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Remembering Jeffry Timmons

The Babson prof helped elevate the status of the entrepreneur within academia and throughout the business world

At first glance, Babson College professor Jeffry Timmons fit the description of a good-natured, aging academic, with his friendly manner, deep laugh, and frequent bow ties. His r?sum? included a long list of highly annotated research papers, and he was frequently on his way to or from an academic conference of some sort.

But students usually discovered pretty quickly, when he began quizzing them about a particular case he had assigned or about a venture they were planning, that he was more like a tough venture capitalist probing for solutions to real-life problems. Once they understood how deep his knowledge of the entrepreneurial process extended, many became hooked on his intense approach, and consulted with him for years after they graduated from Babson and launched businesses. In a few cases, he even became involved as an investor.

Jeff collapsed and died at his home in South Carolina on Apr. 8, at age 66. His death represents a huge blow not only to his wonderful family and the Babson community in Wellesley, Ma., where he was still a professor, but to the global academic and entrepreneurial communities at large. For Jeff was a major figure in the world of entrepreneurship, and it's not an exaggeration to state that today's vibrant entrepreneurial culture in many parts of the world owes much to him.

Little Media Interest in Entrepreneurs

I first met Jeff back in 1980, when I was an editor at the Harvard Business Review and he was a business professor at Northeastern University, a large commuter school in Boston. It was a time when major corporations ruled the business world, and government officials worried that 25 years into the future the behemoths would squeeze out small businesses. There were few business school courses or media interested in entrepreneurs and how they started businesses.

Jeff involved me in a research project to assess the state of small business and entrepreneurship in New England. We completed dozens of interviews and concluded, in a book entitled A Region's Struggling Savior, that small businesses lacked sufficient access to important educational, financial, and other resources that would help them expand and create more jobs.

Out of that book, Jeff and I wrote a business book, The Insider's Guide to Small Business Resources (eventually issued in paperback as The Encyclopedia of Small Business Resources), a print version of some of today's Internet sites that explain how banks and venture capitalists judge entrepreneurs and where they can get assistance on writing a business plan.

Kept Babson's MBA in National Rankings

While we went in different directions professionally after those projects, we remained in regular touch and good friends. Jeff went from Northeastern to Babson College and, in 1989, achieved one of his longtime professional goals??ecoming a professor of entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School. After a few years, though, he decided he preferred the entrepreneurial climate of Babson and returned there to an endowed professorship in his name. His presence was certainly a major reason Babson was named the top MBA program in entrepreneurship for 15 consecutive years by U.S. News and World Report.

Jeff also believed passionately that entrepreneurship could help relieve poverty and inequality problems around the world. His doctoral dissertation at Harvard Business School in 1971 was entitled "Entrepreneurial and Leadership Development in an Inner City Ghetto and a Rural Depressed Area."

In the early 1990s retired pharmaceutical magnate Ewing Marion Kauffman called on Jeff for advice on how to transform his local foundation into an entity of lasting importance after his death. Jeff told me that he sketched out a number of the ideas that today guide the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation as a major national force promoting entrepreneurship in the U.S.

Three Key Questions for Entrepreneurs

For entrepreneurs of the future, though, Jeff's legacy could well lie in his guiding principles for all successful ventures, as described in New Venture Creation, his highly popular textbook used in hundreds of entrepreneurship courses. He always emphasized answering these three questions in assessing any new venture:

1. What is the opportunity? He liked to distinguish between good ideas and real opportunities. In assessing opportunities, he emphasized catching the "window of opportunity," assessing the long-term financial rewards, and addressing the nature of the risks.

2. How good is the founding team? He always pushed the importance of a team, vs. a "lone ranger" approach, and wanted to know about the experience and management skills of the team members. He was concerned as well that entrepreneurs had the toughness for the long haul, and the philosophical makeup to keep them ethical.

3. Does the venture have access to the necessary resources? This obviously includes financing, but he was concerned as well that the team be able to call on outside experts, and that ownership of the venture be fair, so that everyone involved has the needed incentives to achieve success.

Sounds pretty straightforward, but students who came out of Jeff's courses learned never to stop probing and questioning.

David Gumpert is a journalist who blogs regularly about the business of health and has written a number of books about small business and entrepreneurship, including Burn Your Business Plan!.

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