Entrepreneurial Teams: How to Teach a Course

There is this video from the Kauffman Founders School collection where Steve Blank says that “we are doing a very bad job in entrepreneurship education in teaching teams and teamwork and the value of having a founding team. (…) What we really don’t teach is what happens when the pressure is on, not only the skills that you need, the complementary skills of hacker, hustler, designer, architect, something else (…) Not only people’s skill-sets, but how do you deal with crisis and conflict. And we really don’t teach that. (…) So going through a simulation exercise like that (e.g. start-up week-ends) is really valuable”.

I teach a course dedicated to entrepreneurial teams. For me, such a course should exist in every entrepreneurship curriculum. But I still had to convince the others to let me deliver such a course. First, I highlighted the quantitative and qualitative importance of entrepreneurial teams, given that most new ventures are now team based (at least one-half and up to 79.1 per cent in a recent survey of European start-ups). I also emphasized that research has demonstrated that enterprises founded by entrepreneurial teams tend to register superior performance (e.g. growth) to their solo counterparts. Finally, I stressed the importance that entrepreneurial teams have for potential investors (professional or not) and eventually I got to craft my course and deliver it. Here are a few lessons I learned from the process and from my students.

  1. Clichéd advice you will fight

I started looking for teaching material, syllabi, case studies, etc. that focused on the topic of entrepreneurial teams (Teacher 101). What I found (this was some years ago) was practically nothing that was truly research-grounded. If you are looking for “simple” advice, there is plethora of it: avoid your friends (or not), mixing skills is the key (or not), split the equity later on (or not), and so on and so forth. Everything and its opposite. And all of this advice usually based on no research grounding whatsoever; best case scenario, it is based on common wisdom and on experience. I like both, but I also like when things are grounded in research. Once a researcher, always a researcher, no? This is why Steve Blank’s comments are interesting. While we probably do not teach as much about entrepreneurial teams as we should, and while experiential learning is indeed crucial, we have the responsibility to go further than what common sense and some (experienced) entrepreneurs can tell us. In this respect, Phillip Kim and Howard Aldrich recently did an interesting review of common advice about entrepreneurial teams in which their chapter evaluates two commonly held stereotypes about strategies for constructing founding teams promoted by practitioners and experienced entrepreneurs”. But can research on entrepreneurial teams also enable us to develop guidelines and content for our students, for prospective entrepreneurs?

  1. Research-based guidelines you will develop

While there is a lot of common sense advice regarding entrepreneurial teams, the dearth of research is striking. It has been 40 years since Jeff Timmons wrote about entrepreneurial teams and wondered whether they were “an American dream or nightmare?” but research into this topic remains relatively recent. It is now picking up momentum, with journal special issues, literature reviews and conference tracks on the topic increasingly visible. However, the overall level of output remains quite low. One source for useful content would be to check out some of Noam Wasserman’s cases in the Harvard Business School collection, together with his book “The Founder’s Dilemmas”. Concerning entrepreneurial team dilemmas, Wasserman first examines the Solo-versus-Team Dilemma before turning to what he calls the “Three Rs: Relationship Dilemmas, Role Dilemmas, and Reward Dilemmas”. A survey of 3,607 private high-potential US start-ups forms the quantitative backbone of this book, and based on these data and illustrations from various cases, Wasserman offers many interesting insights. The Kauffman Founders School YouTube channel has a collection of videos about these “Founder’s Dilemmas”. But what else has research to offer? In a recent blog article, I discussed the current position of research on entrepreneurial teams and suggested where we might/should be heading. While there are many interesting papers on entrepreneurial teams, it is oftentimes difficult to translate them into operating guidelines for entrepreneurs and their advisors. In preparing my course on entrepreneurial teams, the most difficult task was to try and squeeze out some operative quintessence of existing research. Alongside the quantitative research that delivers interesting figures on the phenomenon, what was also helpful is the qualitative research that delves into the longitudinal dynamics and helps explain and nuance some of the quantitative results.

  1. Real-life case studies and entrepreneurs encounters you will use

The problem in following the two first learning points is that it is a hard sell with students. At the beginning of my course, I always ask the participants why they chose this elective (amongst 300+ others available at the Master level in my school). I try to outline their personal learning objectives, and then I tell them what they won’t be getting: one-size-fits-all-recipe-for-success type of advice they can find on the Internet. Instead, we will be elaborating guidelines (based on research) on how to tackle the most important entrepreneurial team-related issues one could encounter. Two major problems immediately arise: (1) students are generally expecting straight-forward easy recipes (one-best-way style), and (2) they want to hear the advice from practitioners. So where does that leave me and my fantasy course with research-based nuanced guidelines but no clichés? First, there are some good simple but not simplistic recipes, research-proofed. And they are very important to anchor the course. Second, I invite team entrepreneurs and have the students interview them with the help of a beforehand co-constructed interview guide. The entrepreneurs tell their stories and give whatever advice they wish to the students. The latter then have to analyze the discourse in the light of the research-based guidelines they discovered during our course. It is a good way to have them ‘practice’ what they have learned. For me, it is also an opportunity to craft mini-cases out of these interview sessions to be used in the future with new classes.

All in all, students find this to be a great course that gives them a wonderful insight into assembling entrepreneurial teams and making them work. However, some still wish they got more straight-forward simple answers to the various dilemmas and that (even) more practicing entrepreneurs would come and share their experience. For a pedagogue, this means that there is still work to be undertaken in conveying to the students that they should be able to appreciate each situation in its complexity and develop a unique solution based on research evidence rather than applying a rule of thumb given by an entrepreneur. For a researcher, this calls for more research in order to be able to address additional issues more thoroughly. For me, it just means keep going, keep doing research and keep teaching about entrepreneurial teams. What about you? Tell me about how you teach entrepreneurial teams and how you think that research can contribute?


Author: Cyrine Ben-Hafaïedh is Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at IÉSEG School of Management (LEM-CNRS) in Paris, France. The blog post is based on her chapter titled “Entrepreneurial Teams Research in Movement” published in the book “Research Handbook on Entrepreneurial Teams: Theory and Practice” (ISBN: 978 1 78471 319 5).


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