Dr Jeff Cornwall

Co-founder of The Entrepreneurial Mind, serial entrepreneur and professor of entrepreneurship.

Dr Jeff Cornwall - Co-founder of The Entrepreneurial Mind, serial entrepreneur and professor of entrepreneurship.

Intestinal Entrepreneurial Fortitude

Not everyone is prepared to be a successful entrepreneur.

In the new book Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck, two successful venture capitalists and a management consultant surveyed a large number of successful entrepreneurs to uncover what traits they have in common.  One of the traits — guts — particularly hit home with my experience as an entrepreneur and as a teacher of entrepreneurs.

The authors argue, and I agree, that guts is not a trait that you are either born with or not.  Having the guts to be an entrepreneur is something that can be nurtured and developed.  They identify three key elements to developing and nurturing guts in entrepreneurs.

Eighty percent of the successful entrepreneurs in this study said that their entrepreneurial guts were developed through experiences early in their lives.

I can cite several experiences from working in our family businesses that helped to toughen my skin.  One in particular stands out.  When I was in grade school my father partnered in a cleaning products distributorship.

Although I was only eleven, I was eager to become a part of this new venture.  So I decided to sell the product door to door.  My first sales call was to our next door neighbor, who was a good friend of our family.

Rather than pat me on the head and buy some product to be nice, she looked me in the eyes and said, “Tell me why I should spend our hard earned money on this stuff?”

I did not make the sale.  I was left speechless and devastated.  It was a hard lesson that I have carried with me the rest of my life.  Nobody owes you anything in business – it is up to you to earn it.

The second key element for developing guts is training and education that prepares entrepreneurs how to make decisions in complex situations.  We urge every student who comes into our program to start a business while they are in school because this kind of training is so important.  It helps them to gain experience, confidence and learn from their mistakes in a safe environment.  However, I am not one who thinks we should require every student to start a business as many schools are moving toward.  I think that making starting a business an assignment misses a key aspect of developing true entrepreneurial guts – the courage to make the choice and cross the threshold to start a venture.

The final element of developing and nurturing guts is becoming part of a community of entrepreneurs.  By joining an ecosystem of fellow entrepreneurs you gain peer support, wise counsel, and a group who can hold you accountable.  We need to have our entrepreneurial guts reinforced, nurtured, and checked throughout our career.

Having guts to be an entrepreneur does not imply that you take careless risks – quite the contrary.  Having guts to be an entrepreneur means that you are ready through experience to carefully and prudently manage and mitigate the risks that lie ahead.

The New School Year Begins

I still look forward to the beginning of classes each fall.  I am excited to see the new groups of faces in each of my classes.  I am excited to try out the new materials and new pedagogical approaches I worked on over the summer.  I still get a few butterflies in my stomach when I first step in the classroom the first day of classes.

This fall I am teaching two undergraduate classes here at Belmont.

Venture Planning is a class that I teach at least one section every semester.  It is the final course that our entrepreneurship majors, minors, and social entrepreneurship majors all have to take before they graduate.

A couple of years ago I made a fundamental shift to make this more of a business modeling class than a traditional business plan class.  Although I continue to refine and tweak the new approach, the results of the change to business modeling have been remarkable.  The final reports in the class are much stronger and we have more students feeling ready to move ahead with their businesses when they graduate.

Even in the face of what seems to most of them as a permanent recession — it has been the economic reality since this group first entered college in 2008 — this group is excited about the future.

My other class this year is somewhat of a new class for me.  I have taught International Entrepreneurship to students studying abroad, but I never have taught it in a classroom on campus before.

We are not just looking at the nuts and bolts of internationalizing an entrepreneurial venture, although that is where we will end up at the end of the term.  Instead, we are beginning looking at some big questions and issues.

Our first topic is quite fundamental, yet profoundly important in today’s world.  Is market capitalism moral?  Does engaging in capitalism corrupt one’s character?

We will then focus on what drives entrepreneurial activity — or in many cases what inhibits it — around the globe.  We will explore the role of culture and public policy issues such as taxation, regulation and property rights.  We will also look at the role of entrepreneurs in shaping culture through how they conduct themselves in their work.

These are incredibly timely issues given the debate not only here in the U.S., but around the globe.

We will be exploring these issues not from a political viewpoint, but at a policy and cultural level examining what empirical research tells us about each of these issues.

I am so glad to be back in the classroom again this fall.  I guess someday this may no longer be the case — I may no longer feel the magic of that first day of classes each year.  I have seen this day come for many a colleague over the years.

And when that day comes I know it will be time to walk away from the whiteboard and hang up the shingle for my bait shop!

Forecasting Revenues Key to Successful Launch

The late, legendary Silicon Valley attorney Craig Johnson used to say, “The leading cause of failure of start-ups is death, and death happens when you run out of money.”

And the leading cause of running out of money in a start-up is poor financial forecasting.

At the core of unrealistic forecasts is the undying optimism of most entrepreneurs.  Their “what could possibly go wrong?” attitude leads to many forecasting disasters.  My father used to say that when he looked at investing in an entrepreneurial venture he would always double the start-up costs and triple the time it takes to get to breakeven.

My rule of thumb is a bit different.  I believe that being overly optimistic leads to entrepreneurs making fatal mistakes in estimating revenues, which is at the heart of most forecasting errors.  So, my approach when reviewing a business is plan is to cut revenue forecasts in half.

Here are the four most common revenue foresting mistakes I see:

  • Assuming an “instant on” button for a new business.  Most business plans I read show significant revenues from the beginning of the business, sometimes even for the very first month that they open their doors.  The reality is that it takes time to build a customer base for any business.  That is why an entrepreneur should have at least six months personal living expenses available to make it through the startup in addition to the money the new business needs.
  • The magic of the hockey stick.  A common pattern in business plans is to show a relatively slow initial start to revenues, and then assume some that unexplained breakthrough will occur that leads to a sudden and dramatic increase in sales.  When you graph this type of revenue forecast it looks just like a hockey stick.  The reality is that such sudden growth is just not that common and usually results from specific actions.
  • Assuming enough sales to make the business model look successful.  In this mistake entrepreneurs forecast their expenses and then they plug in enough revenues to make the business become profitable.  When I press these entrepreneurs, their explanation of revenues is “well, these are the revenues I need to make the business work.”  The truth is that the market will not give you the sales you need, it will only give you the sales you earn through a well-executed business model.
  • The marketing plan tells a different story than revenue forecasts.  The marketing plan should specifically explain what you are going to do to achieve the revenues you forecast.  Why will customers want what you are selling?  Who are these customers?  How are you going to communicate to them about your business?  The marketing plan should explain in words the numbers shown in the revenue forecast.  Most plans just do not make this connection.

To avoid running out of cash before your business model has time to work requires an accurate assessment of how much money you will really need to get the business off the ground. While knowing your costs is important, accurately forecasting your revenues is critical.

It is so sad to see a business model that has real potential fail simply because the entrepreneur was unrealistic about how much money it would take to get to the point of success.

Key Partners Support Success

Entrepreneurs cannot achieve success alone.

They need the help and support of a whole host of people who are directly involved in the business, including employees, partners, family members and investors.

Entrepreneurs also need to develop key “partnerships” with people and organizations that are not a direct part of the daily operation.  These partners work closely with an entrepreneur in some way that is important or possibly even critical for the operation of the business.  Even though they are not as directly involved day-to-day as employees and customers, the support of these key partners can be at least as important for a business’s success.

Let’s look at an example of key partnerships for a simple business model.  My students all know that I have one more business start-up in me.  I plan to open a bait shop when I retire from teaching.  Why a bait shop?  My first significant small business experience was running the bait shop for the marina that our family owned in Wisconsin when I was fifteen years old.  So it seems appropriate to me that my last business venture should also be a bait shop!

An entrepreneur can use key partners to help reduce risk by sharing that risk with partners.  In Dr. C’s Bait Shop, I will seek out suppliers who will help reduce the risk associated with my inventory.  Minnows and worms are perishable, so I will work with suppliers that are willing to deliver inventory often and only deliver it when I need it.  That reduces the risk that my inventory will go bad if I have a stormy week that would lead to a significant drop in sales.

Dr. C’s Bait Shop will need a space to operate in a good location.  I will try to find a landlord who will rent me the right building and offer good service at a fair price even though my business is new.  I may even be able to get the landlord to pay to fix up the space I need and add that cost into my rent.  So, key partners can help entrepreneurs secure needed resources without actually spending their precious start-up cash to acquire them.

I will seek out counsel from people with more experience in the industry to help serve as advisors.  I will talk with bait shop owners in other markets and connect with old timers in the Tennessee fishing community.

Finally, I will build legitimacy for my bait shop among angling enthusiasts by volunteering in local hunting and fishing organizations.

Good networking with key partners is much more than just introducing myself and giving them a business card.  I need to earn their support by making the relationships between us mutually beneficial.

So as simple as my bait shop business is to operate, its success depends on building a network of key partnerships.  While being an entrepreneur means you do not work for anyone, it does not mean you don’t work with anyone.


Dog Days Continue

The economy continues to languish while the politicians blame each other and business owners continue to wait for signs that things are really going to improve.

The big word for many entrepreneurs is uncertainty.  It is not only uncertainty about when a true recovery will begin, but also uncertainty about things such as tax rates, regulation, and global economic instability.

While the Intuit Small Business Index shows continued weak improvement, other surveys show business owners to be more cautious.

The latest report from the NFIB is more of the same.

“July looked a lot like June in terms of job growth—namely, it was negative”. said chief economist for the NFIB William C. Dunkelberg. “On balance, July looks like a repeat of June, few jobs and no change in the unemployment rate. So far, it has turned out to be a cruel summer of dashed hopes for meaningful job creation.”

SurePayroll’s Small Business Scorecard shows that month-over-month, hiring remains flat and the average paycheck is down.

“Small business owners are optimistic by nature and they know that if you have a good idea you can take advantage of the lower costs in this economy and be successful,” said SurePayroll CEO and President Michael Alter. “Still, we need more incentives for investors to back startups and less tax burdens on small businesses.”