A lesson in entrepreneurship from the expert

Serial entrepreneur, Christina Richardson on teaching Entrepreneurial Marketing and Analytics at University College London and how the secret to a successful startup can be taught in the classroom.

Any business owner will tell you that to be a successful entrepreneur, you need ambition, motivation, diligence and resilience. That’s all well and good, but these traits can’t be taught. On the other hand, when it comes to physically creating a business from a sole idea, you need a certain level of knowledge about market trends, business strategies, target customers and brand messaging – skills that can be obtained and developed.

And, what better way to learn these skills than in the classroom, from a teacher who has been through the startup-scaleup process and who has countless insights to pass on?

Fitting this criteria is entrepreneur, marketer and teacher – Christina Richardson. We spoke to her about the ins and out of her Entrepreneurial Marketing and Analytics course at University College London, and why academia is the perfect launch pad to start a business from.

What does your course, Entrepreneurial Marketing and Analytics, at UCL entail?

The course is very unique; it’s more like a year-long incubation for people who want to develop their skills and launch a startup than a conventional Masters. Students will join at the end of September, usually with an idea. The first term helps them break down this idea, sometimes scrap it and go through the process of rebuilding a new one that’s much more viable and has much more customer-driven appeal. Term two, they start working on the strategy and marketing. And then in term three, they work on a dissertation, which usually involves collating all the research and the insight that they need to validate their business even further. Often, they go on to launch it at the end of the year.

What are the benefits of learning how to start a business in an academic environment?

UCL has all the academic rigour that you’d expect and I think that’s quite a good thing because the students do exams, essays and dissertations, which helps to embed the learning and truly apply the theory. All the way through the course, the exercises and essays are focused on their own startups, for example, on one module they work in groups to test different marketing tactics in a live market-test. Through that, I expect them to get a landing page up for their idea and start working out the best way to drive traffic to it. It’s not always about the idea, learning also comes through execution. Getting them to work on their idea and utilise the tools that they would have to if they were launching their actual business is what makes the course incredibly applicable. Having a balance between a hands-on approach and an academic one is really critical to the success of students going on to launch startups of their own.

We’re firm believers that when it comes to entrepreneurship, age shouldn’t be a barrier. What is your view on this? Do you find your course attracts a particular age group?

Entrepreneurship certainly doesn’t come with an age rating. For our course, one could argue that it’s chicken and egg. We get a lot of applications to the course, but only a certain calibre of person gets in. We find that more mature students join, with an average age of twenty-seven/eight. I think students coming straight out of an undergraduate degree have to be outstanding to be able to get onto the course because we’re looking for real life experiences that can be applied to their startup businesses. But, you can truly be an entrepreneur at any age. In fact, I think there was a recent study that said the most successful entrepreneurs are in their late forties.

What are the most common question asked by your students?

One of the most common questions I get asked in the first term is, “do you think my startup is a good idea?” All the teaching staff have a very similar response – “what do your customers say?” There are a lot of accelerators and incubators across London, but my opinion is they don’t spend enough time on genuine customer development. It really isn’t about the idea – it’s about satisfying urgent customer need, having an interesting area and then going out and testing it with your customers. I have to teach my students that building the strategy, making it customer led and understanding what they want to achieve before they get to that executional level, is far more important.

What did you learn from your own experience of launching two tech startups (Brand Gathering, Openr) that you’re able to pass on to your students?

Truly everything gets passed on. What defines the course at UCL is the fact that the whole teaching team are active entrepreneurs or working with businesses. They have one foot in the teaching world and one in the business world. What we hear from students is how much they love that because they get very direct, real feedback and ultimately, it makes us very credible in their eyes because we’ve been there and done it. I don’t just give practical advice; something I’m quite passionate about is the resilience and about how you need to build your own resilience as an entrepreneur to deal with the lows. Often, it’s how you deal with the challenges that you encounter that defines you.

What are three, key takeaways from your Entrepreneurial Marketing and Analytics course?

The first one is customer first. Your customer has all the answers, but only if you’re clear on who you’re targeting. Once you’ve built a clear, customer persona, you can almost visualise them as one of your team, even if you’re a solo founder. Having this sense of direction allows you to describe your business, figure out your elevator pitch and map out where you should be marketing your brand.

Linked to this is marketing, which many have a siloed representation of but it really is every touch point of your business. Thinking of marketing as everything from pricing to packaging, from promotions to customer service allows you to design the customer experience that you want, which will drive the success of your brand.

The final point is to be objective-led. Don’t come to the challenge saying you need some PR, say you need to drive more customers to your website. There will be a whole suite of different activities that you could do. It’s just a case of prioritising which ones are the most suitable for what you want to achieve. You can build a much more effective strategy off the back of that.

Has Christina’s Entrepreneurial Marketing and Analytics course sparked your interest? Then, learn more about it here. Or perhaps you need an extra nudge to take the plunge and begin your startup venture. In that case, read our article on how to conquer your fear of starting a business.