Entrepreneurship is a skill that has to be learned. Since 2010, Bruno Martinaud has been running a Masters course in technology entrepreneurship at France’s prestigious Ecole Polytechnique. After selling off his company during the dotcom bubble in the early noughties, Martinaud, a specialist in technology entrepreneurship, decided to go into teaching, initially part-time, then full-time, and set up the Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Polytechnique.
The two-year programme, which is open to all students both in and outside Polytechnique, focuses on the entrepreneurial process of startups based on technology and algorithms. Half the course is scientific, on a subject of the student’s choosing: Big Data, machine learning, new energies, etc. whilst the other half focuses on entrepreneurship. The aim of the course is to promote entrepreneurial spirit among the students and help them develop technology projects.
So what qualities does an entrepreneur need? What sort of obstacles are they likely to come across? Is it easy to be an entrepreneur in the digital age? Bruno Martinaud answered these and other questions.
Entrepreneurs: the spirit of adventure
What sort of qualities does an entrepreneur need?
Bruno Martinaud: There are lots.The first one I’d say is they need to be intrepid.
“Entrepreneurs mustn’t be afraid of exploring uncharted territory and thinking up ideas which, most of the time, won’t even work. Because by thinking up things that won’t work, you ultimately manage to launch interesting, innovative projects.”
At the same time, you have to be ambitious and think big. I’m not much of a believer in entrepreneurs who want to target a niche market: some projects do start that way, but it doesn’t happen often.
You also need to be a bit schizophrenic! An entrepreneur who manages a project comes across issues which require a certain sense of strategy and a long-term vision and pressure: building a product, signing your first clients… You will also need to control costs and expenses, as entrepreneurs who are just starting out don’t have much money, and see a project through with a great deal of ambition. You also need strike a balance between being perseverant in the face of difficulties – for example, when an idea or technology doesn’t work – and the ability to learn which enables you to spot deadlocks and negotiate any changes of direction.
Is there such a thing as a typical entrepreneur profile?
The qualities I mentioned earlier are ones you need in most sectors. Certain projects require a certain number of vertical skills: someone launching a technology project, for example, will need a scientific background. But other than that, I don’t think there is a typical profile.
As I said before, entrepreneurs are explorers and time is often against you. In that sense, the best time to set up a business is when you’re young and have just graduated. It’s an ideal time to innovate because you haven’t yet been moulded by the processes of acquiring experience and applying best practices in a group where you have to fit in. So age is a factor in the entrepreneurial aspect of a project, but, again, there are counter-examples: there are people who launch very innovative projects right at the end of their career.
Finding the right help: an essential requirement
Support, financing, coaching, network… What do entrepreneurs need?
When an entrepreneur launches a venture there are things he/she can’t control. So from the outset of the project, they need to be trained in this, to be encouraged to explore and put themselves out there. They need help in developing their project: they need to be taught what questions to ask about the project.
“In France, and particularly in the Greater Paris area, there’s a very rich, detailed, dense ecosystem to help entrepreneurs get started.”
At the same time, each entrepreneur has to take steps to ensure he or she has “voluntary”, help, i.e. from people who aren’t investors but who will help without having a particular aim in mind. Because another responsibility an entrepreneur has is to understand this need to get the right contacts. It’s an initial test of sorts: knowing how to set up the right context, environment and ecosystem that will help them get ahead.
What sort of obstacles and restrictions might he/she come up against?
It’s difficult to launch an entrepreneurial project: it’s always longer and more complicated than you initially think. And when it works out, you end up developing a business that has nothing to do with what you originally planned.
“The energy that fuels an entrepreneur to progress is passion, but also their ability to ‘crack the code’ and find the winning formula.”
They can get help with that because recruitment isn’t a real entrepreneurial obstacle. Finding financing is hard, but it should be part of the natural selection process.
“Nature is selective, so all good entrepreneurs working on the right projects won’t necessarily manage to find the means to succeed.”
The real issue for me is trying to understand the implications and instil in entrepreneurs this passion and this ability to think differently and lead their team.
DIGITAL HAS CHANGED THE Barriers to entry
Is it easy to set up a business these days?
There’s a much stronger entrepreneurial culture now. Everyone’s heard of entrepreneurship and has stories to tell about entrepreneurs. There are much more entrepreneurs and projects than there were 20 years ago, but nature is still as selective. It’s easy to be an entrepreneur, but not so easy to make a success of it. And that’s a good thing.
The development of IT had changed the barriers to entry in a number of areas: nowadays you can develop anything with minimal resources, which you couldn’t do before. That also has an impact on the rate at which projects develop: it’s easier now to virtually test and prototype any product, even a physical one, for a few hundred euros.
And then there’s everything to do with machine learning and Big Data, which will probably have a considerable impact on the way projects develop: technologies are changing fast with a centre of gravity that is the process of creating value, managing and exploiting data gathered for business. This could mean, for example, starting out with technology for sensors but ending up setting up a company that develops algorithms for processing this information.
What will entrepreneurship be like in the future?
“I hope there will be more and entrepreneurs because we need them, especially in developed countries. We need people who can reinvent the world without dwelling too much on the past.”
My vision today is to try and stimulate the interest in entrepreneurship we get from students and the younger generations, that positive motivation that allows people to try and tackle problems and change the world we live in. It’s vital to get back this ability to reinvent tomorrow and forget yesterday and today… That’s the challenge for the new generations and I think it’s our role to help prepare them for this… At least, that’s why I got into teaching.
Read the other articles in our entrepreneurship series:
Crédit photo : Pixabay