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In Conversation With Patrick Turner, INSEAD Professor

Patrick TurnerAfter spending ten years with Levi Strauss Europe, Patrick Turner left Levi’s in order to launch his own jeans marketing company, after which he subsequently acquired and managed another small company, both in Spain. Now, he is Affiliate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise at INSEAD and has been at the institution since 1999, specifically teaching MBA courses on acquisitions, new business creation, and managing growth ventures, on both the Fontainebleau and Singapore campuses.

In addition to the entrepreneurship courses he teaches at INSEAD, Professor Turner is a Visiting Professor at Reykjavik University, Iceland, and has also taught courses in France, Spain, Estonia, and South America.

I have known Professor Turner for several years now so when it turned out that INSEAD was involved in Martell VSOP’s The Ultimate Start-Up Space challenge (TUSS), I took the opportunity to catch up with Prof Turner again and chat with him to find out his thoughts on the TUSS finalists and entrepreneurship in Singapore.

On INSEAD’s Involvement in The Ultimate Startup Space

We started off our chat by talking about how INSEAD got to be involved in the TUSS challenge. While the exact start of the relationship is unclear, Prof Turner spoke about the fit between the TUSS audience and that of the institution: that Martell Cognac consumers are potential INSEAD Executive Ed programme students. Prof Turner describes, “The young, upwardly mobile and ambitious people, as well as the older guys like me.”

So given the similarity of overall interests of both parties, and also because Pernod Ricard (the company behind Martell) have been longstanding consumers of the INSEAD Executive Education programme, INSEAD contributed to the programme by providing four 90-minute training sessions to the top 10 finalists and also an Executive Education course for the winning team!

On The Difference Between INSEAD Students And The TUSS Finalists

I wanted to find out more about the actual teaching experience of Prof Turner with regards to his usual classes at INSEAD vis-à-vis the TUSS finalists and so we got talking about the profiles of the two groups.

DifferenceWhile the average age of an MBA student at INSEAD is 28 or 29 with about 80 nationalities amongst the students, the TUSS finalists were a lot younger and have much less professional experience, if at all. And of course, the finalists were quite a homogenous lot in terms of nationality owing to the requirement of the competition to have a Singapore citizen or Permanent Resident.

Thus, before starting classes, Prof Turner admitted to being surprised at how little difference there was between the TUSS finalists compared to his usual INSEAD students. Though much younger and much less experienced, the TUSS finalists picked things up very fast.

“I used material that I used normally. Material that I’ve used here and at universities in Europe.” Prof Turner emphasized that there was no need to simplify the course material for the finalists. And since topics ranged from Idea Generation, Marketing for Startups, Financing & Legal Issues, Team to the Business Plan, participants had a “good typical feel of the curriculum”.

However, one notable difference between the MBA students and TUSS finalists that Prof Turner found “amusing” is that the former seemed to disappear from the classrooms right after it was obvious that class has ended. On the other hand, the finalists “wouldn’t move!”

Everyone was very into the classes and eager to learn, even when it was quarter past 9, no one complained. (Classes were supposed to end at 9pm.)

On Singapore’s Entrepreneurial Culture

On that note, Prof Turner says that people are “absolutely wrong” when people say there is no entrepreneurial culture in Singapore. After all, Singapore today started out with immigrants and these immigrants were entrepreneurs! These first-generation immigrants started companies and these companies are today the backbone of the SME fabric of Singapore. The “proto-Singaporeans” were entrepreneurs!

However, Prof Turner clarifies that this entrepreneurial culture in Singapore as more “dormant”. Elaborating on why he thinks so, he spoke about the makings of Singapore post-independence and how “for very understandable reasons”, we had to attract some big names here as we had no natural resources. We had to have people teach us how to do research.

For example, the Economic Development Board (EDB) encouraged the likes of IBM and HP to set up research facilities in Singapore and over time, that gave rise to big companies from the outside setting up here, which in turn gave rise to the idea that you must study hard in school, get as high an education as you can, and then find yourself a good job in a big company.

(Unless of course, the government spots you and you become a government scholar and have a bond.)

Raindrops LandThus, kids’ attention were focused by school, parents and the government to study hard and get a good job. And in Prof Turner’s words, “the whole entrepreneurship thing went out through the window.”

When the Economic Review committee back in 2002 decided that Singapore needed a greater activity of entrepreneurship, and that’s when the Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE) was founded and SPRING became the SPRING of today.

“Getting people interested in entrepreneurship actually wasn’t that difficult….There is as much enthusiasm amongst people in Singapore to do entrepreneurship as I would expect to find anywhere. However, one problem is that even though the raw material is here, there are only so many ideas that can come out of one place.”

Another problem, Prof Turner feels is that funding opportunities here still aren’t right, “I still see a basis of risk aversion on the part of investors and VCs. I don’t really see the funding bit as up to the level of enthusiasm of the entrepreneurs here.”

Placing Hope In The New NRF TIS Initiative

A recent development which Prof Turner is hopeful about is the new Technology Incubation Scheme (TIS) by the National Research Foundation (NRF). He points out that of the seven incubators that were chosen, four were given to non-Singaporeans, specifically a few from Silicon Valley.

Seen one way, with this, we have funding (partially financed by NRF) and ideas (from the incubators), then according to Prof Turner, the last ingredient in this pot that is need is the entrepreneur. It is here that he emphasizes that now, the problem with that is “where do you get the experienced entrepreneurs from?”

To that, Prof Turner does not have a solution but “We’ll wait and see. But this [TIS] initiative is far and away the most imaginative [compared to just matching funds].”

On Changing Mindsets

Bringing us back to the entrepreneurial culture spoken about earlier, Prof Turner talks about the time taken needed to change mindsets, “To affect a mindset we need at least a generation, say about 25 yrs. Singapore can arguably do it much faster, due to all sorts of reasons. But even Singapore can have difficulty doing it in half a generation and that’s 12, 13 years. And we’ve been going at it for 6, 7 years since ACE was born. So there is still a while to go.”

On Singapore’s Small Market And Need To Think International

Another thing is that Singapore’s market is “so desperately small” that companies have to think international right from the word go. Think Ivan Lee of Thai Express and George Quek of Bread Talk.

On Getting Experience

“The best education for a wannabe entrepreneur is to go work for one,” Prof Turner said.

The other way is of course to just start your own company. But that does not mean going into it without a plan.

On The Importance Of Business Plans

There is one camp of people who argue that writing a business plan is a waste of time as it is just a theoretical exercise; time could be better spent on actually executing on the business.

Of this, Prof Turner thinks “it is a fashionable, trendy idea, but it is a dangerous one.”

For him, the business plan is a vital part of the whole business. Even though “the only certainty you have of your business plan is that it is going be wrong”, it is about trying to make you as sure as you possibly can.

Surrounding oneself with all the help that is needed

Entrepreneurship Is The Management Of Risk

But this does not mean that entrepreneurship itself is always going to be on shaky ground.

Speaking on the common association people make between entrepreneurship and risk, Prof Turner corrects that misconception to clarify that entrepreneurship is actually about the management of risk. Entrepreneurs limit risk as much as they can.

In fact, entrepreneurship is less risky than working for someone else as you can be terminated any minute by your employer while if you are an entrepreneur, you have your future in your own hands.

To sum it up, Prof Turner encourages people to try entrepreneurship if their gut feel is to do it, and if it is not just a passing whim and when this potential entrepreneur knows the risks, “Unless you have deeply religious beliefs that lead you to believe that there is a life after this one, you have only one go at this one. Makes sense to me to try as much as you can to be happy; to do what what you really want to do.”

Check out our interviews with some of the TUSS finalists:

  • Bon Soir – Dark Dining
  • All Things Green And Beautiful
  • The Chupitos Bar
  • Amnesia
  • Hemeryx
  • OliveScreens
  • YOUnique
  • The Chocolate Museum
  • Images courtesy of Tatters:), joka2000 and seanmcgrath.

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