This story is a part of the book “Urban Information Architecture and Entrepreneurship: Interaction Patterns for Successful Startups.”
“I’m really only here for the muffins,” a woman plucked a muffin from the tray and sat down across from me.
Since my Masters thesis centered around the question of how entrepreneurs built the information networks needed to become entrepreneurs, I myself needed to start where every entrepreneur starts on their journey: at the moment of the idea before they take action.
This is the least understood or well-mapped sector of entrepreneurship. Since most entrepreneurs at this stage have made only slight steps — maybe they attended a workshop, registered a domain, or created some sketches of their product — it is very hard to get concrete, tangible data on who these people are. What is more, people farther along in the entrepreneurial funnel often look down at people in this stage as “want-apreneurs” that talk about their ideas but make no action to follow through.
While “want-apreneurs” are often stereotyped as lazy, only wanting the fame and lifestyle of an entrepreneur instead of the hard work, I found through my research a far more nuanced picture of these people. Understanding the motivations and roadblocks of founders at the very first stage of entrepreneurship can help schools and communities drastically widen their pool of entrepreneurial talent.
To understand the mind state of potential entrepreneurs I conducted interviews with as general of an audience as possible. The University of Michigan’s Shapiro Library serves as a meeting place for students across every school and across a broad range of different programs from undergraduates to Ph.D.s.
I set up a table with a homemade poster that said, “10 Minute Interviews with People Interested In Entrepreneurship — Includes Muffins!” and a tray of homemade muffins. I found a large number of people interested in free homemade muffins. A few were also genuinely interested in talking to me about entrepreneurship.
One of these people was Annika (name changed for privacy). Annika was simultaneously already doing entrepreneurship, but was not aware of the fact that the activities she conducted were considered entrepreneurship and was not aware that her path could become one of an entrepreneur.
Annika was a Ph.D. student in child psychology specifically in the area of play. She had the idea for a start-up where children would take a diagnostic test and based on their scores, they would get personalized “play plans” of toys to encourage cognitive and motor skills that they might need help in. This idea touched on a deep need parents have to do best for their children; it also offered the potential for massive partnership deals with toy manufacturers. Annika already in her free time crafted toys for nieces, nephews, and children of friends based on her assessment of their individual learning needs. She naturally was doing some of the hardest parts of entrepreneurship in terms of prototyping, testing, and iterating on her ideas.
Yet, Annika said she never seriously considered entrepreneurship for several reasons:
- She was soft-spoken. To her, entrepreneurs had to be outgoing and talkative.
- She was in a Ph.D. program. It was seen as a bad thing to be interested in anything to do with industry as she would not be seen as a “serious” candidate for teaching positions.
- It was her understanding that to be an entrepreneur, you needed an MBA, not a Ph.D.
- She was an Indian woman, and her parents did not see entrepreneurship as a good path.
- While she was single at the moment, Annika thought any guy she dated would see entrepreneurship as a negative thing since it would take away from her ability to raise children.
Since Annika believed that entrepreneurship was not a viable option for herself, she did not seek out any entrepreneurship programs. She was unaware of programs like the Innovation in Action competition that would enable her to quickly learn about several major components of entrepreneurship and have the chance to pitch her idea to investors. She did not know about the Entrepreneurs Leadership Program that could pair her with another entrepreneur to guide her in the first steps of starting her company. Even in a university system that has been ranked within the Top 10 Best Entrepreneurship Programs in the country the last five years, Annika was unaware of the opportunity around her.
But at this stage in entrepreneurship, the thing that most kept Annika back was the belief that entrepreneurship was never realistically in her life path. Because of this belief, Annika misses out on seeing a potentially strong, brilliant side of herself. Thousands of children miss out on new modes of play that can build cognitive and spatial reasoning skills that will benefit them for years to come. The University misses out on potentially lucrative investments in Annika’s company.
Understanding Annika’s story and the stories of people like her that have great ideas but entrepreneurship is not actively on their minds can help Community Leaders build better entrepreneurial funnels from the very start of the pipeline. Throughout the stories of potential entrepreneurs that I heard from, the link between those who want to become entrepreneurs versus those that have made concrete steps to be an entrepreneur starts with the moment where these people perceive entrepreneurship as a viable enough path to start paying attention to entrepreneur-related information within their environment.
Attention As Energy
Walk for five minutes with a friend through a city and then discuss the top five things you noticed on your walk. If your friend is interested in architecture, chances are they noticed architectural elements or styles of a certain building or plaza. A person interested in music might hone in on a band poster, while someone who is hungry might be more preoccupied by the restaurants that line the city’s streets.
It is likely that you both paid attention to different aspects of the city. This concept is called selective attention, where your brain prioritizes a certain event within or feature of a location over other elements of the environment (Fiebelkorn and Kastner). The ecological view of attention (EVA) posits that attention evolved through evolution as a mechanism to help humans process complex environments. Selective attention is a computationally intensive task for the brain, with the brain actively trying to identify the most behaviorally relevant objects (Moore and Zirnsak). To weed out unimportant or irrelevant aspects of the environment, or “information noise” people’s goals shape their selective attention (Lev-Ari, Beeri, Gutfreund).
To get someone like Annika to seek out cues that can help her advance through the university’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, she needs to select-in to noticing entrepreneurial information around her. People who are on the brink of becoming founders need to select entrepreneurship as a goal worth striving for, and in turn information in their surroundings worth paying attention to. This is the pattern of Foundational Selection, the action of selecting in to building a mental map based around a central concept.
Entrepreneurship as Cultural Evolution
To build more successful entrepreneurial ecosystems Community Leaders need to understand why some people decide to select in to noticing and then seeking out entrepreneurial information while others do not.
From Annika’s story and the stories of other potential entrepreneurs I spoke with a central turning point in whether they decided to opt in to entrepreneurship was a belief in entrepreneurship as a viable life path towards their version of success. To create a larger entrepreneurial pipeline, Community Leaders need to first present alternate versions of success to university students in the form of a pathway for their life that includes entrepreneurship. Then, they need to convince people that the likelihood of success within entrepreneurship is equal or higher than a person’s current trajectory.
While humanity as a species might have progressed far enough to invent such things as rocket ships and the internet, at an individual and often unconscious level each person is still locked in to optimizing the actions they take in terms of parenting, reproduction, and growth for survival. Instead of hibernating while food is scarce people have savings accounts, instead of foraging there are supermarkets and food delivery services, but at the core most people are still expending their labor to get food, shelter, the social standing to get a mate and the resources for the care of any offspring. This idea of the interlinked and “optimized” trade-offs between parenting, reproduction, and growth is known as the life history of a species (Richarson, Boyd).
It might seem odd to connect entrepreneurship all the way back to human evolution but I believe it can help to understand these “want-apreneurs” better. Entrepreneurship as seen through the lens of ecology is wide scale evolution through cultural channels (Ebner). At an individual level, the practice of entrepreneurship carries more risk than proceeding along tried and true life paths because by its nature entrepreneurship is the development of new things. When people share with Community Leaders that they are on the fence about pursuing entrepreneurship, often it is hard to cosnciously enunciate such a deeply held fear. When creating a larger pool of entrepreneurial candidates in your school or community’s ecosystem, you are presenting them with a different potential version of their life and needing to alter their current internal risk calculus.
Building a Broader Entrepreneurial Pool
The next two sections will look at two hurdles students like Annika face in order to opt in to entrepreneurship as a life path. The goal in these two sections is to give Community Leaders advice on how to get a larger and more diverse number of students to select in to building a mental map of the school’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.
“Role Models as Life Path Success Indicators” looks at how role models can offer potential founders alternative life paths of entrepreneurship as a role they can opt in to. Community Leaders will gain suggestions on how to gather, design, and present diverse stories to optimize for limited attention.
Meanwhile “Changing the Risk-to-Reward Ratio” looks at how Community Leaders can prepare students in academia for a shifting world where there are fewer academic positions. Learning many of the components of entrepreneurship might help students such as Annika better grapple with the changing Ph.D. job market.