Can entrepreneurship be taught?
It's the pivotal question young people are asking these days as they decide whether to drop out of school to start a company or get on the MBA track as would-be business stars have done for years.
Andrew Sherman, tech lawyer for Katten Muchin & Zavis in Washington, has been teaching a University of Maryland class on how to launch a business for a decade. He remembers the time in 1992 when the university almost canceled the class because there weren't enough takers. Now, with the palatable success of high-tech companies, it's overbooked and the university asked him to do two sections.
Sherman, who also holds classes at Georgetown University, says that he can teach the process of entrepreneurialism but that the passion and drive of a company creator has to come from within. Some people just have it, he says, and some people don't.
On Monday night, the final class of the semester, the 40 students of "New Venture Creation" gathered at the Shady Grove campus to present what they'd been working on for months: the business plan of the company they'd created.
The students formed 11 teams with two to five people on each. Only one of the 11 groups had formed a non-tech company: a health club.
Most dressed the part, in suits, to give their five-minute pitches after plopping down their 40-some-page business plans in front of their professor.
They spoke eloquently about valuation, venture funding, management teams and branding. Their presentations all showed revenue charts shaped like a hockey stick--a long flat line and a quick curve up.
The Mid-Atlantic Venture Fair, an annual event that brings together entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, "will be a piece of cake for them," says Sherman.
Some of the students' Big Ideas: A group calling itself Millenium Interactive Electronics proposed creating a Palm-like device for people to keep track of their credit-card spending and check writing. The group's leader, Jason Mason, talked a good game during the presentation, but when asked afterward if he's going to be running it in the real world, he said: "No! We'd be crazy to start this company."
Breeze.com would aggregate all the personal information you give when you register on Web sites so you don't have to type it in each time. Then it would sell the information, with the names removed, as market research to companies.
KeepInTouch.com would offer subscribers real-time video of their aging relatives, with plans to do e-commerce deals with flower and greeting-card companies.
Jim Ladas, president of Shocksports.com, a site he's actually launched for extreme-sports fans, says he signed up for Sherman's class because he knew he'd be working on the business plan all semester with other MBA students. "I took this class knowing I'd get free labor," says Ladas, whose day job is investment banker at Bank of America.
It's not all rah-rah in New Venture Creation, though.
Sherman brings in speakers whose companies have failed. One speaker talked about how he'd been looking unsuccessfully for funding for 12 years; eventually his wife left him. Sherman points out that many entrepreneurs get divorced. "It has a huge effect on their personal lives," he says. "Entrepreneurship is a jealous mistress."
While Sherman's main goal is to encourage these possible entrepreneurs, he says he was also happy when one student recently told him the main thing he learned in the class is that he'd much rather work for somebody.
Ladas says he's learned a lot in the program but doesn't think it's a prerequisite for success.
"If you have an idea, you can always hire an MBA," he says.
Venture money may be flowing more freely around the region, but the average person without connections to that world still has a hard time getting heard.
Enter FastPitch. It's like the speedy electronic toll-booth systems, but with technology business ideas instead of cars speeding through the line.
Once a month, starting on Jan. 10, venture firm Draper Atlantic and the Morino Institute's Netpreneur Program will hold a FastPitch day at the Morino building in Reston. About 18 companies, no connections needed, will give one-minute presentations. The group will get narrowed down to nine, and those nine will compete to be the winner of the month. The prize: an hour of advice from Fran Witzel, vice president of the Netpreneur Program and his crew, plus a meeting with Draper Atlantic.
Losing companies can keep coming back to pitch as many times as they want.
To apply, explain how you plan to change the world, what you're motivated by and send a copy of your resume to investorservices@netpreneur. org.
So is Draper getting desperate for ideas? Not quite. Jim Backus, who runs Draper Atlantic, says he gets 70 to 100 pitches or plans a week as it is.
"We think this sort of grass-roots effort really keeps our ear to the ground about what the next big idea could be," says Backus. "It really gets us in front of the people we'd never see."
Are aggressive wooing tactics, serious tax incentives and in-your-face advertising campaigns generating some results in Fairfax County?
In October and November, Fairfax added 949 new jobs, according to the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority. Seven companies moved into the county and five expanded significantly in the past two months.
The bulk of the new jobs come from an expansion of Global One in Herndon (500 people) and Intel Corp.'s move into Chantilly with 250 people. Other new Fairfax businesses include Reliacast Inc. to Herndon, Zona Finaciera to Merrifield and FBR Technology Partners (the venture arm of Friedman, Billings Ramsey Group Inc.) to the Morino building in Reston.
Send tips and tales of the digital capital's local people, deals and events to Shannon Henry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TechThursday columnist Shannon Henry will host a live Web chat today at 1 p.m. with Linda A. Mallison of the Winston Carey Group about the impact of the tech boom on area real estate. To participate, go to www.washingtonpost.com.
CAPTION: Tech lawyer Andrew Sherman with his students at the Shady Grove campus of the University of Maryland on Monday night.