Authentic Student Entrepreneurs: Embedding Personal, Product and Organizational Brand

by cv harquail on February 17, 2010

What do fledgling entrepreneurs need to know about creating authenticity? And what, if anything, does this have to do with cupcakes?

cupcakesI had a chance to try to boil it all down to a few key ideas when I taught two classes of an undergraduate Entrepreneurship course at NYU’s Stern School of Business. My colleague, networks and entrepreneurship scholar David Obstfeld, teaches a ‘hands-on plus case study’ course in Entrepreneurship where students create business teams, launch online Amazon stores, and donate their profits to a charity. Starting and running their own real businesses, even if only briefly over a term or two, gives these students a chance to put into practice some of the concepts they are learning in their BBA program in general and as fledgling entrepreneurs in particular.

Professor Obstfeld has me come and lecture (lead a conversation, really) about “Creating Authentic Presence“. The conversation is one part marketing, one part authenticity, and one part social media. What students expect we’ll be talking about is how to market their stores using social media. What they get is (I hope) an awareness of how they can create really compelling businesses by finding the connections between their stores, their teams and themselves.

There is so much that comes out in this conversation that it’s hard to limit it to just one ‘takeaway’. But, it seems that the general ‘aha’ for students is the idea that they can — and should– link

(1) what they sell with
(2) how they organize themselves as a team, and with
(3) who they are as individuals.

What should link these three elements is some kind of shared, consonant meaning. If the meaning of one piece is embedded in the meaning of the other two, and if all three are reasonably well aligned, the entrepreneurs’ business activities will be more fun, more meaningful, and more competitive.

Embedded meaning in a trio of Brands

We talk about the concepts of personal, product and organizational meaning using the language of brands and branding. Despite my bias against focusing on brand before identity, branding language helps build on what students already know from their marketing classes and from being educated consumers more generally. So, we tak about a store/product ‘brand’, an organizational/team ‘brand’ and a personal ‘brand’.

The students all start with a solid understanding of how to develop a business idea, by identifying and selling products to fulfill a customer need. That’s marketing 101, and entrepreneurship 101. They think that entrepreneurship is largely about crafting a compelling business idea and getting that up and running.

201002161042.jpgIt’s the other two pieces that seem to catch the students’ attention as something ‘new’.

First, students seem caught by the idea that who they are as a business team — as these particular 4 or 5 students, as entrepreneurs, as experts on the market niche, as fundraisers for a charity — would have anything to do with defining, significant qualities of the business that they create. Student entrepreneurs tend to underestimate how much the ways that they work together will show up (intentionally or unintentionally) in the way their storefront looks, in the products within their storefront, and in what’s communicated by their storefront to online potential customers.

And, students are often surprised when I argue that who they are as individuals — the characteristics that are distinctive, and significant, and meaningful about each one of *them* — has so much to do not only with the stuff they sell but also with the qualities of their student team as an organization.

What I try to help the student entrepreneurs wrap their minds around is the idea that product (store), organization (their team), and person (themselves as entrepreneurs) work best together when they are intentionally connected by some thread of shared meaning.

Finding meaning in cupcakes

For example, one team has created a cupcake baking supply store — everything a person needs to enjoy his or her cupcake fetish (except for the cupcake itself).

There should be reasons why their particular team chose to create a cupcake baking supply store as opposed to any other kind of potentially profitable storefront. These reasons should be linked with the reasons why each of them as an individual chose to be part of this team. These two sets of reasons should resonate with  what their store is actually selling. In this case, their store is not selling cupcake tins, or colored sugars; It is selling the d.i.y. pride, the sense of indulgence, and the sheer beauty that their cupcake baking customers are searching for.

It’s easy to see this connection graphically, using embedded circles, but harder to see this connection across the levels of their entrepreneurial activity.

Using Social Media to Create Presence

As it happens, the process for establishing their business’s presence online, using social media, actually invites students to start to look for the connections between themselves, their team as an organization, and their stores. Knowing your own distinctive qualities, your own core values, the meaning that you look for, all help you establish your business’s presence online.

Because they are time constrained, the entrepreneurs have to begin their online marketing efforts by piggy-backing on their personal social networks and their own online voices. These entrepreneurs become brandividuals. They discover that a little self-reflection and a little self-awareness help them communicate not what their business ‘is’, but rather what their business is really all ‘about’.

The student entrepreneurs should discover that creating a presence for their stores using social media is not about promoting their stores or finding customers. Instead, creating a presence for their stores is about clarifying and expressing what makes their stores distinctive, significant and meaningful.

Which, in my view, makes business easier, more fun, and more authentic.

Blue cupcakes by QuintanaRoo on Flickr

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Elsie Maio February 18, 2010 at 2:35 am

CV, brilliantly clear. Love the three levels of questions that each brand asks. Wonderful work you’re doing! Brava! Here’s an interview that describes what happens to countries, companies and individuals who answer those questions and then live the business strategies that flow naturally from them.

Leila Monaghan February 18, 2010 at 10:51 am

Nice column once again! As a linguistic anthropologist, I am always interested in how language and culture co-construct each other and I think that this is an excellent example of this, particularly how levels of interaction build from each other. I like the idea of authentic businesses as businesses where the language (and associated values and practices) at different levels reflect each other.

Russell from 2:00 class February 20, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Thanks for coming!!
.-= Russell from 2:00 class´s last blog ..“Sure I’ll buy whatever, Lance Armstrong.” =-.

school grants May 3, 2010 at 12:43 am

Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

physician assistant May 17, 2010 at 10:18 pm

My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

medical assistant February 17, 2011 at 10:55 pm

This is a great analogy. I learned a lot from your post. I’m terrible when it comes to business management, the whole entrepreneurship as a whole. I got some insight from this post which I may take into action.

medical assistant February 25, 2011 at 9:03 am

good stuff keep doing it.

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