Pairing technical and business skills is key to success of tomorrow?s entrepreneurs

As a tightening economy puts more rigorous demands on business, the most successful entrepreneurs will be those who combine technical and managerial skills. In this Tech Watch, Bob Weinstein promotes the advantages of teaching this combo early on.

It’s no secret that business and technical skills are a magical combination. However, in the IT world, a clear distinction has always existed between honing technical skills (hardware or software, engineering, Web site development) and business skills—a line drawn that’s almost akin to the separation of church and state. A few years back, techies were never encouraged to polish business skills—staying at technology’s bleeding edge was what it was all about. But with the recent changes in the economy putting renewed importance on business savvy, many techies (and educators) are seeing the wisdom of the combination of both skill sets.

Typically, melding technical and business skills occurs after several years in the workforce. The new wrinkle is that it’s happening to high school students, many of whom would rather use their spare time surfing the Net rather than chasing girls/boys or hanging out at the mall. Ephren Taylor, Jr., for example, personifies the new thinking that the combination of technical and business skills makes a powerful career-building tool.

In 1999, Taylor, 16 (the techie), and best friend, Mike Stahl, also 16 (the businessperson), already had a solid business concept ready to fly: They created a Web site that connected employers with high school and college kids looking for jobs. Employers must pay to list their jobs on the site, but the service is free to job seekers. While not exactly an original idea, it was a money-making concept. So GoFerretGo in Overland Park, MO, was born.

Today, Taylor gets peeved if he is identified solely for his technical skills. He boasts having been part of the strategic planning process with a say in every major technical and business decision. Yet Taylor admits his technical skills got the ball rolling. Their first Web site was his creation.

By age 16, Taylor had amassed a half-dozen technical certifications. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Taylor and Stahl chose to launch an e-commerce company. While most teens master entrepreneurial skills by trial and error, Taylor and Stahl received their entrepreneurial education through programs developed by the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, a nonprofit organization that teaches entrepreneurial training and education in Kansas City, MO.

Despite forward-thinking programs such as the Kauffman Center’s, in general, elementary and high schools are slow to pick up on the value of teaching entrepreneurial skills, according to Marilyn Kourilsky, a professor of education and social entrepreneurship at UCLA and education advisor at the Kauffman Center. [Kourilsky is also coauthor, with William Walstad and Mable M. Hay, of E Generation (Kendall/Hunt Publishing; $12.95), which contends that the nation’s economy will increasingly rely on entrepreneurs to stimulate economic growth.] Virtually all schools, elementary through college, Kourilsky said, are quick to teach technical skills but remain slow in imparting the ABCs of entrepreneurship. Along with mastering the “three Rs,” no one can dispute the importance for today’s kids of knowing how to search the Internet and master the software of the day. Yet it’s equally important to know how the global economy meshes technology and basic economics.

Hasn’t the dot-com shakeout and a cooling economy pointed to the importance of fine-tuning business and managerial skills? Hundreds of dot coms bombed because their young founders knew next to nothing about running a business. They learned their lessons the hard way when their companies neglected to turn a profit and the once-bottomless venture capital well dried up. Odds are, though, that that sad fate won’t happen to GoFerretGo.

Taylor and Stahl launched their company with $1,000 of their savings. Two years later, they acquired $250,000 in angel financing. Taylor says another round of financing is not too far in the distance, and this year, he projects sales of more than $500,000.

It’s not luck that made GoFerretGo successful but the combination of technical and entrepreneurial skills. The company is hardly three years old, and Taylor already has his sights set on being acquired and retiring at age 21. An acquisition is certainly a possibility, but I doubt Taylor will quit at 21, since he’ll hardly be at the height of his entrepreneurial game. As long as he continues to stay on both the technical and entrepreneurial cutting edge, continued success is almost assured.

Bob Weinstein's weekly syndicated column, Tech Watch, is the first career column covering the exploding technology marketplace. The column appears in major daily newspapers throughout the United States.

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