It was a last-minute decision to roll out the pilot program. With only two weeks to fill the course, the University of Wyoming sent out a press release through the state’s business, economic development and educational channels that filtered out 13 entrepreneurs willing to join the course last-minute.
The participants came from all over the state, “college students to surgeons, CFOs and other very accomplished business people” coming together to build a foundation for new businesses on the fly. And on the cheap.
The program, Entrepreneurial Essentials, came together on a wing and a prayer as a hybrid online and in-person program spread out over four weeks of nights and weekends. It was to be a scaled-down version of Central Wyoming College’s 10-week Start-Up Intensive that has helped lay the foundation for more than 100 businesses, about 70% of which remain active after three years in operation.
By contrast, the rule of thumb hazards a guess that 90% of businesses fail within five years. But the startups coming out of Start-Up Intensive have been polled annually since the course’s creation. That means they can show hard numbers to prove that 20% of its graduates have raised significant private investment, more than 100 jobs have been created at an average annual salary of $40,000 and $4 million has flowed through the businesses created in the six years the course has been running.
The Start-Up Intensive was designed as a mini-MBA program that crams a lot into 10 weeks of intensive coursework. The Entrepreneurial Essentials mix-down attempted to compress that already aggressive timeline down to a mere four weeks without nearly as frequent class times.
“Going to be super fun to see how it goes!” wrote course co-instructor Liza Millet in an email to the Wyoming Business Report prior to starting.
Let the fun begin
“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial bug,” said Troy Bifulco, a participant in Entrepreneurial Essentials currently working as senior manager of IT operations and security at Powder River Energy Corp.
His company encouraged people within the company to take the $520 course as a way to look at helping keep rates down in different ways. By comparison, the full Start-Up Intensive experience costs $5,000 and isn’t likely to work for someone with a full-time job because of long class periods on weekdays.
“I thought if I learned marketing and understood the resources in the state, I’d have the skill set and tool set for evaluating potential opportunities,” Bifulco said. “And I did.”
Though Bifulco saw applications for his day job, he used the Entrepreneurial Essentials course to work on his side hustle that combines his love of technology and his love of people. Rigid Ink, his startup, is working to prototype 3D-printed custom motorcycle lenses. The idea is to create lithophane lenses that project an image on to the taillight lenses that could be just about anything – your business logo, a family photo, etc.
Whatever it may be, Bifulco said, there’s limited real estate to work with in a taillight, meaning the design has to be right to work.
While he’s been toying with the idea for some time, Bifulco never knew what was drawing him to it. Bifulco rides motorcycles himself, but “it’s not like I’m riding 1,000 days a year.” And he likes the technology behind the idea.
He said he just thought he needed “hardcore” business training to get it going. But that’s not what he felt like he got from Entrepreneurial Essentials – which ended up being a good thing.
“I thought I was coming away with hardcore business tools and not the soft side,” he said, referring to an exercise about a “sunshine ball” that helps you realize what values your business should radiate.
“When she introduced it, internally, I was like, ‘Seriously?’,” Bifulco said. But he remained open to it and ended up seeing why the “soft side” of business matters.
Specifically, he found out why he wanted to pursue the business he’s pursuing and can now articulate that going forward.
“My key drivers are more around the technology,” Bifulco said. “To create something unique and custom that releases the creativity of the person I’m engaged with. I’m passionate about people and technology – that’s what came out of that class.”
Fulfilling a need
“We just finished our first pilot Sunday,” said co-instructor Sandy Hessler with the air of someone who has been blown about by a whirlwind.
Hessler sold her startup Imagitas for $265 million in 2005 to Pitney Bowes. She’s also been an assistant dean at Harvard’s Kennedy School and worked in brand management at Procter & Gamble.
For several years, she and Liza Millet have partnered with CWC to build up the Start-Up Intensive. When the state caught wind of the program’s success, it was time to move the program up the ladder.
Specifically, the state had started offering “kickstarter grants” to young businesses that might be able to diversify the state’s business offerings.
“They realized a lot of people that applied for funding didn’t necessarily have the core frameworks or essential questions organized to build a strong business case for their idea,” Hessler said.
She said the goal was to take the framework buoyed by the Start-Up Intensive and help early-stage companies get a better handle on their own situation in a month. To understand “the why” behind their businesses. To get visceral with targeting. To nail down their competitive advantages. And, ultimately, to determine how confident students are that they want to put enough hours into their business idea to make it work.
“They’re super hard questions to answer,” Hessler said. “But they’re really essential to not run really fast and smash into a wall of not knowing what it takes to start a business.”
For UW and the state, the course is about rising to the challenges facing Wyoming now and in the future.
“To grow the Wyoming economy, Wyoming residents need access to entrepreneurial education,” Peter Sprott, a professor of entrepreneurship at UW, said in a news release. “Entrepreneur development is the heart of any ecosystem’s entrepreneurial culture and momentum.”
That momentum has been building in northwest Wyoming, thanks to efforts like the Start-Up Intensive and satellite efforts from the area’s emergent startup development ecosystem through nonprofit Silicon Couloir.
“The pilot program fits with our new strategic plan that has a goal of deeper engagement with the state,” Sprott said. “We believe that this new partnership will allow us to expand entrepreneurial education around Wyoming with CWC.”
The first-year program “came together very fast,” according to Hessler, and was mostly trying to cram in a 10-week course replacing a one-year MBA program into four weeks of nights and weekends.
That was a lofty goal.
“I think we need to step back and tighten the curriculum,” Hessler said. “Look at the feedback and what’s possible in that period of time.”
She wants to figure out how to use weekends more effectively to balance exercises with tools and sharing. She also said she needs to simply cut the number of tools available, as sometimes it felt too much like a firehose approach that could be more effective.
In the future, she said she’d also like to do more prequalification and prework to make sure the students fit and have a strong foundation to build on during the course.
Self-critiquing aside, Hessler said she’s glad to have a baseline program in place. One that she and Millet, CWC, the Wyoming Business Council and the University of Wyoming can synergize with other tools already in circulation.
The fate of the program will be figured out sometime this month with the pilot program in the rearview mirror.
While Hessler seems to think she can do better, for students like Bifulco, there don’t seem to be a lot of regrets.
“The instructors were just fantastic,” he said, calling Millet and Hessler’s approach “caring and compassionate” as they kept things as focused as possible and applicable to each student. “It was exceptional.”