Lessons From Babson, Boston – No.1 For Entrepreneurship!
by Paul Blackler, Drink Baotic
As a passionate learner (1st in my Gallup ‘Strengths Finder’), for some time I have been very keen to get out to Babson for the pure quality of the educational experience. On 27th May, I was delighted to have an opportunity through the amazing work of Unlocking Ambition and Entrepreneurial Scotland.
Among many accolades Babson college in Boston is ranked no.1 in the world for entrepreneurship (US news and world report), and has been for 21 consecutive years! Its professors are some of the most progressive movers and shakers in the game. CEO’s, managers and leaders from businesses of all shapes and sizes across the globe have benefited from the faculty’s wisdom in helping deliver impact to their business.
For many of our cohort the aim for the week was to infuse some of that good ol’ American entrepreneurial energy. To learn from a completely different perspective and culture through new ways of thinking and different ways of viewing and approaching start-ups/scale-ups. For me, it was also a great chance to conduct some early market research on the American market.
Another appeal (reflected in the culture of the Unlocking Ambition program), is their approach to ‘investing in the jockey and not just the horse’. This is about investing in personal development as a leader as much as a business builder, and in that sense it is an investment in life-long learning. Right up my street.
Re-learning, re-framing, re-building
Interestingly, a good many of the topics covered over the week I was fairly familiar with already, and I’m sure others were also. However, what Babson is great at doing is shining new-found light and challenging your perspective whilst giving you permission, structure and guidance to look at the world (and the many business topics) differently. In doing so it allows you to apply fresh perspective to both the challenges and opportunity in front of you.
To give one small example (there could be many!), in previous roles I have been an agile coach building capacity in others through iterative methodologies. As a lean manager for the royal bank of Scotland I was familiar with using a ‘hypothesis’ based approach to our change management programs across many different areas of the business. However, what Babson is great at doing is framing the question slightly differently to give that new perspective. Through their teaching throughout the week emerged the concept of ‘Strategy as a hypothesis’ in a way that bought the importance of micro experiments to a higher level of the business. For me this helped to join many dots, but also allowed perspective to current business challenges.
‘Strategy as a hypothesis’ in many ways challenged conventional wisdom of ‘vision’ and gave permission and freedom to have a guiding light but no defined path or answers. The supporting examples of many business ‘hero’s’ failing at having a ‘clear vision’ embedded the lesson – Steve Jobs video stating customer’s do not want subscription music showed he was good at changing his mind, rather than having the perfect vision. He might have been successful 3 times, but failed 27 times.
Product by product, market by market
A supporting takeaway was that it might not be your first product to your first market that takes off, with a few hugely insightful case studies that demonstrated the freedom to not necessarily have all the answers. As a product based business I feel some external pressure means that we can at times be lured into a false sense of security. We will often be asked by almost anyone we engage with (retailers, buyers, marketers, ecosystem support agencies, advisors, mentors, investors) questions like “so who is your customer”, “what is your market” “what is your vision”, in a way that expects us to be 100% focused, clear and all knowledgeable. It would be refreshing to say “well we think it’s this, and we are testing this, but it might be this, but the future sales/marketing experiments will further tell us”, but somehow that ‘lack of clarity’ is often seen as a weakness, and doesn’t quite wash, even if it’s valid, realistic and required. Babson gives you the experience, evidence, and confidence to think and act more dynamically.
Uber finding its feet
By all accounts Uber is a similar example, starting in premium Limousines, high price, and targeting business executives. It didn’t really take off. So they lowered their price, to the same audience, but still no progress. So they tweaked, and targeted taxi’s with a premium high price but again nothing substantial. Only when they targeted taxis at lower price was their movement and the business took off.
I have been very fortunate to be part of a few great learning experiences, programs, and incubators, but I can’t say I have felt like I have bonded as much as I did with this group over the 7 short days. The conversations over dinner, at a baseball game (go red socks!), over food, whilst catching an Uber or simply walking to and from class meant that the conversational leaning took on another dimension.
More importantly Babson is great at creating a learning culture. There was confidence, permission and freedom to challenge, to question, to seek, to be curious, to provide thought and to listen and learn. A favourite takeaway from the group, was ‘only through allowing yourself to wander, can you truly be able to wonder”.
Boston City Culture
Having a couple of days at the end meant that I could continue USA market research and learn more about Boston as a City. Hugely progressive, innovative and bold Boston immediately comes off as an entrepreneurial leader. Everyone seems to be in business, networking is highly social, unforced and natural. Business incubation seems to be embedded into everything and not just ‘hubs’, guys in suits zip around the city on electric skateboards, and office drinks are of course served in jam jars!
Boston is also extremely healthy. From the well preserved parks, and the intelligent layout of the water-side space the sheer amount of runners throughout the day is unsurprising. On the surface there appears to be a good balance of ambition with physical and mental well-being. There are not many populace cities like Boston where you will see the shear amount of wildlife, birds and squirrels, or the ability to canoe as cleanly as you can in Boston, which has one of the country’s highest life expectancies at 80.2 years.
According to the American Fitness index, Boston has more public parks, playgrounds, and farmers markets per capita than their target goal for a healthy city.
Massachusetts is ranked no.1 state for education, with 128 institutions of higher education in Boston alone, home to world renowned MIT and Harvard University, the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. I took the opportunity to pop in on one friend of Scotland, who turned out not to be in…
I also had the opportunity to spend more time with Babson Professor Jay Rao, who having had strong experience with the drinks industry was keen to discuss more.
As a hub of innovation, Cambridge Boston is said to host 4 of the world’s 5 largest BioTech companies with some of the largest VC funding pouring in. Through a GlobalScot networking dinner I was introduced for some 7am early morning running, as part of a Harvard BioTech social networking group.
World-class masterful delivery
This module makes up just a part of the overall Saltire Fellowship, but the certificate at the end surprisingly meant a lot.
Overall, it was an intense and hugely positive experience. The first two days were so action packed they had felt like two weeks, but as we got into the swing of it the rest of the week flew by far too quickly and was over before we knew it.
With such a strong depth and breadth of possible learning, delivering educational impact in just 1 week was no mean feat, but what Babson provided was a beautiful tapestry of modules and the ability to wander. Theatrically playing out before us was a majestically woven learning journey, as one hugely inspiring and thought provoking professor handed off to another with all the mastery of a championship winning Formula 1 pit stop, and the sleekness of an Olympic world-record breaking relay team.
The first professor spoke in deep philosophy, the second with energetic passion, the third with scepticism and challenge, the fourth in logic and sci-fi, and the final one almost as therapy. Now that I stop to think about it, it was just another live lesson that Babson slipped under the radar, this one on perfect teams and execution.
One of the greatest testaments of all came as I finished the course. I very quickly took out my phone and photo’d every single page of notes I had taken, as a backup. There was no way I was losing them. I shall be drawing on these learning’s for many years to come.
Thank you to Babson, the amazing cohort, and Entrepreneurial Scotland, Scottish Enterprise and Unlocking Ambition!
Stay Healthy, Happy and Helpful!