The Kids Are All Right

This fall I took a sabbatical from my company to teach three courses in innovation engineering at the University of Maine. The courses show students how to create, articulate, and commercialize new business ideas that will have real impacts at real companies. The experience gave me some perspective on how tomorrow's business leaders will handle the challenges put before them. After living in a guest apartment in one of the dorms and spending quite a few nights at Pat's Pizza in Orono, I'm returning to the Ranch with renewed personal energy and greater confidence in the next generation. Here are some of the abilities that set those leaders apart:

INTERNET SEARCH SKILLS. I asked 40 students to do a patent search on a proposed invention. In less than five minutes, all of them found marketplace examples as well as patents for the invention. Two of the students completed the searches on their iPhones. That was humbling. The first time I did the same search, it took me 30 minutes.

FAITH IN THE INTERNET. Older adults might give up after one or two unsuccessful online searches, but students will try dozens of searches using different keywords and search engines.

ADAPTIVE PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS. My generation tends to rely on one or two problem-solving methods, but these young people were very flexible. If something isn't working, they rapidly adapt and find a method that does work. I asked one class to find technologies that could help a company grow. I'd purposely chosen a company with a technical and somewhat confusing product. As expected, the engineering majors had no trouble. But one liberal arts major found it simple, too. "I couldn't understand the technical jargon, so I had Google help me," he explained. "I searched for keywords listed on the company Web site, then clicked on the various advertisements that Google served up." Other students just called companies and experts they found on the Internet—even on weekends—to get their ideas and insights.

PASSION. Some of my student teams continued to pursue the development of their ideas against all odds because it was important to them personally. One team refused to give up on a long-shot organic food product. Another transformed its assignment into a technology development project. The team even had a campus metal shop make a prototype.

Of course, sometimes the students' ideas failed. But more than half the time they succeeded in ways I never imagined. Their passion turned unlikely ideas into winning business opportunities.

ENTREPRENEURIAL ENERGY. These students have far more energy for entrepreneurship than we had when I was in college. Students asked to write a provisional patent application went above and beyond. Instead of simply writing a patent for the invention as it was, many reinvented the product. Their applications included meaningful improvements to the core invention. A contest to create ideas for a brand name got hundreds of responses within 24 hours. When students were offered opportunities for internships, the response was overwhelming.

The lesson to small business owners is that we all need to get back to our roots. Odds are that we once had many of these students' traits. Many of us also had outstanding "analog search skills"—with a few phone calls and some visits we could find the answer to just about any question.

Somehow, many of us lost that spirit and those skills. As I return to the Ranch, I do so with a renewed commitment to think as I did when I was a young, enthusiastic entrepreneur myself.

Return to the BWSmallBiz December 2009/January 2010 Table of Contents

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.