What I learned about teaching entrepreneurship from watching 14 seasons of Project Runway

What I learned about teaching entrepreneurship from watching 14 seasons of Project Runway (and 4 seasons of Project Runway Allstars, and one season of Under the Gunn, and reading all of Tim Gunn's books), OR What happens when the sun sets at 3 PM in Scotland OR How I learned to stop worrying and love skill-based reality competitions. Teaching entrepreneurship is a weird thing. There's not a huge amount of theory you can teach. Oh there is stuff about what is the nature of an opportunity or the role of personality characteristics, but I don't think many teachers or students think these are actually important to knowing about entrepreneurship. There are techniques to teach, like design thinking, customer empathy, and business model canvases, but it's hard to avoid teaching these in a way that isn't completely vocational. In a university class, I want students to develop critical thinking skills, not just know how to fill out a business plan template.

I think about it like teaching photography: there are technical skills to learn like f-stops, lighting levels, and colour coordination and there are things like the history of photography that students can engage with, but at the same time it is an art that can only be learned through repeated practice.

But while you can take a photo in 1/60th of a second, building a new venture takes a long time. We can try to simulate this with business plan assignments, but the problem with this is that it takes a long time (at the very least a good portion of a course) for students to figure out if a business model they're working on can work or the types of challenges they'll face.

So, we can't just practice entrepreneurship. I think a better approach is to help students develop good taste. Throughout Project Runway, Tim is trying to help the contestants become better designers by helping them become more tasteful. Often time this takes the form of 'editing,' taking away features of the clothes to reveal the brilliant design underneath. This isn't a rote list of what colors go together or what's fashionable this season: taste according to Tim Gunn is a highly creative and dynamic knowledge about what works in a given context given your resources, time frame, and customer needs.

Taste in entrepreneurship is similar. I think a business model can be beautiful if it opens up a path to create value where no one saw value before or identifies a solution to a problem everyone has but no one realises they have. Business models can also be ugly, like a model where you compete in a saturated market to provide a commodity service. A good business education should help students develop good entrepreneurial taste to realise what is a good opportunity and what is one to be avoided.

For Tim, the best way to teach taste is to ask questions. The teacher shouldn't say that there's no customers for a new product, they should ask who the customers are, what's the price point, what problem are they solving. A teacher shouldn't say that it's a bad idea to start a restaurant but instead make sure that the student can articulate their Unique Selling Point and then look for the holes in their argument. You're job is to be something of a speed bump, making sure that you don't let students get to carried away with their own ideas that they don't look at it from different perspectives to see the flaws.

Good teaching is always good mentorship, but mentorship is especially important when trying to cultivate taste in students. It's helping students to understand what questions they need to ask and to understand what a good idea sounds like.

Drawing on my now very extensive experience of watching Project Runway, I've come up with a few tips on cultivating entrepreneurial taste that I'm going to try to work into my classes:

  • Identify beautiful business models and share them with students. Try to explain what makes the business model beautiful: does it uncover a new source of value (like AirB&B), does it try something totally new and unexpected (like leasing jeans), does it do something that's already out there but just much better (like Slack)?
  • Ask questions, lots of questions. Make students re-think every aspect of their idea to find the weaknesses.
  • Use silence. If the student can't immediately answer a question, don't just skip it and move on, just sit there until they can answer it. If they can't, then they sure know that they have to figure out how to answer it now.
  • Don't do the work for them. One of the biggest challenges mentors face is not to just jump in when you see a student struggling (look at the first season of Under the Gunn to see what that looks like) and help them out. But struggling is part of the learning process. Make sure you're not just giving them ideas, but you're helping them come up with their own ideas.
  • Force them to road test. No plan survives contact with reality but road testing an idea is the only way to see if it works. Figure out way to make students take their ideas out of the class room and into the real world. Make them come up with £5 experiments (a market validation test that costs less than a really good cup of coffee) and then talk with them about the results.
  • Be empathetic. Tim Gunn is the world's best mentor because he deeply empathises with all his students, no matter what their background. He's good at teaching because his students instantly know that he cares about their success. That way even when he's forcing them to start all over on a 12-hour design question, they know he's doing it because he believes they can do better.