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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Harvard’s tech startup successes

[Zuckerberg]While Harvard students, Bill Gates co- founded Microsoft in 1975, and Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook in 2004. There weren’t a lot of home runs in between. Unlike the little science school down the road, Harvard doesn’t have a lot of big success stories.

The small business column of the Wall Street Journal has a long feature on today’s incipient entrepreneurship among current Harvard students, encouraged by Zuckerberg as a role model.

Based on my own experience and research, my sense is that student (or you alumni) entrepreneurship succeeds based on four factors:
  • student intelligence/ability
  • cultural attitudes surrounding the nascent entrepreneurs — family, friends, faculty, fellow students, local industry. (This is Stanford’s secret weapon, dating back to the Terman days).
  • formal preparation, such as technology entrepreneurship programs
  • external demand conditions, like starting a dot-com in 1998 or Web 2.0 company in 2004.
Harvard obviously has smart students, and now it has a real engineering school which (if it’s like other engineering schools) will be filled with faculty interested in solving real problems.

The WSJ talks about the culture issues. I hope that it’s more about empowerment — a belief in the possible through the Zuckerberg existence proof. But (as with a decade ago) there’s a hint that greed is a (the?) major factor. Wanting financial returns is fine, but great startups are created by entrepreneurs who want to change the world, not those who are counting the days to their IPO.

Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid via Flickr.

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