education startup advice

Syllabus for an Entrepreneurship Degree

a.k.a. “An MBA that would actually be worth my time doing”


When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge University, a new society was founded – Cambridge University Entrepreneurs – which started an annual business-plan competition for members of the university and local community, giving away £30,000 (about $50,000) to the winners, and modelled on the pre-existing MIT 30k ($30,000).

I felt greatly let down by this competition and society in the first year, so the founder and president co-opted me over the summer holidays to change it for the next year. I ended up being involved directly with running the society / competitions (we branched out to multiple competitions) either as a committee chairman (there was more than one committee) or ex-officio for more than two years. Unofficially, one of the core reasons for founding the society was that Cambridge University at the time did not have any dept devoted to Entrepreneurship; the closest it had was a few classes on entrepreneurship within the Engineering Faculty (Engineering at Cambridge being an exceptional course of international reknown, and hence very large in terms of undergrads and well-funded in terms of diverse courses and extra lecturers; it also had a history of graduates going and founding successful startups). In the belief that the university would take many years or decades yet to found a new faculty for entrepreneurship, this society was created instead. Teaching entrepreneurship was a major mandate and one we took very seriously, running our own entire lecture course (!) each year, for which we co-wrote the syllabus with our sponsors (law firms, accountancy firms, management consultancies, venture capital firms, marketing consultancies, etc) who were also providing 2 or more speakers for the “course”.

The whole exprience was fascinating, and I learnt a lot both from working with the various people involved (sponsors, angels, investors, organizers, contestants) and from entering the competition myself one year (making it to the finals but not winning the cash prize) – but perhaps most of all from seeing what happened to the competition alumni AFTER the competition was over (we maintained strong links with them). I even worked for one of the alumni companies as a summer intern (with the title “Lead Developer” IIRC).

But we never did do very well at the “teaching entrepreneurship” part; our lessons were great, high quality with lots of juicy information, and generally very well recieved – but with hindsight they never seemed to have taught much of what was really needed by the entrepreneurs. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot in the back of my mind in the intervening years.

Here’s a new idea: get rid of the lectures, get rid of the tests, get rid of the business plans, get rid of the competition based on “40 page plan + 10 minutes pitch to a panel of real investors”, instead…

It’s all about the pitch, baby

  • Given the facts, can you pick out the bits that will make the company succeed?
  • Given the facts, can you pick out the bits that will make the company fail?
  • Can you convince someone you’re right when they’re trying to find a reason to condemn you?

The whole course would be built around Pitching. Everyone on the course would spend half their time pitching, and … half their time reviewing other people’s pitches.

The key abilities participants should be developing are:

  • Ability to sell, given some info
  • Persuading a cynical and suspicious interrogator who’s allowed to dig further into anything you said
  • Keeping a time-limited meeting on-topic despite the above
  • Seeing through the BS in someone else’s pitch (useful both in self-analysing your own pitches, and also in evaluating business partners and vendors)
  • Understanding what needs to be said about a company and what – given a time limit – is unnecessary to be said, even if it’s critical to the company
  • Understanding what can be said, and sounds good, but in reality means little, because it doesn’t actually differentiate sufficiently from the failures

When I say “reviewing”, I mean something specific that is NOT what you normally see. I have a trap…

The pitching game

Each pitch-session, you have 3 teams pitching, and 3 teams reviewing.

One of the pitching teams is told that their company is fake, a lie – they have to try and trick the reviewing teams into giving them the money. They are allowed to say ANYTHING in their pitch, and present it all as fact. The other two teams are given the facts of real companies to pitch (names removed), and MUST stick to the facts (this to be assessed by person running the course; some leeway is allowed, but its assumed there will be a due-diligence session further down the line, and veering too far from the facts will count as failure).

Here’s how it works to achieve the learning goals above:

The real teams have to learn, by trial and error, what “facts” about a company are the ones that will A) convince investors, and B) make them stand out from the liars.

This forces them to think about what makes a company suceeed – and, possibly more importantly – what makes a company *appear* to succeed. Competing against liars, they’re going to have to succeed at both.

The liars just have to master the art of the sell. Which is crucially important both to building and running a business and to raising funding and keeping investors happy enough to raise follow-on funding.

There is more to it than that, and there were some better ideas I had half-formed for the game part of this, but I’m out of time for today. The essential idea should be clear though: use “the pitch” as the recurring fundamental element of all the teaching.

5 replies on “Syllabus for an Entrepreneurship Degree”

Very, very well said.

You could do play in rounds for funding and have the histories of the real companies reflect their actual state at that time.

Everyone is both a VC and a company with funds to put in at each round. You both vote on funding and new valuation.

VCs can game against their own investments to take more control by reducing the valuation multiple… ultimately taking over, if they reduce equity enough for the founders.

I think it would be better with 5 teams at least (still only one fake company).

Yes, I like the bigger game you set out there, and the 5 teams.

For a course, I’d want to see the basic game replayed without context frequently, perhaps once a fortnight, just to give people lots of practice of all the basic skills involved. I’d want to use at the very least dozens of real companies, preferably 50 or so. The same company would re-appear in later rounds – still anonymized – as a later stage of that real company; enough info would be given that people could almost recognize it as a former company from an earlier pitch.

It would be nice for players to have the opportunity of recognizing it, except that I’d want to reveal the “true” identities of companies after each pitch session, so that players had instant feedback on mistakes etc.

But in parallel, you could run a longer game as you describe, with more features and depth. And in that longer game (or even a couple of them), it could be architected to be the different stages of a company.

I think with the longer game, I’d want perhaps 2 games, one in which teams A-C were VCs, and D-F were companies, and the other in which they were reversed. In each case, at some point, the VC’s would have to create a new VC fund – and the “companies” teams would temporarily take on the roles of high net worth individuals who needed to be pitched for their contribution to the fund.

Preferably, I’d have the 2 longer games run sequentially, so that the VC teams got used to being pitched, not having to pitch, and got the “oh, you need to raise a new fund” somewhat unexpectedly :).

Of course the real smart game would give you the terribly wise option of avoiding VCs entirely!

I’m not so sure about the “raise a VC fund” game. The only thing it would probably convince you is that, generally, it is better to be a VC than a startup and, of course, that, all else being equal, it is better to be rich. :)

I know this is terribly out of fashion, but … I don’t buy the idea that its best to avoid VC funding, it’s always sat uncomfortably with me, ever since I first heard it about 7 years ago, from some successful enterpreneurs who warned me that “VCs are like sharks, but worse – imagine the most evil and greedy people you can, and VCs are like that, but more so”.


VCs are a tool, a business partner/opportunity like all others. You go into any relationship with the with your eyes open, and you make risk/reward judgements as appropriate. If your company is right for VC, then there’s no better option than working with a VC (they wouldn’t survive otherwise).

I think the problems are mostly (from my experience of working with people who’ve had problems with VC) from the utter naivety of people going into relationships with VCs. The pattern of anti-VC vitriol (even in private, from people who are afraid to speak out in public) generally comes from the less world-wise/street-wise entrepreneurs IME. Not to say they are in any way poor entrepreneurs, just that their personalities and approaches tend to be like that.

Likewise, I’ve known people who’ve given up on romantic relationships, allowing a couple of bad experiences to prejudice them against every future relationship :O. It’s understandable why they do that, but doesn’t mean that you should agree with them :).

Anyway … re: raising a VC fund, I think if you don’t understand what a VC is, you are almost doomed to go into relationships with them naively. The earlier that we give entrepreneurs an understanding that the VCs themselves are not the top of the food chain, and are beholden to their own masters, the better.

(I also think it would be, well, fun to turn the tables part way through the course :)).

I’m not anti-VC, they are a choice (if the choice is available). They are also suitable for some companies and products and not for others. There are different times in your business life cycle when it makes more sense to hit a VC than others – which is an important lesson.

So, for the game, I think a company (maybe even after an investment) should have the option to “pass” on a round of funding.

The main lesson for working with VCs (I think) is understanding their interest in an exit strategy and whether that matches with your business growth / exit strategy. How much you ask for, terms, etc. are really going to define how close you and the VC are “harmonized” strategically.

Entrepreneurs should certainly understand debt, angels, and all of the other investment options as well as VCs.

… but, then again, I’ve never gotten that far with a VC for my own business :)

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