Brad Bernthal, Associate Professor at the University of Colorado Law School and Director of the Silicon Flatirons Entrepreneurship Initiative, recently blogged asking for feedback on how to make CU the nation’s leading university for entrepreneurship.
Since I’ve come to CU, I’ve thought about this question A LOT! In fact, making CU the number one public university for entrepreneurship is the goal of both the student clubs that I run: StartupCU and the Graduate Entrepreneurs Association. I’ve outlined some of my most emphatic points below.
First, I agree that rankings are important. I found CU-Boulder because of a rankings list for entrepreneurial graduate programs. The higher we are ranked, the better entrepreneurs we will attract, but that said, I do caution that focusing too much on rankings could hurt the very thing we are trying to help: entrepreneurship. This is why most of my response is focused on Brad’s first question about the factors that genuinely matter. If we do what matters for entrepreneurs, the rankings will follow.
What matters most is the number of successful student startups that come out of CU, and the size of these successes. Everything we do must drive this.
I will break this down in two ways: (1) what we are doing that drives successful startups, and (2) what we are not doing. Here is a list of the things we are doing in order of importance: the Innovation Lab (an idea in progress), the NVC, StartupCU, startup classes (Robert’s and George’s), Entrepreneurs Unplugged, the cross-campus entrepreneurial certificate, the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic, and the GEA. If you think I am missing something in this list or you think they should be in a different order, please comment. The bottom line is that all these are great and we need to keep putting resources into making them better.
So what is missing? Two things, (1) we need more funding for student businesses and (2) better ways to help students connect and form cross-campus teams. You may also be thinking that we already have many ways for students to connect. This is true, the NVC, StartupCU, and the soon to be Innovation Lab are all trying to accomplish the task of connecting student entrepreneurs, but it still feels like there is something missing. Let’s put some more resources into it and keep iterating till something catches fire.
Back to funding for students, you may be of the opinion that student startups don’t need funding, I respectfully disagree. Yes, they could probably get by. Yes, some can make it with out some seed capital, but I promise you that with access to small amounts of capital, more student startups will be successful, especially when they have been vetted in some way. Imagine that if instead of getting a job, a student could get 20 thousand dollars to give him/her 6 months of runway to launch an idea they are passionate about. That would move the needle.
So how to we encourage more investment? One thing the GEA will be doing in 2013 is two Angel Pitch events, more info coming soon. Hopefully this will foster connections and exposure to student teams.
I also have another idea that will both drive funding and help our rankings: increase the amount of prize money for the NVC. One of the data points on the ranking list in Entrepreneur Magazine is dollar prize amount for business competitions. What if we raised the prize amount to be the most in the nation? Let’s put our money where our mouth is. How about we give a little more money to the top three teams and then “spread the wealth” to the 7 runners up. Many tech successful tech companies can get traction with as little as 10 thousand dollars, so why not give the runners up enough capital to prove themselves?
Lastly, I want to address whether or not we should be looking to other entrepreneurial schools for guidance or competition. I don’t believe we should. We want to be leaders. We can do that by determining what “genuinely matters” and achieving it. Focusing on our competition will at best leave us reacting to their ideas, and at worst, repeating their failures.
In conclusion, if we want to be #1, then we need to be the leader in entrepreneurship. Our rankings are important, but we need to focus on what is really important: creating successful student startups. We can do that by continuing to focus on the good things we are doing and by doing more in connecting teams and funding them. Focusing too much on our competitors wont help us lead; instead, we need to put the creativity and passion of our students to work and implement a plan that we believe will move the needle.