Innovation Diary: Business school won’t make you an entrepreneur – but it may help

Tom Welsh
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CAN London Business School (LBS) teach you how to be an entrepreneur? Not exactly. But its entrepreneurship summer school, which has just entered its twelfth year, thinks it can help. Since its inception in 2001, alumni have founded 212 startups. A 2012 survey conducted by LBS found that these firms had revenues of just under £114m in 2011, had raised over £476m in equity, and had created more than 1,200 jobs.
Many are sceptical of what business schools can do for entrepreneurs. A 2012 survey by QS Top MBA saw a third of MBA applicants cite entrepreneurship as one of their preferred specialisms, but this enthusiasm doesn’t always translate post-graduation. At Business Week’s top-ranked business school, University of Chicago: Booth, 43 per cent of 2011 graduates went into finance and 30 per cent into consulting. At Said Business School, well-known for its entrepreneurial courses, 30 per cent of graduates went into finance, and 29 per cent into consulting. Startup alumni aren’t exactly common. Further, Matt Robinson, co-founder of online payments system GoCardless, told City A.M. earlier this year that he has never hired an MBA graduate. He doesn’t think they have the right skill set for an newly-formed company.
But LBS’s summer course is not designed to teach students generalist principles of business. It is semi-detached from its MBA courses (external applicants can sign up), and is aimed at those who want to develop a new idea. Neil Daly, who took part last year after doing an executive MBA (EMBA) at LBS, thinks this distinction is important. “During my EMBA, we were taught business principles from an academic point of view. We were looking for perfection.” But as he subsequently learnt, such perfection wasn’t useful in a startup, where everything has the potential to go wrong at the same time.
Daly has just launched Skin Analytics, a business at the bleeding edge of the interchange between technology and medical science. The company allows customers to take pictures of their skin and to track potentially dangerous moles using a smartphone. Daly’s technology screens these images for significant changes, and allows users to share this history with a GP. It builds on the revolutionary trend for self-tracking enthusiasts to monitor their health using sophisticated devices – without the need to constantly visit a doctor.
It’s a complicated and sensitive area, and he credits the course with forcing him to “test every assumption you make. Academics were thrown in, but the underlying theme was to get out there, speak to people.” Being given a mentor helped. “It was useful to be able to pick the brains of people with experience.” And this translated into funding – even if only indirectly. “There is a lot of money out there. It’s just about finding the right people with the same interests.” Daly says the course taught him that there are always people who will be interested in your idea: the onus is on the entrepreneur to find them and to make the most of those connections.
A summer school will not be right for most. And it’s expensive. Current MBA students attend for free, but external applicants pay £6,000. But as Daly explains, if you are unsatisfied with your job, you would like to start your own firm, but you lack any real idea of how you might get there, these kinds of programmes can be useful. “I’m driven now,” he says. “I know how to find solutions to problems, rather than delay them.”
Tom Welsh is business features editor at City A.M. @TWWelsh For more information about Skin Analytics, visit