College Professors Act as Consultants and Mentors for Young Entrepreneurs

“Advice I would wince at paying for in the corporate world, I was able to get for the cost of a college education and a few cups of Starbucks coffee.”

John Highbarger didn’t come to the business school expressly to build a new business slingshot, it just turned out that way. Highbarger teaches entrepreneurship to undergraduate students at the McCombs School, and three or four of his students turn up every semester with a business plan scribbled on a napkin in their back pocket.

Highbarger counts 16 known businesses that have germinated in his class over the last six years. “I don’t know the success rate of all of them,” he admits. “I suppose people who have failed aren’t likely to chase me down to tell me about it, but some of them have been quite successful, and others are in startup mode.”

Tom Serres, CEO of Piryx (update: now, a social commerce company that has been termed democracy’s PayPal, was a student in Highbarger’s first class at McCombs. “Being an undergraduate business student and building a company at the same time is probably one the smartest things any young entrepreneur can do,” he says. “Our professors are world class consultants who are literally at your disposal. Advice I would wince at paying for in the corporate world, I was able to get for the cost of a college education and a few cups of starbucks coffee.”

Apparently others have discovered Serres’ secret. Recently the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation released a study indicating that interest in business as a career and entrepreneurship, more specifically, among freshmen college students has risen over time. “In the current economy, given the increasing availability of entrepreneurship courses on campuses, trends toward outsourcing, and unemployment among youth, we would expect to see rising interest in business ownership,” suggests E.J. Reedy, manager of Research & Policy at the Kauffman Foundation.

The Role of Mentorship

What Highbarger offers his young students is a glimpse of the business world as few have seen it. Before he retired as Global Managing Partner in the Strategy Practice at Accenture, Highbarger directed thousands of consultants and traveled the world at a pace of about 500,000 miles a year. “To a large degree, what we did was fix broken companies,” he says. “Despite the fact I spent most of my life consulting the largest companies in the world I had quite a bit of experience in start-ups as well. Plus over the last 7 years I spent most of my own personal time investing in smaller companies and start-ups.”

His first order of business with entrepreneurial students is to prep them to avoid pitfalls. “These undergraduate students are so bright and capable, and they often have virtually no experience,” he says. “I help them understand what they have to be watching for, and put in their mind the concept of seeking help and getting input from others.”

Highbarger’s Three Tips for Young Entrepreneurs

1: Be Willing to Sell. Outlining some of the core principles he conveys to his students, Highbarger begins with the ability to sell the idea, the offering, and the business. “You’ve got to knock on some doors and talk to people, raise some capital and be an advocate for your business,” he affirms. “If you can’t handle that the company won’t go very far.”

2: Know Your Customers. “The people I know who have been successful entrepreneurs, including some of the richest people in the world, have a passion for talking to their customers,” he says. “I’ve known Bill Gates for years, and he makes a point of talking to people wherever he can. Bill Marriott is well into his 70s, but when he visits a city he will visit three or four hotels and personally greet hundreds of customers. If you don’t have that kind of mentality you’re not going to be successful.”

3: Seek Input from Others. “I don’t care who you are, you don’t know everything,” Highbarger asserts. “I was touring a factory with Jack Welch one time and he stopped several times just to talk to people and get their input. He told me, ‘That’s how I find out what’s really going on around here. By the time the message gets to me from this floor, it’s completely unrecognizable.’ Michael Dell, Bill Gates, they all had people who coached them at some point, and were instrumental in their success. People who get too focused on themselves, their own business, and their own view of the world are the ones that make the huge mistakes generally.”

Serres credits the success of Piryx to following these principles. “Piryx today is not what Piryx was four years ago. What started out as a political giving platform has shifted to a more generic global giving platform. Why? Because our customers asked for it.”


Absorbing the Fundamentals of  Startup

Highbarger doesn’t stop with tips and war stories. “We spend a lot of time focusing on developing the offering,” he explains. “We talk about marketing, finance and management as they relate to an entrepreneurial venture. How do you maximize your marketing in a situation where you don’t have a lot of resources? How do you spread resources to get the maximum return?”

His discussions also encompass project management and business development principles. “An entrepreneur begins with nothing, and on day X you have to be up and operating,” he explains to his students. “Meanwhile, money is being spent and you’re not making an income.”

Some of these lessons are best learned by experience, but Highbarger seeks to soften some of the bumps along the way for new entrepreneurs. “I feel a bit like their first consultant, one of many coaches they’ll learn from over the course of a rewarding career.”

Former student Serres concurs. “Working with folks like Highbarger won’t necessarily save you from those bumps, but he can offer you the personal and professional tools you need to get back up and fight another day.”

Updates on Tom Serres (as of 2-2013)

Serres: Data Has Been the Linchpin of 2012 Election

The Inside Story of the Largest, Crowdfunded Series A Round of All Time



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