Business 'heretic' is from the get-on-with-it school


Tall, dark and handsome, Shai Vyakarnam is the heretic telling budding entrepreneurs to forget about the sacred business plan and get on with the important business of networking.

A compelling speaker, and with those looks, why would we not believe him? Besides, what a relief it must be to those who have never been quite sure exactly what a business plan entails and who would far rather be getting on with the actual business.

Dr Vyakarnam is of this school, the getting-on-with-it school. He is also 'head teacher' at Cambridge Entrepreneurship Centre, which is why he can say what he likes about business plans.

I find him in the old offices of CEC, above Martin's Caf in Trumpington Street. CEC has fragmented in recent times, a process Dr V insists is part of a natural progression. It is based all over the place these days, working more closely with various departments of the university in the continuing effort to encourage more Cambridge graduates to try being entrepreneurs.

'CEC will continue to have an identity,' he says, 'but I don't know how we will manage it.'

Opinion must be divided as to whether now is or is not the right time to be urging entrepreneurship, given the extreme difficulty of raising funds at the moment. There again, jobs in City banks and the like are not such a hot alternative at present.

Dr V's own career began after a diploma in management studies from Middlesex Poly, followed by an MBA and then PhD from Cranfield, where he remained for 10 years.

He went to Nottingham Trent as a professor in enterprise and started a new department, a centre for growing business.

It was during this time that he met some of the Cambridge folk who were planning a business summer school, one of the early products of Hermann Hauser's Cambridge Network.

Born in New Zealand, the son of roving Indian diplomats, he settled in Cambridge in the 1970s when his wife, Anna, was studying at Darwin - she is now at immunologist at King's College, London, working on HIV research.

Anyway, that is how he got here, and he says he loves it, being able to walk his daughter to school, and his job, organising the kind of activities that sound like masochism to me, the 'Boot Camp' at the end of last month, which people actually paid to attend.

Clearly, he thinks there is nothing abnormal in this, and a lot of people appear to agree, not least all those who signed up, including the entire man agement team of Huntingdon firm NextGen.

'It's a two-day shot in the arm,' Dr V says.

The summer school is more of a slow-release tonic.

But does all this medicine work?

'Entrepreneurship has arrived in Cambridge,' he says. 'There is a huge difference compared with five, 10 years ago. On average, 138 students turned out Tuesday evenings last year for the classes. It was voluntary and they came from all disciplines.'

Certainly did . . . from chemistry to Anglo-Saxon studies.

'This term we are doing 'Entrepreneurship - is it for me?'. Next term it will be 'How do I do it?', and the third term will be 'Help me do it.' People like the logic trail and that is what I have brought to the team, the rhythm.'

Now the question they ask about the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia - can you teach talents such as storytelling and being an entrepreneur?

'You can teach people to play the violin,' Dr V says. 'It's about trying to inspire people to have confidence and self-belief. They can do things with that. Entrepreneurship is a process of creation.

'What we do is to give them plenty of support.'

Actually, 138 last year, 90 so far this, does not sound like all that much from a university with 16,000 students at one stage or another.

Dr V quickly explains how he has narrowed down what he sees as his market, saying that only those in the later stages of their studies are going to be interested, and by his reckoning CEC is currently capturing between 10 and 11 per cent of its possible market.

'We have to make sure that when their radar is switched on, we are ready for them.'

And then there is the other question. Why does the CEC have to exist at all, given that we have the Judge Institute of Management Studies in town?

'There is no conflict with the Judge. They are doing the theory of entrepreneurship. They would not want to be bothered with what we are doing.'

Thinks: perhaps it is at the Judge we will find the Business Plans?

'If you ask entrepreneurs in Cambridge how many have . . . the business plan just demonstrates the final outcome of thinking, but if it is merely about filling in the numbers it is rather a Mickey Mouse document and of no value whatsoever.

'What is important is the thinking that goes into it, the process is what matters. People write dozens of business plans, over and over again; but did the entrepreneurs in Cambridge raise money because of the strength of the business plan or the strength of their networking?' Rhetorical, I think.

Dr V's own foray into commerce is via Transitions, the consultancy he set up 12 years ago in the city.

'It began when I asked myself 'whatever happened to the Cambridge Phenomenon?' and got some money out of the Manpower Services Commission to do some policy research.

'I did loads, and then got involved with the British Council and the United Nations.'

At the moment Transitions is working on policy projects closer to home, an enterprise hub for Suffolk, revving up Waveney and Lowestoft.

Dr V is also a non-executive director of Burall at Wisbech, and sits on the Institute of Small Business Affairs' board.

There is so much to ask him. What does he think of Investors in People?

Over-bureaucratised. When was it last this tough to get started as an entrepreneur? 1979 and the early part of Mrs Thatcher's reign.

Then we are on to how it all started in the Victorian era; how Gandhi had this idea that everyone should be self-sustaining.

'Small is Beautiful' comes into it somewhere, then we are on to the time, not so long ago, when there were no venture capitalists to speak of, other than 3i, no expert advice to hand, no role models, just the old insistence on a business plan - a bit chicken and egg, really. Which did come first?

'Mentors were called small business advisors in those days, and they were men who had retired early from big companies, whereas today's mentors have done it themselves, and upset people.'

So, is it truly responsible to encourage fresh-faced students to go down this route? To risk not just upsetting people, but their time, their money and other people's, their confidence in a career-minded world?

'We have to issue a health warning at the moment, or suggest they make a 'soft start' to generate some income.

' But some people are raising money; the tap is not completely turned off.'


The Entrepreneurship Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School aims to inspire, enable and research entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship Centre, Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge