Learn.Create.Build. entrepreneur skills
Life as an entrepreneur can be like a roller coaster, said Shane Thomas, but “it is worth it, and it is very rewarding.”
Thomas and Adam Learing are co-founders of Learn.Create.Build. Academy, a Sioux Falls, S.D.-based company that hosts technology camps for young students.
“We hope to inspire kids to a technology path to further their career,” Thomas said. “Why play a video game when you can build your own?”
Eighteen months after starting their business, the academy offers camps in nine states and 28 locations. Learn.Create.Build. also won first place in the 2016 CenturyLink LaunchPad business pitch competition. They are located in the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship in Sioux Falls, formerly the South Dakota Technology Business Center.
Learn.Create.Build. Academy is actually the third small business the two Dakota State University (DSU) graduates have started. They began with a web design company, then started an ecommerce company, which led to an opportunity to write STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum.
The technology teaching business began in 2015 because they weren’t satisfied with simply writing curriculum. “We couldn’t see it in action,” Thomas said, so they experimented with a summer camp using the game “Minecraft” to teach technology to students 7 to 14 years of age. It was very successful, and they decided to start the teaching technology academy.
“Let’s build something that’s going to be great, something that’s going to be lasting,” they agreed.
Thomas recently shared some of the lasting lessons he’s learned with a group of Dakota State University technology students, “A glimpse inside the life of a technology entrepreneur.”
DSU began as a teaching college in Madison, South Dakota in 1881, but in 1984 the state legislature added a technology mission to the university’s purpose. Over the next 30 years the school’s enrollment has greatly increased, particularly in cyber security majors. The school now holds four distinctions with the Department of Homeland Security/National Security Agency National as a Center for Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education, Information Assurance Research, Cyber Operations, and as a Cyber Defense Regional Resource Center. A new state-of-the-art technology building is currently under construction.
Transferring into Learn.Create.Build. Academy was a leap, Thomas admitted, because it meant starting over at the beginning again, but “there never is a perfect time” to take that entrepreneurial step. Instead, “embrace the unexpected and don’t be afraid to take risks,” he said.
One of those risks is salary. Starting a business will involve a significant pay cut if it involves leaving a traditional job, he said. It also involves a lot of work, up to 65-70 hours a week. There are also things to learn which aren’t covered in college technology classes, such as taxes, lawyers, accountants, hiring and firing.
“That’s the side of business that doesn’t really contribute to your bottom line,” but will cause problems if you don’t learn them, he said.
He encouraged the students to “Learn things you don’t think you’ll have to learn,” in college, “take a business class or two” and “develop your skills outside of the classroom,” non-technical skills such as communications, sales, writing.
The most important skill students need is “Teach yourself how to teach yourself,” because there are always new things to be learned.
To help the students learn from his experience, he debunked some myths about starting businesses. First, “You don’t have to be a genius” to be an entrepreneur; a second was that the best product doesn’t always win. Success depends on other factors, such as marketing and customer service, he stated. Luck is another myth about business success.
“I’m fully convinced luck doesn’t exist,” Thomas said. “It’s all about you making your own luck, and you do that through hard work, persistence, patience.”
That hard work tied into what he called Fact #1: “To succeed you have to be willing to put in the time,” he said, calling it “hustle and grit.” Fact #2 was patience, because building a great company takes longer than expected, so entrepreneurs need the conviction to keep going. Fact #3 was personal accountability to keep productivity moving forward.
Thomas admitted that being an entrepreneur is not for everyone, but entrepreneurial skills will help those who join a start-up, or take traditional jobs at big companies. After graduating from DSU with a computer information systems degree, he had one of those jobs, as a software developer at a financial products company, but “something in me wanted to go out on my own.” Now, “I’ll never go back,” he said.
Thomas closed his presentation by paraphrasing a quote from Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 “Citizenship in the Republic” speech, the “Man in the Arena” excerpt: “You can stand on the sidelines, or you can go for it. And the people that make a difference, the people that make change in the world are the people that go for it.”
Learn.Create.Build. Academy co-founder Shane Thomas shares entrepreneurial lessons learned at a Jan. 25 presentation at Dakota State University. He discussed lessons learned, facts and myths about starting a business.
Learn.Create.Build. Academy co-founder Shane Thomas (left) visits with DSU students Zach DeGroot, Christian Ries, and Tyler Rau after a presentation on how to start a technology business. Thomas and co-founder Adam Learing (not pictured) are DSU alumni. DeGroot is also an employee of the academy.