Monday, March 9, 2015

Entrepreneurship as a Learning Journey

The enormous learning is often a by-product of any entrepreneurial initiative - either at an Individual level or at the corporate level - an exponential rate of growth in ones learning is guaranteed. While one could argue, that any learning is extremely personal, there is sufficient generalizability in the pattern of events that lead to the learning; and so there is a great amount of categorization of learning possible from such vast and varied experiences.  

Entrepreneurial Learning is simply the learning accrued as a result of entrepreneurial venturing. Such learning could be categorized based in multiple ways - based on the process of learning, or the target of feedback, or agency of learning etc. Looking at any single dimension would make the understanding desperate and wanting for comprehension. 

Basing on the feedback from learning contributing to an enhanced understanding of one of these factors, I seek to categorize entrepreneurial learning to be about a:

  1. Learning about self
  2. Learning about Venture
  3. Learning about Interfaces

While we might gain an understanding of the self, or business, or interface management from many individual experiences; Entrepreneurial experience definitely contributed to learning about all three. May be the following diagram could capture this point.

To help understand the context better, let me give you an example from my own experiments. I shall use the same as we move ahead to help you relate with the categories.
My first start-up experience in brief:

My choice of venturing out on the entrepreneurship journey was based on gut-feel. When I had left my first job at efi to pursue my MBA, I was definitely contemplating about entrepreneurship sometime in the future. My intern-ship at a Startup gave me the confidence to try it out myself. Even before I had completed my PGP from IIMB, I was already on the streets trying to sell products/service and see if there are any potential buyers. One of the first realizations I had was about the drastic difference in the markets - Mumbai (where I was doing sales & looking for alliance partners as an Intern) and Bangalore (where I as trying to do a similar act). As I attempted running though the entire educational chain from K2PG (Kindergarden to Post Graduate colleges. Yes - I extended the K-12 norm to even higher levels in the educational hierarchy), I realized there were certain markets where I wouldn't like to work in. 
My closer interactions with the education system got me to identify numerous lacuna in the system itself. I began asking myself if the product I was trying to sells - an assessment tool would do any good to my customers? Would it in any way solve the problem I sensed the system had?. As I thought iteratively, I realized I wasn't feeling comfortable selling a product that I believe wasnt serving to fix a problem. Yes I could go ahead and still sell it an make some money, but if I am not going to be confident about the product I sell, should I even sell it? My doubt took the better of me and I began thinking of different ways to solve the fundamental problem. 
In the mean time, my partners and I thought it was good for us to shift to a focus on the UG-PG, where there was a lot of perceived demand for fine-tuning skills that be useful for the placements. A few months into this and I had a similar doubt - was I trying to polish something where the base material wasnt yet treated well enough and ready?

This got me to consider looking at fixing the problem possibly by being part of the system. I decided to get into teaching - I worked as an adjunct faculty at a few MBA colleges, and also helped a few friends who were trying to work towards improving the quality of teaching at a rural school. This attempt gave me greater satisfaction! 

The remainder of this blog explains what each type of learning would cover. 

Learning about Self:
It wouldn't be unwise to claim that the only thing that is constant through the journey of entrepreneurship is the entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is the journey of an individual/team through the ups and downs of conceptualizing, building and managing the venture that one creates. Such an experience is also a journey of self-exploration. The Individual evolves as the venture evolves. As events surrounding the venture unfold, the entrepreneur at the helm of the venture the individual mental fames are rewired from the feedback received. The learning about oneself takes one of the following forms:
  • knowledge about ones preferences and dislikes
  • capabilities that were hereto unexplored
  • strength to endure dejection and failure
  • tenacity to withstand differences in opinion
  • development of Strategic Thinking
Reflecting on my experience
From the above brief, you would have already sensed that I seem to search for impact of anything I do. If the impact in my eyes is seemingly significant I would love to put in my efforts behind it. This was a realization that I possibly would never have gotten wasn't it for the various experiments I was doing with my career. 
Another learning I have - may be from the constant reflection I have had is about the need for preparation! Yes preparation - I wasn't to who believed in preparing with a lot of effort behind what I do. But, as I began preparing for taking classes at the different schools/colleges, I realized there is so much control that preparation comes in with. I today swear by the need for preparation - preparation not for a specific task, but more to enhance my capabilities. The tasks and challenges might be different so specific preparation is only the tip of the iceberg. It is really the work I perform on my capabilities - sink in more experience that makes be appreciate what I really need to focus on.

While the learning about oneself is an important and significant portion of entrepreneurial learning, the individual entrepreneur also learns significantly about venture management. It is true that this experience of managing a venture would be complementary and supplementary to ones own journey of understanding oneself. This is a complex area and I guess I am better off staying away from it - given the causal ambiguity involved. The next section looks at venture management and the learning accrued therein in greater detail. 

Learning about Venture Management:
The venture an entrepreneur creates is the embodiment of individual aspirations, and commitment towards the venture creates attachment that is often the source of effort one puts towards developing capabilities suited for the venture and its subsequent growth. 
  • Business Model Development
  • People Management
  • Financial Management
  • Product Development 
  • Operational Management and Improvements
  • Marketing/Sales & Distribution Management
Reflecting on My experience:
While trying out the various experiments with venture types to see which was the specific forms of a firm that might be suited, I realize the benefits and drawbacks of each of these. What form suits what stage of the venture. 

There were also experiments on the business models that I could think of for the venture. While there wasnt any single business model that I could scale up - since I havent been with my own firm for that long, I believe I have seen quite a few firms experiment with their business models while I was experimenting another career move as the Manager(Ops) at NSRCEL-IIMB. I picked up a few key skills to see when to pivot/preserve an existing business model; when to think of scaling up etc.

The description above is extremely venture focused, and isn't complete without mentioning about the learning that emerges from working at the boundary/interface between the venture and its environment. The next section looks at this in greater detail. 

Learning about Interfaces:
The growth of a venture is not a lonely journey. Interacting with the environment is a crucial part of venture growth. Sales and Marketing are not just the only avenues of such external interfacing, it moves beyond to realizing the negotiation and control one can exert in the context. Following is a list that merely scratches the surface, there are definitely more avenues where such interfacing would happen. 
  • Raising Finances/Investment
  • Structuring Vendor/Customer Agreements Deals 
  • - Terms of use
  • - Privacy agreements etc
  • Intellectual Property protection
  • Media Interfacing
  • Managing Exits
Reflecting on my experience
I must admit I havent had the experience of raising funds from external sources, however I have worked closely with a number of firms at NSRCEL in the fund raising and disbursing process and have got a good appreciation of how deals are structured, what form the key clauses, what is negotiable and non-negotiable clauses etc.

The above discussion tried to categorize the learning based on the feedback received from the experience during the entrepreneurial journey.  To summarize the following diagram would be useful. 

I know, each of the topics above could have an in depth blog in their own right, may be its something I could do later. This discussion however leaves us with an interesting set of unanswered questions - Can we capture this huge variety of learning in some form and use these to grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem further? If yes how do we go about doing this? Can there be any agency that attempts to capture and transmit such learning?

I attempt to answer these questions in my next blog. Hope you enjoyed reading it - do feel free to write back to me or leave a comment with your thoughts on the topic. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Sachi for defining 3 possible dimensions of learning. Out of these 3, I feel the dimension about "self" is the most important one relative to others. One with a burning desire to do something can achieve what he/she want irrespective of their education. I think, if the "self" is powered up then the other two dimensions of learning happen naturally.