Seventy-nine percent of present-day college students believe education should include some form of professional experience, according to a study by Northeastern University. And in today’s economy, professional life is increasingly entrepreneurial. That’s the focus of the Innovation Network for Entrepreneurial Thinking – iNet — an undergraduate academic program in leadership and entrepreneurial thinking for all University of Kentucky students, regardless of major. Tom Martin talked with Randall Stevens of Lexington-based ArchVision, co-chair of the iNet advisory board about the program’s relationship with the Lexington entrepreneurial community. This interview with Stevens has been condensed. You can listen to a podcast of the entire conversation.
Q: Have we become more of an entrepreneurial society?
A: For sure we’re more entrepreneurial. I saw a statistic recently that said by 2018 something like 40 percent of the people in the U.S. are going to be 1099s, which means they’re not working for somebody else. They’re working for themselves. Everybody has to be entrepreneurial in their thinking.
Q: iNET is housed in UK’s College of Communication and Information, but is open to UK students from all disciplines, correct?
A: Yes. Many colleges across the university participate. Each college can offer courses that qualify for the certificate program and then students are encouraged to take courses across different colleges in order to get that certificate.
Q: And is the idea to encourage thinking like an entrepreneur even though you may be majoring in, let’s say, music?
A: Exactly. And that’s a good example. The College of Fine Arts has been participating in the program. The idea is that no matter what discipline you’re in there’s a need for this kind of entrepreneurial thinking in order for you to be successful as you exit and enter the workforce.
Q: The title of this initiative includes the word “network” and that implies a lot of people connected in some way. Who is involved?
A: Obviously, professors and researchers across the university are involved, but we’re trying to bring in a lot of outsiders — entrepreneurs and people who’ve actually been involved in this process. Last year I started teaching a new intro course in the Gatton School of Business called Internet Entrepreneurship. As part of that course I have about 20 guests come in throughout the semester, all entrepreneurs who’ve been through this process. They love talking to students and sharing what they’ve learned and the students eat it up.
Q: A big paradigm shift is underway these days, isn’t it? Almost a transformation of the university culture.
A: It’s a huge challenge for all these schools, and it goes back to your first question: are things changing; are there going to be more entrepreneurs; do people have to think that way? I think no matter what you’re doing, it kind of harkens back to the old trade days. People went to trade schools or apprenticed under professionals to learn their trade. I think that we’re seeing a shift to more and more of that. I tell the students, you better get started when you’re a freshman getting off the campus and working on things and being around professionals because by the time you’re out of school, if you don’t have that experience on your résumé, and you can’t show that you’ve actually been out and done real world things you’re going to be behind because a lot of students are doing that.
Q: Are universities performing well in transforming research into meaningful products and services?
A: Ooh, that’s a loaded question, Tom. I think they’re getting better. I think there’s plenty of room to improve. When the National Science Foundation funds researchers at the university, it’s not just a summer job program for these researchers. The idea is to actually take taxpayer money, put it behind research into an idea and try to get it commercialized so that people can take advantage of what’s been learned and the innovations that have come out of that. But researchers aren’t necessarily well equipped to figure out how to commercialize them or turn them into businesses.
Q: Is there tension between commercialization and protecting pure research from commercial influences?
A: Yes. Hopefully, you’re creating something that a lot of people want or can use. Research for research’s sake obviously has a place in the pure discovery mode. But ultimately, there hopefully is some application to it and trying to bridge from what you’ve discovered to figuring out how it can be used by as many people as possible is the important part of that process.
Q: In that sequence between the research and the market there is something called the “valley of death.” Sounds foreboding.
A: You know, there is a famous book back in the ’90s called Crossing the Chasm that described how you’ll get very early adapters to whatever you’ve created that’s shiny and new. You’ll get risk takers or people that want to take advantage of things in the very early stages. Crossing the Chasm was the first description of this gap between early adapters and the late adapter part of the market. That’s a real challenge. You can innovate and create something. And of course, if you’re the one creating it, you think everybody is going to love it.
The process that we’re trying to now introduce to students is a customer development methodology. And the idea is that you want to take your ideas and get them out in front of actual customers sooner than later. And you want to create a feedback loop and iterate through that as many times as possible. If you fall in love with the process, ideas will come to you throughout the rest of your life weekly, monthly, yearly. There’s no dearth of people with ideas. It’s knowing how to get an idea through this process and determining if it is something that people want to turn into a product or service that can be exchanged. So, when you talk about that “valley of death,” most companies never figure out if people really care, how much do they care and how many people care about it. Sometimes you encounter the “ugly baby syndrome.” Nobody likes to be told they have an ugly baby, but sometimes you want to learn that early and quit working on it and move on to the next thing.
Q: What about capitalization? At some point you have to decide whether you’re going to move forward, what it’s going to take and you don’t want to undercapitalize. How do you make sure that doesn’t happen?
A: You want to take your idea, your product, your service and go through this process to figure out if there really is a market for it, how it should be sold. The conventional thinking now is that you want to invest the least amount of money and resources that you can in figuring out if you’ve got something that fits into that market. It takes a lot less money to go through that process now than it did 15-20 years ago, especially if you’re developing technology or things that don’t take a whole lot of resources on the front end.
And then once you’ve determined that there’s actually a product market fit, that’s when you want to throw fuel on the fire and raise money. Now, you’re raising money to scale and deliver the value that you’ve tapped into, as opposed to spending a ton of money up front to figure out ‘do we have something that’s viable?’ It’s more art than science. There is a framework that you can go by, but nothing replaces the entrepreneur’s gut feeling. Everybody surrounding you will give you opinions about what you should or shouldn’t be doing. In the end, you’re the one that has to make that decision. You can be having a bad day and by the afternoon you get a call that completely turns your day around and you’re back on top of the world. That’s the world of being an entrepreneur.
Q: Let’s say there’s an entrepreneur out there who has heard about how exciting and how fun it can be to participate. What can they do to become involved in iNET?
A: They should send an email to me or iNet Director Kimberly Parker. We’d love to have them come. The advisory board meets a couple of times a year. And then if you have the time, you can be assigned as a mentor to some of the students.
Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.