Serial entrepreneur Peter Harrington thinks start-ups learn better by doing than by spending hours planning…
My decision to hitch that cold, blue-sky October morning, was pure instinct. In fact, if it had been planned, it probably wouldn’t have happened.
Stood alone at the Keswick bus shelter at 7.30am I learnt it was going to cost me £12 to get to Nottingham. Aged 17, that was a lot of beer (1983 – 65p per pint).
More importantly, it promised to be a dull nine-hour trip which included a double ‘loop the loop’ around Lancaster’s University campus. With a freshening plan in my head I hauled my rucksack onto my back and walked the mile or so to the A66. And my hitchhiking career started.
Given the reputation of hitchhiking, I hadn’t exactly spent much time carefully weighing up the pros and cons of the exercise. Nor had I given much thought to the best route and certainly hadn’t phoned anyone to tell them what I was doing.
I see it this way: the excitement brought about by doing something new combined with the joy of seeking to overcome the odds (on my own), simply took control. I know I just wanted to hitch; time spent thinking and planning was a potential threat, because it might take away the emotional high I had just given myself.
Interestingly, I see this ‘instinctive action’ parallel all the time with budding entrepreneurs. People starting their first businesses often become completely focused on and tuned into what they want to do and can actively avoid both advice and what they may see later as common sense actions.
Very occasionally people in this tunnel mode are right to do what they are doing, but most of the time they are making foolhardy mistakes and only seek advice later once they recognise its value.
So is sitting people down and getting them to think and write a business plan the answer? ?In my opinion, the answer is probably not. People keen to start a business, or get going with their idea, learn best by doing.
No amount of formal planning will help them if there is no practical framework within their minds with which to attach the learning and thus make received wisdom meaningful. Presenting business planning modules or competitions to budding entrepreneurs by way of an introduction to the subject is largely pointless – and in all my experience of reviewing plans formed in academia, the quality of the output bears this statement out.
Just like the hitchhiker, the budding entrepreneur learns quickest (and in the most meaningful way) by experiencing the journey first. Practical experience, mistakes and most importantly a contextual framework formed within the mind creates a desire (critical tipping point) to seek information and ask for relevant advice.
People will naturally find their own speed, path and level of dependence on the teacher/advisor and as a consequence you are able to teach/train in a flexible/personalised manner according to behaviour and need.
Nurtured well, the budding entrepreneur will ultimately see the business plan as a meaningful and valuable document which they can write with confidence and understanding. But this takes time.
The journey from Keswick to Nottingham did in fact take over 9 hours. Arriving in the dark outside my parents’ house, I had received 6 different lifts, experienced much of the M6, walked nearly 5 miles between one hitch and even enjoyed the company of the 1983 ‘Veteran driver of the year’. I was ecstatic and full of stories.
As importantly, I decided it would be a good idea to always hitch with a map in future. If I had journeyed over the A66 to the A1 (rather than down the M6), I would have arrived in Nottingham in half the time.
- Peter Harrington is founding director of business education software SimVenture and is based in York. You can read more of his advice at The Hitchhikers Guide To Entrepreneurship