For the last half-year, I’ve been grateful to serve as the Wellington Entrepreneurship Coordinator. This originally included three goals. Although those goals haven’t changed, how we approach them has, informed by my experience working with a few of the students at Wellington. I’m excited to tell you about our progress to date, which already includes one new LLC formally created by our student Jake Goudie ’22, and our route forward, which, among other things, includes building out a new “Media Lab” for use by students, staff, and faculty to professionally communicate their ideas.
The original three goals included: (1) deploying a comprehensive K-12 entrepreneurial curriculum, (2) creating a startup incubator for businesses founded by students, staff, and faculty, and (3) identifying how Wellington can become so effective at helping students start and manage successful businesses that we become an innovative leader in the field.
Although deploying an entrepreneurial curriculum for all grades at Wellington sounds like a challenge, many amazing materials are already out there, and the challenge is tailoring them to Wellington’s specific needs and shoehorning them into our already dense matrix of offerings. We’ll be doing this over the next few months with a host of teachers from early childhood to upper school.
The startup incubator was a bigger challenge – do we mimic a conventional business incubator? Cheap office space, multi-week accelerators, and resident experts to help bring ideas to life? More importantly – is that what Wellington students, staff, and faculty need in terms of business support? This has been the most interesting learning experience for me over the past six months – working with students, staff and faculty, hearing their ideas, and identifying how we can help grow those ideas into businesses.
The biggest discovery for me was learning the difference between doing well in an entrepreneurship class (one type of achievement) and being able to take one’s ideas and turn them into a business (a different type of achievement). I liken this to the difference between getting an “A” in Spanish class and then trying to communicate with a street vendor in Barcelona. Having an excellent grasp of the theory doesn’t necessarily imbue you (yet!) with the skills, experience, and grit to succeed in an entrepreneurial endeavor. That’s why it’s great to have classes that can teach theory at Wellington, as well as a lab where one can experience the practice.
Thus – one unseen need was to simply sketch out all the things necessary to start, run, and grow a successful business in extremely granular, step-by-step, practical terms. Sometimes someone may have a goal, but they haven’t thought through each step to achieving the goal. This is sometimes the value of “talking out loud” or using someone else as a “sounding board” – the simple act of saying, out loud, what you need to do, immediately surfaces the things you need to do before proceeding. “I want to make a profit selling cookies.” Okay, you need to make them – how long does it take to bake them? What is the cost of the ingredients? How much can you sell them for? How much profit do you want to make each month? Can we model this in a business process model diagram that quantifies each step? Creating a flow chart of your business processes helps us to quantify otherwise vague, “hand-wavy” steps, and it also serves as a “standard operating procedure” that can be handed to employees, managers, or partners when the founder is ready to scale.
It has been my experience that if someone wants to pursue a career, they can lean into their greatest strength, explore it as deeply as possible, and build a very successful career on one very good skill. But if you want to be an entrepreneur, not only do you need to know many different skills, but you have to be at least decent at them, and thus (at least in the beginning stages of your business) you are only as good as your worst skill. This is a different game!
Working with Wellington students has taught me how curious they are, how broad their skill sets are, how much self-agency they are encouraged to own, how impactful their decisions and actions can be on themselves and their community, and how well they present themselves. (I wish I was as self-assured and rooted in goals at their age!) But simply by virtue of their youth, they don’t have the experience of life to anticipate challenges, be aware of opportunities, or even know their own interests sufficiently to chart out a clear path to entrepreneurial success. This is the gap I’ve been trying to fill by largely playing the role of “Entrepreneur in Residence”; to help point out problems, ask questions, and navigate an idea to reality. Rather than being prescriptive: “do this; don’t do that; that idea won’t work” (for who of us can see the future?), I prefer to ask questions and help the student find their own answers. If neither of us is sure about a decision, we can design an experiment or survey and try to address our uncertainty with data.
But even if we work together to the point that we’ve reached what we all think is a pretty good idea – having a good idea isn’t enough to sell it. You need to know if the market thinks it’s a good idea too. You need to be able to pitch it, sell it, tell its story. And often I’ve discovered that if someone spends 99% of their time doing “real” work, but only spends 1% of their time communicating their idea/progress/goals, they will be outsold/outmaneuvered by someone who spends 1% of their time on the work, and 99% of their time on the presentation. Thus, I’d like to make it extremely easy to encourage students to do the hard work, but not to compromise on the messaging. If we have resources and simple, tried-and-true processes to create a beautiful product photograph, a professionally recorded podcast, or a crisply rendered video, we can be sure that the “marketing” aspect of their business is covered. The media lab will include a podcasting station, video station, photography station, and computers and software that are push-button ready, with extremely simple to understand step-by-step processes to help professionally capture and disseminate a student’s idea. I’ve been grateful for how flexible Wellington has been about providing space and resources to accommodate this new addition to the Entrepreneurship Program! (And naturally, these resources can be used by a host of other students, staff, and faculty for non-entrepreneurial projects as well).
If we can couple both processes – a process to grow an idea into a business and then a process to professionally market that business – then we have the best of both worlds. Students can spend their time on the “hard work” of their innovation/business idea, while ensuring that they’ll be able to communicate it professionally to customers, partners, investors, lenders, and more.
Creating anything of value is challenging – especially if it’s novel, like a good business idea – and each step consumes cognitive overhead. Thus, if we can “systematize” the mechanics of forming a business – creating a business plan, filing for an LLC, establishing a marketing strategy, charting out process models – then not only are we educating our students about steps in entrepreneurship they may not have been aware of, but we’re streamlining the process so that they can spend their energies where it really counts – on executing a novel and valuable idea. Thus, we plan to paper the walls of the startup incubator with posters outlining precise, step-by-step instructions for filing an LLC, privately registering a domain name, connecting a website, connecting a payment processor to that website, hiring a designer for a logo (or submitting a “ticket” through WonderWRX), making a Facebook marketing campaign, creating a video blog, etc. In this way, we’re paving the way for our students to turn their ideas into full-fledged enterprises.
A quick note – it may seem like overkill to have students create LLCs – but I’ve worked with enough people who create and sell products and services at the Idea Foundry, that starting an LLC early on – understanding bookkeeping, business finance, taxes, etc., avoids problems down the road, and makes it easier to show three years of tax filings if/when applying for a loan from a bank. It also adds a real degree of legitimacy and sets the student up for success years later. It only costs $99 and private registration of a website domain and web hosting services for two years is another $200 or so. Thus, for approximately $300, you can have a formal business with the legal, insurance, and tax clarity that an LLC affords.
So – watch this space, as we’re just getting started. Expect to see more announcements about new opportunities for students to explore all manner of entrepreneurial skills, about new ideas and new businesses they’ve formed, about the successes of the enterprises they’ve created. Exciting and empowering stuff!