Eye Tracking Interactive

A recent project I've designed and prototyped is an interactive that teaches kids and adults that their brains are hardwired to look for faces, motion, and changes in color. The following images and video show the first iteration of the interactive as it's prepared to be user tested.

What is Entrepreneurship? Pinning Down It's Definition and Implications

In a previous blog post, I tried convincing myself the importance of entrepreneurial learning. And as I'm digging further into books and journal articles regarding entrepreneurship, I'm running into way too many interpretations on what it means to be an entrepreneur. And if entrepreneurship can't be pinned down, I don't think I'd be able to properly address entrepreneurial learning. To ground myself into a single working definition, I'll present a few different perspectives, and then present my own from what I've observed and learned over the past year.

Eric Ries, in The Lean Startup argues that entrepreneurship is management that can grow the business. He goes on and discusses the importance of being able to effectively measure and learn by testing assumptions. By testing assumptions, the entrepreneur can effectively plan for the future on facts that have been proven true. Thus, the entrepreneur may effectively allocate resources. Again, this comes down to learning, and being able to know what and how to learn, and how to measure ones progress, which leads to learning – a hypothesis proven true by the Startup Genome.

Saras Sarasvathy, in an interview with Big Think, describes entrepreneurship as a way of thinking, as a way of solving problems – just as the scientific method is one possible way of solving problems (1). From her research, she has concluded that entrepreneurship is not about certain character traits, meaning that anyone can be an entrepreneur. With this stance, she teaches a way of thinking, a certain type of logic that experienced and successful entrepreneurs seem to employ (1).

William Gartner, back in 1988, argued that “entrepreneurship is the creation of organizations” (3). Thus, one can distinguish an entrepreneur by the organizations they create, a view that is similar to the one re-iterated two decades later by Eric Ries. Furthermore, Gartner had also argued that defining entrepreneurship by the traits embodied by a certain individual has been “unfruitful” (3).

In a literature review about entrepreneurial learning, Peter Erdelyi points out that “developing a single, widely acceptable definition of entrepreneurship however is not only a conceptual issue but also a matter of political disagreement, as it would affect the allocation of resources (such as academic attention and government funds)” (2). He goes on to say that “in academic practice, new venture creation and small business management is often conflated under the term ‘entrepreneurship,’ while ‘innovation’ is often used as analogous with ‘entrepreneurship’” (2).

There are three main points presented by these different thinkers I'd like to bring to your attention: solving problems, creating an organization, and managing that organization. The problems being solved are problems faced by a customer or user. The creation and management of an organization is the process of bringing together a team to help solve that problem, raising venture capital, making a business plan, and the various other parts that need to move in harmony. From my interviews, observations, and experiences within the Philadelphia tech startup ecosystem, it seems that these three points are the most relevant in defining the role of an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is a role because entrepreneurship is dependent on a set of behaviors and not a set of embodied traits. This means an entrepreneur is the role a person fills to create and manage a business to solve a problem a customer is experiencing. In the process, value is created in the exchange between the customer and the startup because the startup relieves some pain for the customer and the customer is willing to pay for the startup's remedy. Using this as my definition for an entrepreneur, I believe there are certain implications for entrepreneurial learning.

Since an entrepreneur is the role a person fills to create and manage a business to generate value for a customer, then entrepreneurial learning is the learning process associated with knowing what to do while filling that role.

1. An interview with Saras Sarasvathy at http://bigthink.com/ideas/15302
2.  Erdelyi, Peter. The Matter of Entrepreneurial Learning: A Literature Review
3. Gartner, William. “Who is an Entrepreneur?” Is The Wrong Question. Copyright 1988 by University of Baltimore Education Foundation.

The current draft of my thesis summary can be found here.

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The Reason Entrepreneurial Learning Matters

I'm going to argue that tackling entrepreneurial learning will have a positive impact on the unemployment and underemployment problem. While I've spent way too much time researching for my thesis regarding entrepreneurial learning, I began asking myself why I should tackle entrepreneurial learning as a thesis. I've tried sketching an argument to explain to myself the importance of entrepreneurial learning, and why it's relevant to our current society:

To put this thesis into the context of the current economic climate, my generation, those people graduating post-crash, is having difficulty finding their way into established companies. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fourth quarter of 2011 had unemployment rates amongst those aged 16 to 19 at 23.6%, those aged 20 to 24 at 14.2%, and those aged 25 to 34 at 9.4% (source). According to Gallop Poll tracking January 2nd to September 30th, 2011, for those aged 18 to 29, 30% are underemployed and 14% are unemployed (source). This means that it has become much more difficult to find employment in existing organizations.

Also, in recent years, there’s been a growing and revived interest in entrepreneurship, and I believe the connection between the crash and the current rise of entrepreneurship in American society is more than correlated. As one of my interviewee's put it, it’s one of the current causes of “startup companies popping up like Rock bands in the 80’s." While interviewing a community leader in the Philadelphia startup ecosystem, he said, “every startup that comes in creates ancillary jobs that generate taxes that gives back to the city, that gives back to build better things to make things better." This isn’t simply anecdotal, but is supported by a job growth study performed by the Kauffman Foundation. The report concludes that “new firms add an average of 3 million jobs in their first year, while older companies lose 1 million jobs annually” (source). This means that people realize the potential behind getting involved in a new firm or starting one. The report studied startups and existing firms from 1977 to 2005 and defines startups as firms younger than one year old. The report goes on to say that policymakers do not correctly focus their attention on supporting startup growth. This opinion is reflected in the same startup community leader, “the older institutions that were fostered in the 60s, like Ben Franklin tech partners, like the science center, like the chamber of commerce, these bureaucrats and older generation, are trying to sustain their positions and their jobs and companies and they’re not fostering innovation." This community leader has been an advocate for startups in Philadelphia for the past decade. Putting his opinion side-by-side with the findings from the Kauffman report means that people have already realized the potential behind getting involved in a new firm or starting one.

However, ninety percent of startups fail. Seventy percent of them, discovered by the Startup Genome, scale prematurely along any one of five dimensions, which they think may partly explain the ninety percent failure rate amongst technology startups. The Startup Genome has published two reports, one with a data set of 650+ internet technology startups and another on 3200+ internet technology startups. The Startup Genome set out to test three hypotheses, and one which is of interest to this project is, “learning is a fundamental unit of progress for startups. More learning should increase chances of success.” They went on to discover,

“Founder's that learn are more successful. Start-ups that have helpful mentors, track performance metrics effectively, and learn from start-up thought leaders raise 7x more money and have 3.5x better user growth.”

They point to three factors being relevant for funding and user growth: helpful mentors, tracking metrics, and learning from thought leaders. All three provide the foundation to learn. Being able to raise funds and maintain user growth is key to a healthy startup, which means that learning is vital for a healthy startup.

Now that I've convinced myself that understanding entrepreneurial learning and providing a design solution is a meaningful problem to solve, I'll be collecting more of my thoughts on my blog to prepare me in writing my thesis book. If you're reading this and believe there's a flaw to the argument or have ideas or want to leave an opinion, feel free to comment or get in contact with me through the about & contact page.

The current draft of my thesis can be found here.

Update: The next blog post untangling the many interpretations of entrepreneurship is here.

To Table of Contents.

Enhancing Entrepreneurial Learning (Thesis Summary, Draft 2)

Enhancing Entrepreneurial Learning: Modeling Mentoring to Design New Means of Entrepreneurial Learning

There are two problems being addressed by this thesis, the first is the problem of access to mentors and the second is the problem of communication between mentor and entrepreneur. Both problems were discovered in the process of learning about the challenges information technology startups face. Tackling these two problems is one way to reduce the seventy percent of startups that scale prematurely, which is shown to be a major cause of the ninety percent failure rate of startups. Essentially, tackling access and communication are two steps towards enhancing entrepreneurial learning and experience transfer between novice and experienced entrepreneurs in the context of a mentor interaction.

The first take-away from my interviews is that entrepreneurs operating in this area of business, information technology startups, are concerned about three major topics: mentoring, funding, and traction. An added layer of complexity is that funding is usually, but not always, needed to provide runway for the startup to get off the ground. To get funding, traction is usually needed. Funding can be broken down into early stage and late stage. Early stage funding goes towards figuring out a repeatable business model and a product-market fit. Late stage funding is focused on execution and further refinement on the already discovered repeatable business model. Furthermore, mentors are perceived as a form of traction because they believe in the company's idea, product, team, and lend their credibility. Essentially, this means that if funding is needed, mentors may prove to be a first point of traction, thus aiding the startup to get off the ground. From literature, I learned the story is more complex than simply going after mentors to attract funding. With mentoring comes many pedagogical supports for the startup and entrepreneur.

The problem of access to mentors has four underlying problems that gives rise to the lack of access to mentors. First is the geographic separation between entrepreneurs and mentors. The second is that experienced entrepreneurs don't always self-identify as mentors even though they have experience to strategize with novice entrepreneurs. The third underlying problem are busy-schedules. The fourth hurdle is the need for serendipity, and this is where trust and the nature of human relationships plays factor.

The problem of communication between mentor and entrepreneur is a problem that emerges once the novice entrepreneur has access to the experienced entrepreneur. There are two problems I've become aware of that act as barriers, preventing knowledge and experience from effectively transferring from experienced to novice entrepreneur. The first is a stigma with taking notes. The second is a high-low level disconnect; essentially, there's a disconnect between the strategies discussed in conversation and the actionable steps taken afterward.
The interactions that are being designed and prototyped are framed by these two problems: access and communication. The designs that address the problem of access use the four underlying issues as design constraints for each prototype. The designs for communication follow the same rule, use the identified underlying issues as design constraints. Since both problems have a great deal of overlap, all six constraints are considered when designing each prototype.

The designs being prototyped include: beer coasters, name tags, napkins, a worksheet, a website, and a smart phone app. The two identified physical environments to implement these prototypes include face-to-face networking events and one-on-one interactions between novice and experienced entrepreneurs.

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