Can entrepreneurism be taught?
Faculty members in Monmouth College’s department of political economy and commerce believe it can, and they are addressing the subject in a variety of ways, most notably through a hands-on capstone course which regularly brings business leaders and innovators to the classroom.
“Teachers of entrepreneurism must immerse their learners in complex, interactive experiences that are both rich and real,” said PEC faculty member Don Capener, who team teaches the capstone course “Midwest Entrepreneurs” with Mike Connell. “One way entrepreneurs refine their skills is internships or assignments to create and execute events. Another good example is starting or leading clubs or organizations.”
And another is hearing from speakers who have “been there and done that.” Guests in Capener and Connell’s class have primarily come from the area so far and have included John Twomey of the Twomey Company, local McDonald’s owner Mike Luna and Mike Bond, co-founder of Innkeeper’s Coffee in Galesburg. Two entrepreneurs with MC ties – former staff member Rod Smith and current student Jack Donnelly – also spoke to the class about their eBay business and Monmouth’s new downtown dance club, respectively.
Alumni entrepreneurs will also begin visiting soon. They include Kevin Goodwin ’80 of SonoSite; Alex Melvin ’05, vice president of Rural King’ Dan Palmer ’75, CEO of Tri-City Electric; and Dwight Tierney ’69, co-founder of MTV (who spoke on Feb. 19). Capener and Connell hope that a pair of leading entrepreneurs from the region – Dick Blackhurst, CEO of Farmington-based Kitchen Cooked Inc., and LeClaire, Iowa-based Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz from History Channel’s popular show, “American Pickers” – might one day appear in the class.
“These guests take learning off the page for our students and make it come alive,” said Connell. “These are real people with real problems and real successes. How did they overcome their obstacles? Their talks give our students a real feel for what works.”
“Entrepreneurism class is a great learning environment where the students get a close-up view of how successful entrepreneurs started and continue to run their businesses,” said Alex Tanney, a senior from Lexington. “It’s an extremely beneficial experience for any business student looking to start or run their own business.”
Connell also noted that a special topics course, “Introduction to Entrepreneurism,” was taught last fall by new faculty member Lee Miller. It was a “trial run” for the course, which was recently approved to be added to the regular curriculum for 2011-12.
Miller comes to Monmouth after successfully growing two manufacturing companies, which he then sold to larger firms. He also taught in Thailand in Bangkok University’s newly formed entrepreneurship program.
“The diversity of the demands that you experience as an entrepreneur make teaching this subject challenging, but certainly exciting,” said Miller. “It’s definitely rewarding, as several of my students in Thailand have gone on to start their own successful businesses using the business plans they developed in my classes.”
Miller received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Ohio State University, a master’s degree in engineering from Virginia Commonwealth University and an MBA from Western Carolina University. His engineering expertise will be used in another special topics course that fuses business and engineering. It will be offered in the spring of 2012.
During a sabbatical next year, Connell will examine the concept of innovation, which he hopes to develop into a course, which will certainly have ties to entrepreneurism.
Capener also brings cast entrepreneurial experience to the department, having been a co-founder of the Above The Rim sportswear company, which was sold to Reebok in 1993.
Bond was the most recent guest in Capener and Connell’s classroom, and he told the students of the experiences that he and Monmouth alumnus Johan Ewalt ’82 have shared while building a successful business in their hometown. At first, the partners hoped that their major business would be a bed and breakfast that they operated out of their home, the historic 1890-era Fahnestock House in Galesburg.
“I traded in my suits and Florsheims for Carhartt and outdoor work,” Bond said of the transition. “The bed and breakfast was OK for a while, but we needed to make some real money.”
“I thought it was important for our students to hear Mike say, ‘I failed in the B&B business. I couldn’t make it go,’” said Connell. “There’s a certain serendipity to being an entrepreneur, and it can be as much of an art as it a science. Things roll into place, but these people have showed the students that you have to take a chance.”
Bond and Ewalt decided that they were “pretty passionate” about coffee, so they began investigating that as a possible business, including a week-long trip to Sandpoint, Idaho, home of the Diedrich Coffee Roasters.
“Our plan was to roast coffee for restaurants and grocery stores,” said Bond. “It’s been more than 12 years now, and we still haven’t sold it wholesale. You always want to have a Plan A and a Plan B and a Plan C, because the customer is going to drive what you do.”
The customers have indeed driven Bond and Ewalt in a couple of new directions. First, the demand for Innkeeper’s coffee became so great that they outgrew their location, a 16-by-16 foot area in the Galesburg Antique Mall. They bought a corner lot in downtown Galesburg and designed a distinctive new building. The resulting 3,500-square-foot structure, built in 2003, is unique. In a big city, the rent on such a large structure would have been prohibitive. In Galesburg, however, rather than pay rent, they own the building, which is a key element of their business model.
“A site like ours would sell for $40 million in Chicago,” said Bond. “How many cups of coffee do you have to sell to make that kind of rent?”
In addition to driving Bond and Ewalt to a new location, Innkeeper’s customers eventually led them to another key decision.
“We always said we would never make food,” said Bond. “But the 10 to 2 period is a quiet one in coffeehouses. Our customers asked for lunch, and now that’s our busiest time of day. We’ve created a monster almost, but it’s a good monster. Now, food runs neck-and-neck with our coffee bean sales.”
Said Capener, “The volume you would need to sell the 500-1,000 avid coffee drinkers in Galesburg that have the means to buy daily coffee didn’t work for Starbucks (which was only open in Galesburg for a year). By going deeper and getting that greater share of wallet, Innkeeper’s has been very successful.”
“It just goes to show that you can’t always do what you want to do,” wrote Nick Goett, a senior from Metamora, in a reaction paper following Bond’s lecture. “You have to be malleable and responsive to the gaps in the market.”
The largest gap they filled was for a gathering place rich in flavor, class and atmosphere.
“We crafted a destination business that was not in the marketplace at that time,” said Bond.
Innkeeper’s also creates revenue by selling mugs, cards, teapots, jewelry and even $900 stained glass lamps. Those mugs and teapots bear the Innkeeper’s brand, and Bond said “branding” was one of the best decisions the businessmen made.
“In terms of marketing, the biggest thing we did was brand ourselves. We used a local graphic arts company, and we wanted to brand the name ‘Innkeeper’s.’ We spent a lot of time and effort and money on that. For example, we spent $8,000 on our sign. People might think that’s a lot of money, but branding the name was that important to us, and we still have the sign after all these years.”
Branding gets the word out about the business, and so do its loyal customers. Bond said some customers visit “seven days a week, three times a day. It freaks me out a little, because when I was at (Galesburg department store) Bergner’s, our goal was to get customers to visit us twice a month. Some of our customers are here 21 times a week!”
The emphasis on branding did not go unnoticed by the students.
“One of the pieces of advice that I found very interesting was the idea of branding not only the coffee and merchandise, but also the cups, labels, boxes, etc., that Innkeeper’s uses throughout the day,” wrote Valerie Koopman, a senior from Roscoe. “With everything being branded, customers cannot help but see the image. This causes them to remember where they had their last cup of coffee and usually return often.”
“You would think that advertising would be kind of hard in a fairly small town like Galesburg, but Innkeeper’s Coffee is a perfect example of advertising through word of mouth,” wrote Goett. “Mr. Bond has a great theory. He makes his coffee and food so good that people talk about it and advertise for free.”
Bond told the entrepreneurism students to “dream big,” then advised them to be prepared to weather some storms.
“Hold onto the dream – make it work,” he said. “It will work if you’re passionate about it.”
“What’s really come through to me in the talks so far is how passionate all of these people are about what they’re doing and the attention they pay to customer service,” said Connell. “For a lot of them, this is their hobby on steroids.”
So, can entrepreneurism be taught?
“The simple answer is ‘yes’,” said Capener. “Of course, your talents, abilities or weaknesses will be evident to those with whom you work. The potential success of any venture depends on how well the entrepreneur can leverage their assets. The more advantages, the better.”
He added, “As instructors of entrepreneurism, we want to help would-be entrepreneurs to use all of the skills at their disposal. Learning basic economics, management, marketing and finance are part of the critical fundamentals. But emotional intelligence is critical, too. Often entrepreneurs must make many decisions simultaneously – thus taking advantage of their brain’s unique ability to parallel process.”