etc.
If this were an undergraduate business course I would let it slide to some extent, but this is an MBA course for senior-year students. You can — and should — do better. Be advised the grading in this class gets tougher and tougher as it progresses, and if I point out weaknesses in a particular section I will want to see it done better when the final business plan is submitted at the end of the course.
Don’t worry that by getting into the details you will show that the idea isn’t viable. I’m not grading you on your idea or how I think it will do in the real world. I had a student last semester who actually ended up hating his/her original idea, but did such a brilliant job of demonstrating why the idea would likely never work (s)he still got an A for the course!
Please take this as a ‘pep talk’ rather than as a ‘dressing down’ — I realize many of you have little time to spend researching markets, competitors and so forth but that’s often what separates the “winners” from the “losers” in the real world of entrepreneurship. If this is a real idea you have for a business, and you want to see it succeed, you gotta be passionate enough about it to put in the hours. This is why so many very successful entrepreneurs are perceived as crazy (or sociopathic) by the outside world — normal folks with normal routines do not become billionaires, build world-class businesses, transform society, or teach entrepreneurship at universities :-).”
With luck, someone gave you a similar talk at some point in your life. If they didn’t, I just did.
Cliff Ennico (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series “Money Hunt.” This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our Web page at www.creators.com.
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