Will Cardwell, disrupting entrepreneurial education in Helsinki, Finland.

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Will Cardwell 

Disrupting entrepreneurial education in Helsinki, Finland.

Elevator Pitch: Who is Will Cardwell?

Will Cardwell is originally from the United States, but has lived in Helsinki, Finland, since 1996. After marrying a Finnish woman they moved to Finland where he completed his MBA. He returned to his home country to complete his PHD at the University of North Carolina. Shortly after that he returned to Finland to teach and research. Will wrote a book that compared Finland and Israel’s venture capital and tech finance systems.

Starting Out

Will started his career in the investment banking industry. He realised he liked the seed and pre-seed stage more, so he left that company. He ran Valimo Wireless, a software company for a few years as well as a chain of incubators. In 2010 three universities merged together to form a new university in Finland, called Aalto University. Will was hired to set up die entrepreneurship centre there. He left Aalto in 2013 to form a venture capital firm and advisory under the brand Courage Ventures. They invest in very early stage startups, mainly in Finland. Will also does innovation and entrepreneurship training around the world, including South Africa. He’s recently been invited by his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, to be Adjunct Professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School. Will also founded an education technology accelerator in Finland called xEdu.

Disrupting Education

Although physical assets are still important in certain cases such as laboratories and libraries, Will feels that the classroom is where most of the disruption is taking place. The nature of lecturing – one lecturer to many students – lends itself to the online class format. The physical assets are important for building communities, so Will suggests that universities are built to maximise the interaction between people.

From Segregation to Integration

At Aalto University the focus is multidisciplinary in an attempt to jump-start the innovation activity. Aalto Design Factory was a multi-disciplinary experiment by the Department of Engineering in 2008 where they converted an old factory into a makerspace. They hosted vocational skills classes there parallel with rigorous academic content. The result was a cross-pollination between the business, engineering and creative faculties syllabi. In 2011 they joined forces with Stanford and started an online class in writing a business canvas model. The emphasis was very much on customer development. At the same time Nokia, the national champion company of Finland, was struggling and could not employ as many people as in the past. Students had to find other places of employment.

More Dynamic Educational Content

The Business Model Canvas and Customer Development should be your focus. They are different ways of looking at business processes. Most importantly they enable you to track your progress. Will is involved in many programmes around the world where they use an online tool to monitor the progress of teams. The teams set up their canvasses, as well as their hypotheses and then document customer interviews for feedback. They try and simulate the activities in as fast a way as possible that is necessary to understand how a business should emerge. The online tool serves as a way to evaluate the business model.

The Business Model Canvas

Will suggests a lean launchpad course on Udacity. A person can learn the basics about business processes and the vocabulary in about 6-8 hours. After that an entrepreneur can think about approaching potential customers to discuss their needs. By doing this you get an understanding of the problem. From there you can figure out your solution, where are you going to add value.

Customer Segmentation

Build customer journeys – potential investors love looking at a detailed storyboard. To have a deep understanding of your customers is a mindset. A popular mistake is thinking that your solution is for everybody. Based on the problems you’ve identified within your customer segments you can develop your value proposition. You are ideally discovered by customers, not the other way around, otherwise the business isn’t scalable.

Should you Protect your Idea?

Will feels that this is where a stellar team comes into play. You should feel so confident in your team that it doesn’t matter who knows about your business idea. If you are too protective of your idea you could end up with something that is misspecified or it takes too long to enter the market. Extra care should however be taken with intellectual property and ideas that need to be patented.

Prioritise Activities

Firstly start by making a list of all the activities your company needs to do. Identify where your core competitive advantage lies, those areas that differentiate you from competitors. After that you are left with the activities that are not key to your business. Once you’ve prioritised them you can decide whether or not to outsource them.

How to Grade Students/Entrepreneurs

Will grades students based on their activity and their cycle time, the amount of hypotheses they have managed to test. Even disproving a hypothesis and coming to the conclusion that the business isn’t feasible, results in the student learning. Once you’ve reached your hypothesis you can pivot your business model. Will suggests failing fast so that you can move on to something successful.

Link between Entrepreneur School and Seed Funds

Digital channels allow for that link between the two. Will agrees that to reach the right people to help your business grow you need to utilise digital channels. The cases where he’s seen the most growth was entrepreneurs with the right mindset and a good business model canvas that were put in contact with the right mentors/investors. Nowadays you can find capital from anywhere in the world.

Prerequisite for Funding

Will needs to see a certain passion for the Customer Development process. He has to get the idea that an entrepreneur has genuine deep insight into the problem. An entrepreneur needs to convince him that this is a significant problem. The problem is not as important to Will as the person who took the effort to identify it. Again he mentions the importance of an all-star team; aggressive yet modest. This requires some introspection on the entrepreneur’s part – hire people to fill in the gaps where you lack. Will needs to feel a certain chemistry between himself and the team as they’ll need to spend a lot of time together. The last thing he considers important is a great communicator in the group.

Soft Skills for Entrepreneurs

An affinity for public speaking could give you the self confidence to present your idea. A person’s emotional quotient, or EQ, is very important in Will’s opinion. That is the knowledge of how to conduct yourself in any given situation. Entrepreneurs often forget to listen.

Revolutionise Entrepreneurship Training

You need to identify companies that are willing to do projects with students. At Aalto University companies could suggests internships and projects for students. They would work on a problem together with the students; they could source innovation from the student groups. Afterwards the companies suggested it as an ongoing project because it worked so well. Corporates should be educated on this to get them involved in similar local projects. The only way we will achieve this in South Africa is if we have large numbers of people who demand this type of interaction.

Last Words

Consider these lean processes even after you’ve already started your business. There is value in the business model canvas beyond the starting phase of your business. Also carefully consider the customer development side and integrating that in product development. These tools help you get over barriers that you may not even realise you have.

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