Challenged by Vasco Pedro from Unbabel, we met up with Francisco Veloso for a chat about Universities and their roles considering the Portuguese startup ecosystem. We also sailed across other waters concerning the value of university graduation and how to teach how to be an entrepreneur at Uni.
Francisco, tell us who you are and what your vision is?
Hi, I am the current Dean of Católica Business School and teach Entrepreneurship and Innovation classes there too. I have dedicated my life to these subjects, yet I read Physics Engineering at IST (BSc – 1992) and then took a PhD on Technology, Management and Policy at MIT (2001). I have been teaching at Carnegie Mellon University for 10 years, as well as at Católica and MIT.
My work has been focused on how to generate technological innovation. In other words, finding out what are the mechanisms behind entrepreneurship and the impact these technologies might have in a given region, society and its people.
Since I was nominated as Dean I have tried to make an extra effort on bringing the entrepreneurial mindset into the campus, because I believe it is fundamental for students, graduates, as well as for our country and our economy. The key is to empower the student and give them the necessary tools to think creatively.
If, in Portugal, we realise we are dealing with conservative, mainly familiar companies that are too corporate or narrow-minded, then the way to change that paradigm is to create new companies which bring something else to the table. That is what we believe in here at Católica.
How can you teach someone to be an entrepreneur? What’s the University’s role on that learning journey.
Many of the so called “famous” entrepreneurs have no academic backgrounds in management. Take the Intel founders, for instance. Gordon Moore (BSc in chemistry in 1950) and Robert Noyce (BA in Physics & Mathematics from Grinnell College in 1949), both with no management backgrounds, still managed to found one of the technology giants! Many of the entrepreneurs were “pushed” into that path; nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks: ”Mmmmm… I feel like being an entrepreneur from now on!”.
Even though the path is usually quite natural, nowadays we can see people choosing to become entrepreneurs, mainly as an alternative. I can give you another example, and a Portuguese one: António Murta.
Currently a Managing Partner at PATHENA SGPS, António founded Enabler in 1997. The project was born inside SONAE, where he created a tool to help manage distribution at SONAE. After a while, he realised that the tool had too much potential to be used by one company only, so Enabler was founded – as a company spinoff. His learning curve was fast – it had to be – and he had to adapt to a new reality that popped in front of his eyes. It wasn’t a wish he had, it was born out of a necessity.
Looking at this example, I would say there are two paths to become an entrepreneur: by experience or by tuition. The first one means to learn by doing and living that learning curve during the process of creating something. The second one is to learn with those who know it better, it’s to learn the solid foundations of your future business through school or mentorship.
What about when someone says “Entrepreneur? Me? No.. I’m not that kind of person”?
There is no such title as “Entrepreneur”. Entrepreneurship is a path and not a title – it is, perhaps, the best path to kickstart innovative endeavours.
Take the University spin-offs for instance. An idea is born from a given research project, but is usually too premature and unclear. The only way to develop this idea into a dedicated project, is by turning it into a real case, and founding it, in the first place. That is what is called an entrepreneurial initiative.
This drive to push things forward, is what will make the project grow, and gather some feedback and actual results. That process is fundamental to test and craft great ideas, where some turn up to be successful, and others unfortunately meet their demise after just a couple of months. For that reason, the entrepreneurial path is not always born out of a wish, but out of a requirement. Some projects need to be tested in real life in order to give relevant information about themselves.
There is a natural cycle where the companies either perish or eventually get sold, and are no longer startups. This means that being an “entrepreneur” is also within a cycle. You might be one today and tomorrow have been engulfed into a corporate environment. Mobicom is a good example of that. When it got sold to Microsoft, the company was integrated into the conglomerate’s structure, so and there was no more startup, no more Mobicom, no more entrepreneur.
People think startups grow like Facebook did, and that every project can go from a basement to a solid IPO and an independent company, but the truth is that examples like Facebook are a minuscule minority within the startup history.
It is also important that people don’t look at the startup phenomenon as a lifestyle. It’s way bigger than that, and much more difficult to accomplish than to be cool. It’s a vehicle and a way to develop a project or an idea.
This concept in Portugal is very attractive for many reasons. First, because there are very few companies willing to risk on edgy, innovative and bold projects away from their comfort zone. Second, because many companies are family businesses, conservative companies with a national mindset, instead of a global vision. Summed up, these facts up, along with many others, mean that Portuguese companies in the majority of cases are not good incubators for ambitious and disruptive projects, and that is why I defend we should be empowering entrepreneurs and give them conditions to do new things, to create new businesses and to risk it.
There is no such thing as a perfect entrepreneur profile. The entrepreneur is born out of a situation, and out of the need or wish to do something new – it does not happen because you coach someone for it.
Let’s imagine two options: a 3-year degree or 3 years of professional experience?
It depends. Working for a corporate or more formal corporation gives you tools like: organisation, responsibility, formality and thoroughness; and on the other hand, working for a startup gives you a sense of leadership, the ability to build things from scratch, reforming processes, and puts you in an innovative mindset, where problem solving and a sense of sacrifice are a must.
While, as mentioned before, University gives you access to a bunch of tools and knowledge that can, and most probably will, be fundamental in your future, for when you decide to start something new.
“To be or not to be” an entrepreneur depends on: a concept, an idea and the will to start something new. Sometimes people want to risk it right after Uni, whilst other times they seek for newborn challenges to learn and get to know what that’s like, to then start their own project. I believe there is no magic formula. Either through professional experience or academic training, you will always depend on other factors.
Is the University a key factor when starting a company?
The University adds a lot of value to one’s skill-set. It structures ideas and helps you to think in a more organised way. It’s like pro athletes: they repeatedly train the same moves and techniques , over and over again, to achieve mastery and a certain level of proficiency. The good universities do the same training with their students. They coach the ability to develop analytical thinking, with a problem solving mindset focusing on the degree’s subject.
From this point of view, the University is a pro athlete’s academy for students – training professionals in management, engineering, architecture, and many others…
You might think: “Oh, but what about those who never finished their degree?” Well, when we consider the famous college dropouts like Steve Jobs, we can forget that that is not the common case scenario. Take the founder of Snapchat for example: Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown – all Stanford University graduates. The vast majority of college dropouts do not happen because the students feel like University is not useful, or an important part of their learning journey. It mainly happens because their side projects and startups gain traction and they have to direct their focus to one, leaving them with no choice but to choose between an academic life or a professional one.
There is also another important aspect to this matter of college education. Further down the line, when you’re seeking investment for your startup, a VC might consider your “Academic Pedigree”. We all know it might not mean anything at all, but on a global scale, they all add up to something in the end. An entrepreneur does not have to be the rebel dropout and a self-made man who was homeschooled and figured everything out by himself.
Considering the Portuguese Universities, how can they become more connected to the startup ecosystem?
Well, this might get a bit complex, so I’ll divide my answer into 3 points:
1. Get both the Universities and the startup ecosystem closer. There is a deformed idea of what it is to be an entrepreneur, and about the startups in general, that makes it harder to give companies the credibility they deserve. No one asks: “Why are you going to work for Unilever or McKinsey?”, but that happens whenever someone goes to work at a startup. If we manage to bring these two worlds closer, I believe that the distorted image might help students find other options when they look for professional outlets. They don’t really consider startups as a career option (at least the majority of them).
2. The teachers and professors are also playing a key role on this matter. It should be easier for them to do more research and take a sabbatical year. I mean this because I believe that as long as teachers are motivated and up to date, they will have more powerful tools to feed their students with. Teachers working on research projects will be beneficial to students, who can then ultimately join their professors on business endeavours or helping out with research.
3. Implementation of a fast trial programme. In Portugal it is very difficult to get an investment of €20-50k, or even an advisory or judicial backup. A tool to make that possible would be a huge leap forward, because we would be more prone to experimentation and would probably generate lots more talent and innovation. In the US is it fairly easy to get a small investment through small funds or even BA’s. The fact that here this process is so difficult and complex is actually killing the will and reducing the odds of something huge bursting onto the scene.
We have a great in-house example on how to do a lot with so little: BET (Bring Entrepreneurs Together). They manage to make things happen and they really help young entrepreneurs, as well as students who are curious about the startup scene.
Quoting João Romão: “Working for a startup is the new Surf!” – What do you think about this startup hype in Portugal?
So be it! That trend is way more beneficial to society than those revolving around painting your hair green, blue or whatever. These trends are great to attract new people to a certain market. This happened with the Banking industry, where lot of talent sprouted during this period of hype, and everyone was hopping on the sector’s bandwagon. Besides attracting talent, this recent startup scene hype generates credibility and visibility to an emerging ”industry”. The ones who join the party will easily find out if, the given trend, is the one for them or not. I wish we had these phenomenons all the time!
How can the universities cooperate towards getting the Tech students working with business students and vice versa?
By enhancing the relationship between the Tech and the Business students, there is a lot of value to be extracted from both parties alike. BET has been working on precisely that with DeltaApp for instance. There are also several little catalyst programmes with Master’s students here at Católica.
One of the best examples of this fruitful relationship happened not too long ago: when Paul (LBS Student) joined Jaime Jorge (IST Student), Codacy managed to get stronger thanks to the knowledge that the two different worlds could bring to the table. Universities have to look for the right angle to empower students and to make them meet other students in order to put their talent and knowledge to good use, in a efficient and profitable way. Take SurfStoke – another great example – was born at Católica and then matured by an IST student.
We should aim to move towards merging talents, instead of talking behind closed doors.
Like where this is heading? Then, stay tuned for the following pier-to-pier with the fellow adventurers.