By Will Haire
Follow us on twitter: @SWStamford
We have some Great News! Quinnipiac University is sponsoring Startup Weekend Stamford for the second year in a row. Not a surprise—after all, Quinnipiac made quite the impression last year with three student teams participating at the event: Pisces Place, Music Vault and Déjà You. Déjà You took home Silver with a second place victory with their idea. This year’s participants will have big shoes to fill! David Tomczyk is an Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at Quinnipiac University. He coached last year’s event and will be assisting teams again this year. Dave is passionate about entrepreneurship and mentoring students. He agreed to sit down with us for an interview:
Q: What made you decide to get into teaching entrepreneurship?
Honestly, it was pure chance. I had applied to George Washington University’s Ph.D. program to study organizational behavior, and the two people who interviewed me asked me what experience I had with it. I mentioned doing some work with an entrepreneurial lab when I was in my Masters program, and they both jumped on it. A half-hour later, I changed my degree to entrepreneurship and had both of them as mentors. I later found out that they were two of the people who helped found entrepreneurship as a field of study! They are two of the nicest people you’d ever get to meet, and they helped make sure no one got too big for their britches. They even let me create the first ever entrepreneurship undergraduate course at GWU, and I enjoyed every minute of it! (Well, minus the grading.) To this day, I keep in contact with them and thank them for putting me on the right track.
Q: What kind of businesses are students starting while in school?
I’m seeing a lot of digital businesses starting now. Digital businesses (websites, apps, video games, social media platforms, etc.) usually have pretty low startup costs, so people still in college are more able to launch them prior to graduating. Two we have launching at Quinnipiac right now are Unify Solutions (http://unifysolutions.co/), which helps companies integrate, manage, and track work orders, services, and deliveries, and Checkmate Creations (http://checkmatecreations.com/home/), which helps companies build their digital brands. Both of these required little more than a few computers, some programming and design expertise, and a whole lot of hard work—things college students can definitely pull together.
You also see a lot of niche businesses—businesses that meet the needs of a particular college or local community. Niche businesses also don’t often require much capital to launch, and students are so tuned into their communities that they have incredibly easy access to their customers for validating their idea and eventually selling to them. For example, Cronk Shop (http://cronkshop.com/) is a streetwear company that helps budding designers market and sell their products on a national level. The business grew from the owner’s passion for clothing (being an up-and-coming streetwear designer himself), and he already had some connections in the market who joined on almost immediately because they knew he understood their needs.
Q: What is the Department’s philosophy on teaching students how to be entrepreneurs?
Two years ago we redesigned the major, and the first thing to go were textbooks and tests. Entrepreneurship is about doing, and the best way to do that is by getting your hands dirty. If you want to learn about small business marketing, work with an actual small business. If you want to learn entrepreneurial finance, you need to create financial statements and sit on the other side of the table as an investor. If you want to launch a business, you need to go through the process—preferably multiple times! And the entire time, you need people cheering you on as you fail. Everyone already supports a success, but failure is an intrinsic part of entrepreneurship, so you need people pushing you to get up and try again if you fall.
Q: What is your philosophy on teaching students how to be entrepreneurs?
When I create a class, I have to be excited to take it. If I’m not imagining how much fun it would be to be in the students’ seats, then I have to redesign the class. That’s not to say my students don’t do work or that I give a whole bunch of A’s; in fact, my classes are regularly rated as some of the hardest in the school. I want the students to be motivated to do the hard work, and that means making the classes place they want to come to and have knowledge bombs dropped on them, often through exercises, workshops, and discussions.
Q: Can entrepreneurship really be taught?
If you’re talking about the inherent drive to launch a business, studies have shown that it can be enhanced. If you’re talking about the skills an entrepreneur needs, they can be learned and practiced. If you’re talking about the mentality entrepreneurs need to thrive, it can be grown. If you’re talking about knowledge of laws and financing and marketing and more, it definitely can be learned. The one thing that can’t be taught is passion. No matter what any educator does, unless you have that fire in your belly for your idea and figure out what makes you motivated to launch that business, they can’t make you passionate.
What direction do you see the E-ship program moving in the future?
We’re right now redesigning the program again. After two years with the existing program, we’ve identified some things that work awesomely and some things that don’t. And that’s awesome! We get to apply the same principles we teach in the classroom to the classes we teach. One thing we’re doing is loading a bunch of entrepreneurship classes into the final year of our students so that they can use all of them to help launch their businesses. This way, everyone’s learning about marketing, creativity, finance, negotiation, and more right when they need it!
Q: What did you think of the event last year?
Last year was a blast! The level of creativity and passion was through the roof, and I have even higher expectations for this year! People were generating ideas all over the place, and they wanted to share their ideas with the world. I remember one team disappearing for a few hours because everyone went out to survey people on the streets about the design and functionality. Another team left after midnight, continued working until around 4 am in their hotel room, and then came back at 7 am because they couldn’t wait to make more progress.
Q: Any advice for participants this year?
Startup Weekend isn’t about perfection or success. You’ll never achieve the former in 48 hours, and you’ll have plenty of the latter along the way in small amounts. It’s not about failure, either—failure is what Startup Weekend people call “in progress.” And your idea will definitely be “in progress” for the entire weekend! The goal of Startup Weekend is to thoroughly enjoy yourself as you work incredibly hard on an idea. It may be your idea, it may not. You may have to teach yourself about some things you never heard of before. You may see your idea blow up in your face or take an unexpected turn based on one crazy idea someone yelled out at 2 am. In short, it’s one of the best entrepreneurial experiences you can ever hope to have!
What do you think will be your biggest concern this weekend? Be sure to share your opinions or experiences below in the comment section!