Starting a business isn’t for everyone, but it seems to be an increasingly popular choice for young Australians.
Maybe you could put it down to things like high-profile, hyper-successful young role models (think of Mark Zuckerberg or the Atlassian founders), the fairly recent option of crowdfunding an idea, or the feeling that the workforce is changing so quickly it might be easier to make rather than find your next job.
Whatever the case actually is, starting a business appears to be more popular among young people than ever. A GMA global survey from last year of 15,000 prospective MBA students found 28 per cent wanting to be entrepreneurs after finishing (up from 19 per cent in 2010). According to the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), 40 per cent of its students want an entrepreneurial component to their degrees.
Most graduates have gone through their education aiming to get a job working for someone else, said Dr Jochen Schweitzer, Director of UTS’s new MBA Entrepreneurship (MBAe) program. However, he believes that’s changing, suggesting that the generations coming through will see things differently.
“They would think ‘it’s not really that I want a job. I just want a fulfilled professional life. I might make my job. I might create my job’,” he said.
More or less that sentiment dawned on Mahya Mirzaei, a graduate in aeronautical space engineering and PhD in space robotics. She is also founder of Learned Hub, a tutoring business that uses machine learning and analytics to customise lessons and respond to a student’s ability level. It has reached “thousands” of students so far, she said.
“I think the first time I ever thought about entrepreneurship was when I was watching that movie, The Social Network,” she said, referring to David Fincher’s 2010 movie about the origins of Facebook.
“I was watching that, and there’s a part of the movie where the kids go to the head of Harvard and he says that the students of Harvard don’t look for jobs, they create jobs.”
The MBAe course is one of a few Master’s degrees available in Australia oriented specifically to entrepreneurship. Based on location, UTS is the ideal place. Inner-Sydney’s Ultimo postcode has the highest concentration of start-ups for any location in Australia.
Beginning this year, its first intake included 28 students (of hugely varied backgrounds) from 68 applications, targeting three kinds of learners: those with an idea and a disciplinary background; commercial founders; and people from larger organisations (e.g. change managers). Schweitzer said he was “most interested” in the disciplinary background, as good ideas can often originate from disciplinary depth.
“I think if you look at especially technology-driven start-ups, they always have an engineer somewhere in there,” he said as an example.
However, being technically skilled is not the only thing required for success, with this just one part of the puzzle.
“What I’ve figured or what I find is that, especially in this interdisciplinary or entrepreneurial context that I’m trying to create here, is that the role of or the importance of understanding team dynamics, understanding your own preferences as a player in a team, is very important,” he said.
One student from the intake is Mark Burch, a software engineer who had a background in consulting and with Microsoft before he founded InvoiceSmash. He felt destined for entrepreneurship from early on. At around five years old, he drew a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up. He scribbled a cartoon pirate, telling his parents he desired a future as a “rich merchant”.
“I didn’t want to be a pirate, or a fireman, or a pilot…I wanted to be a businessman who made money from the pirates,” he said.
Silicon Valley company Coupa Software announced in July last year it had acquired InvoiceSmash, an automated e-invoicing app, for an undisclosed sum.
Burch believes that entrepreneurship is something innate, in the same way that being an actor or sportsperson can be. There’s an “infinite number” of things to learn, however, so teaching also has an important role.
“Not everyone is cut out for starting technology start-up businesses, just in the same way not everyone is cut out for being a movie actor – but it’s a subtle thing,” he said.
“Talent isn’t binary. It’s a spectrum. And the types of businesses that can be started are a spectrum too. So on the spectrum from Facebook to one-person-service businesses, there is a lot of space for everyone.”
Keeping a dream alive
According to Mirzaei, good mentors are also vital, mentioning her own, UTS’s Professor Mary-Anne Williams.
She believes that there’s a big difference between Australia and the United States in attitude towards ambitious startups, mentioning the celebrity status of “unicorn” companies over there. Mirzaei also cites her experience among her cohort at the University of Sydney aeronautical space degree. Here were exceptionally bright young things, needing an ATAR of 99.4 or above to get in, and their highest aspirations were limited to jobs at Boeing or NASA.
“We weren’t so much thinking of, ‘How about we be the next Edward Boeing?’” she said.
Burch said that anybody can and should think entrepreneurially, a skill that can be deployed in “pretty much any work context”. It’s a talent present in different degrees: having more of it can boost the chances of success but doesn’t ensure them. Things like luck also play a part.
“Founding a business and growing it to the point where it is listed on the ASX or NASDAQ is about the equivalent of being Russell Crowe or Nicole Kidman,” he said.
“There can only be a limited number of those people.”
Everyone can think entrepreneurially, though, as everyone could most likely learn to act a little. And acting – like an entrepreneurial mindset – can even be useful in things like interviews and running meetings.
And when should someone decide that their idea is worth developing? The task takes profound commitment, patience and fortitude to keep one’s vision when things get tough, believes Burch.
Without these, a person will likely quit when things get tough. If someone does “whatever it takes to keep the dream alive” amid negative feedback, then that person is made of entrepreneur material, he added.
The lifestyle could be “absolute hell”, he said. The chances of successfully developing an idea are low, pleas for advice will be ignored, customers will be apathetic, and best case or even moderate case scenarios might look delusional in hindsight.
“The way that I put it is like this: If someone has to be talked into, or cajoled into starting a business… that’s the wrong way around,” Burch said.
“Only the people who can’t be talked out of it should think about starting a business.”