Being an academic researcher at an entrepreneurship event is sometimes like being a witch doctor at a medical convention. Some people are curious, but many dismiss you as having nothing valuable to offer.
In the past several years I've attended dozens of entrepreneurship events, sometimes wearing my academic researcher hat and other times my product developer hat. Over the years I've detected what seems to be a growing sentiment that academics - whether through research or teaching - have little value to offer someone hoping to launch a new venture. Consider a keynote speaker's first bit of advice at one event: "If you're enrolled in a university, get out while you still can."
I appreciate healthy skepticism about the value of formal higher education, the costs of which have skyrocketed in recent decades. And, academics (myself included) can without question do a better job of communicating the practical value and implications of research. What troubles me about the sentiment I've encountered at many events, however, is that it seems grounded in an underlying belief that entrepreneurship - the process of developing a sustainable new venture - is a topic that lies far outside the sphere of academic teaching or research.
People seem to hold this view due to one of two conflicting beliefs:
The recipe for successful entrepreneurship is straightforward and obvious: Be passionate, work hard, and persist (With a recipe so simple, there's really nothing for researchers to study and certainly nothing for teachers to teach). The recipe for successful entrepreneurship is impossible to understand; entrepreneurship is an art (With something as unpredictable and mysterious as art, research and teaching can play, at best, a minimal role).
Regardless of the reason, I am surprised by the strong cynicism that many have towards academic research and teaching on entrepreneurship. One of the most prevalent and deeply-held values by entrepreneurs is that it is always possible to find a better way. Further, many entrepreneurs lean on the power of the scientific method - of systematic manipulation or observation, careful measurement, and thoughtful analysis - to advance their new ventures. Think of A-B testing a new webpage to see what best converts traffic. Or, of the explosion of new businesses trying to leverage the power of big data to disrupt an industry. At the heart of many techniques that entrepreneurs use is the scientific method. Surely this method can be turned on the process of entrepreneurship itself to better understand why some ventures succeed while others fail.
History is littered with topics once considered untouchable by the scientific method or unteachable to novices. Imagine where we might be if medicine was left as society viewed it hundreds of years ago. We'd have a small-scale apprentice system to train new physicians, a pile of invalid assumptions and black boxes, and mysticism. Entrepreneurship is a primary vehicle for economic development. We simply cannot afford to ignore the possibility that we might better understand, and learn how to better teach, the process of new venture creation through systematic academic research.
Andrew Knight is a professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis, where he conducts research on innovation, group dynamics, and emotions. He led research and product development at Pascal Metrics Inc. from its founding in 2007 through 2010. Read his latest paper for Startup Research on 'Team Synchrony' here.