What Entrepreneurs Need
By Donna Coco
Professor Heidi Neck teaching an entrepreneurship course for MBA students
“I love to create and start new things,” says Heidi Neck, associate professor of entrepreneurship. So when President Len Schlesinger brought Neck to a meeting with the researchers at the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence, R.I., to discuss a new way of studying entrepreneurship, she immediately fell for the idea. “For me, it was an easy sell,” says the Jeffry A. Timmons Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies. “I was thinking how this would be a wonderful connection to better understand the learning needs of entrepreneurs.”
Called the Babson Entrepreneur Experience Lab, the collaboration between the College and BIF examines the daily lives of entrepreneurs to appreciate more effectively what they face, what they need, and, ultimately, how Babson can tailor its education to help them be more successful. “We have lots of large quantitative studies that tell us how much entrepreneurial activity is in a given location,” says Neck. “There are far fewer studies that give us a deeper understanding of what entrepreneurs experience on a day-to-day basis.”
The first stage of the multiphase study tracked about 250 entrepreneurs across the U.S. who were starting new ventures. Researchers interviewed, shadowed, observed, and documented participants for six months. From the resulting data, they culled 10 common elements of entrepreneurship.
Some of what they uncovered was expected, says Neck, such as how raising funds is not only difficult but tough on the emotions and how learning is often through informal avenues. But several of the findings intrigued Neck, including how entrepreneurship remains place-based, despite the prevalence of technology. “No matter how much Facebook is in place, or LinkedIn, or any of what I call Internet social media, entrepreneurship is still based on where you are and who you are interacting with,” says Neck. “And where you are matters, because if you don’t have an entrepreneurial ecosystem and infrastructure in place, it tends to be more difficult to get started, to grow, and to succeed in general. You become who you hang around with. I think that’s evidenced here at Babson. We eat, breathe, and live entrepreneurship, so it becomes more doable to everyone here.”
The other finding that stood out for Neck was how often study participants talked about failure and its role in entrepreneurship. “What I find so interesting is I don’t think we do enough education around failure,” says Neck, “and maybe failure is not the right word. We need to reframe failure in terms of intentional iteration. We need to expect this cyclical process around entrepreneurship—it’s not linear, but we tend to teach it in a linear way.”
The findings from phase one are serving as the base data for phase two, which already is underway. Researchers are studying a smaller group of entrepreneurs (about 30) who are not starting businesses. “We’re looking at a sample of Entrepreneurs of All Kinds, people who are starting something, but not your classical entrepreneur. We’re going to do a deeper dive—broader sample, deeper understanding,” says Neck. “The context is different for these entrepreneurs, but we’ve hypothesized that the experience may not be as different as one might think.”
Neck expects to finish this phase of the study sometime in the spring. She also hopes to replicate phase one with one or more of Babson’s global partners. “Can you imagine if we do this in different countries? The database of video that we’ll have will be amazing. No one else will have that,” she says.
The nature of entrepreneurship is changing, says Neck, and education has to change with it. “This research is forcing me to really think about how we’re educating our students,” says Neck. “We are the leaders in entrepreneurship education. This is one way for us to use our leadership in a very powerful way to create entrepreneurship education of the future.”