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Monday, November 22, 2010

Child entrepreneurs II

One of my dilemmas on this blog is how much it’s about engineering and how much it’s about entrepreneurship. I solve that by sometimes combining both, sometimes focusing on one or another.

Distinctly on the engineering side is the First Lego League, a program for kids 9-14. After experiencing FLL as a coach, the past three years I’ve served as a judge — including last Saturday at St. Lawrence Middle School in Santa Clara. The first round tournament was one of 22 organized this month by NorCalFLL and Playing at Learning.

With a St. Lawrence teacher, I was evaluating the efforts by half of the 18 teams to solve this year’s puzzle: find a biomedical solution to a human health problem. (The project is completely independent of most exciting element of the FLL competition: making a Lego robot to run the maze.)

In the end, our evaluation criteria seemed fairly similar to what an engineering school would use for a business plan competition (or idea fair) for these same kids a decade later:
  • A good idea, well researched
  • Professional, polished presentation and visual aids
  • Balanced team roles in the prepared remarks and Q&A
  • Enthusiasm and creativity in engaging the audience
Except for the content, the best teams were as good as the undergraduate teams that I’ve seen in my business school teaching for almost a decade.

The big problem we had in judging was balancing creativity vs. realism in their idea for a biomedical product. Some teams had fanciful ideas that were utterly infeasible. Others had utterly prosaic ideas that were so practical that someone either is implementing them already or will be soon. The best came up with something that might not be feasible today but could be soon.

If I had one piece of advice to give the kids (or parents or teachers) of how to balance this, it’s this: do more research. Understand your problem, customer, competitors better; understand the technology better; think through more details of implementation.

As it turns out, that’s not that different than my advice to b-school seniors for their business plans. Or, for that matter, what many entrepreneurs wish they’d done before they launched their companies.

In other words, this program for developing elementary and middle school engineers is a good predictor of skills they’ll need in college or even the real world. That‘s an impressive testament to the leadership of the FLL program, including founder Dean Kamen (creator of the Segway) and retired MIT professor Woodie Flowers (who essentially created the robot competition at MIT).

I wonder if researchers will follow up on the FLL (or FRC) competitors to see if they are more likely to entrepreneurs 10 or 20 years later.

Note: Although this is my second posting in a week on childhood entrepreneurship, it doesn’t reflect a new emphasis of the blog, just my personal interest in entrepreneurship and K-12 STEM education.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Really young entrepreneurs

Normally we think of tech entrepreneurs as starting in their late 20s — earlier if their name is Jobs or Zuckerberg — but after they have an education and perhaps some work experience.

Tonight I heard a talk by an entrepreneur who thinks every kid should do a startup (or similar creation effort) before graduating from high school — because he began his own journey in 4th grade — and was shipping his first product through Amazon at age 14.

Anshul Samar spoke a K-12 event of the MIT Club of Northern California, a speaker series that I co-chair. His is an interesting story of technical entrepreneurship that involves science, consumer products, and outsourcing. It’s also a story — unlike child actors — of pursuing his dream part-time while keeping his education as the primary goal.

It was a little surreal having a high school student lecturing a room full of MIT grads (including a couple of PhDs) on entrepreneurship and science education. But he's clearly grown from his entrepreneurial journey and his many speaking opportunities.

Elementeo Chemistry Card GameThe short version is that the once-devoted Pokemon player wanted to make an educational card game. Before having a real chemistry class, he settled on the elements as providing both real science and a basis for strong characters. The result was Elementeo, which is Pokémon-meets-Periodic-Table.

The idea was clearly novel, novel enough that well-meaning grownups eventually introduced him to Peter Adkison, founder of Wizards of the Coast (think Magic and Pokémon cards) who gave him manufacturing advice. Along the way, Anshul spoke at the various conferences: California Association for the Gifted, TiEcon Silicon Valley and the American Chemical Society.

Like any first-time entrepreneur, Anshul had to learn a lot on the job. He knew almost nothing about chemistry when he started, but fortunately library books on the elements were not very much in demand. He had the usual epiphany about financials, PR, logistics, cash flow, distribution.

One 21st century lesson was the power of outsourcing. To make his game look professional, he needed professional artwork, which he was able to outsource using a website and email to create PDFs that were iterated until they were ready for 4-color printing.

He also learned the value of 3F money — dad works at Oracle — rather than professional investors. While VCs approached him after TiEcon, he realized that “If you end up taking the VC money, it’s like 60 hours/day: work work work”.

Instead, he’s going to school, working on the game in the summer and vacations and doesn’t feel guilty about occasionally watching TV. He also plans to go straight to college in 20 months. Unlike Jobs or Zuckerberg or Gates or Dell, he’s not going to put his education aside to pursue his entrepreneurial passions. (Although Woz eventually finished college.)

His story suggested two aspects of the nature of entrepreneurial opportunity. First, users can have creative insights as to their own needs (a user innovation argument) that have not previously been realized. Secondly, although not a dime a dozen, entrepreneurial vision is far move common than entrepreneurial success: the difference is ability to obtain and effectively apply resources to realize that vision.