Entrepreneurial state of mind

”I think it’s better for an entrepreneur to be ahead of the wave rather than chasing it, as you might never catch it.”

Name: Mattia Bianchi
Title: Professor in business administration, House of Innovation, SSE

Can you please tell us who you are?

I’m Mattia Bianchi, 40 years old, in Sweden since 2010. After my Phd in Italy, I wanted to begin my career in academia abroad. I sent many applications all over the world, most were rejected, one was not…the one I sent to the Stockholm School of Economics, which eventually became my lab, office and home. I am a researcher and teacher of innovation management, of the development of new products, services, business models.

How did you first discover SSES?

I think it was almost at the beginning of my job at SSE, in 2011. I received a request to give a seminar on the contents of my doctoral thesis, which was about licensing technologies. I looked SSES up, I was quite fascinated about the fact that the main universities in Stockholm teamed up to work on such an important theme and practice, that of entrepreneurship. So I accepted without hesitation. Since then, I have been attending seminars at SSES, co-organizing workshops, teaching classes and since last year, directing a full course on design thinking.

What is design thinking and how does it relate to entrepreneurship?
A broad definition of design thinking is using design principles and practices to create something novel in an organizational setting. Today, design thinking is very popular among consulting firms, large companies, and start-ups. It’s part of the MBA curriculum in most business schools. This is based on the notion that the way designers think and act can be helpful to entrepreneurs, innovators, managers to address the massive changes that are characteristic of our time.

What’s so special about designers?
Well, they empathise with users spending time observing them, immersing in their experience, putting themselves in their shoes, to understand what they really need. They visualize, prototype and test ideas almost immediately, no matter how rough the ideas are. The goal is to collect feedback as soon as possible, learn from likely early failures and pivot to better solutions.  But I think that the most important contribution of designers is their practice of framing and reframing. Basically, given a problem or an opportunity, designers do not take it as a given, but they try to look at it from different perspectives, angles, viewpoints, so to develop an original understanding of it, which leads to new formulations and so to new solution paths. So basically they innovate the problem before innovating the solution. They design a new problem, instead of just reacting to what current users tell them. Instead, they make sense of where the world is going, what new technologies enable, what people find increasingly meaningful, and based on them, they imagine possibilities beyond extant realities. These are all traits that are critical for entrepreneurs today, if they want to contribute to the betterment of the human condition through their new products and services.

Should today’s students be more entrepreneurial? If so, why?
Well, they could be more of many things. Entrepreneurial is one of them. Why? Because of fit, simple Darwinian evolution. If the external social, cultural, technological environment is shifting rapidly and radically as it is, then to maintain fit and relevance, we need to change too. An entrepreneur is one that wants to be at the helm of the shift, to drive it also based on her personal vision, values, of the kind of impact she wants to have on people. To have agency, to seed the future rather than just seeing it, trying to steer it into a desired direction. This is a better and more exciting role than one that is passively subject to someone else’s changes. Of course, it’s a complex one. Shifting paradigms means questioning engrained mental models, challenging the orthodoxies that exist in all areas of human existence, the way we have always done things. It means to be a contrarian. And this takes a huge amount of perseverance and drive, because the surrounding people, users, investors, customers, suppliers, are immersed in current sociocultural context. They would think that proposals that are not in line with today’s zeitgeist make little sense, are delusional, so they would easily dismiss them.

What is an entrepreneurial mindset?
I’d say it has a number of aspects:
It’s about being visionary: imagining new possibilities, envisioning future plausible scenarios, instead of just solving the problems of today.
It’s about theory building: developing new theories of value. In these future worlds, what will people come to value, to find meaningful, to need?
It’s about theory testing: being a scientist in testing these theories through MVPs, smoke tests.
It’s about leadership: because the new vision is far from reality, and to realize it, the entrepreneur must earn the commitment and the energy of other stakeholders.
All throughout the entrepreneurial journey, it’s about navigating between contrasting forces, to find one’s own sweetspot.
Outside in vs inside out: pivoting, i.e., change the vision and the entrepreneurial idea based on collected feedback, while staying true to your personal values, your weltanschauung, your worldview.
Divergence and convergence.
Common sense and nonsense.
I like the concept of borderline developed by Alessi, an Italian design firm. There is a thin line between creating something that everyone will understand, like, because it conforms, it aligns to the current world, a linear evolution from the past (the blue pill in the Matrix), and instead creating something that people will not understand and so they will reject, because it is a break from the past (the red pill). I don’t think it’s a binary choice for the entrepreneur, one or the other pill, but rather trying to find out where this hidden, blurred line is, through trial and error and try to be on it. Like a surfer: surfing on the line of the wave as it moves. Sticking to the metaphor of a surfer, I think it’s better for an entrepreneur to be ahead of the wave rather than chasing it, as you might never catch it. Basically, it’s about daring to jump beyond the line, into the non-sense, and then take a step back toward the line, rather than aiming for conformance first and trying to push a bit further, because this might never happen. Conformance is just too comfortable, in the short term. And then it’s too late.

What part of your personal or professional journey has been atypical, uncommon or rare?
Very little. I think my journey has been very standard, linear. That’s why I am a boring professor and not an entrepreneur.

What are your hopes for the future?
Well in general, that my son grows up in a better place than I have, which was by the way already satisfactory. In peace, security, while being excited and stimulated by everything that will become possible, thanks to new technologies, new ideas and ideals, new meanings. When it comes to entrepreneurship, I hope future entrepreneurs will be more like Copernicus and a bit less Galileo. The first proposed a new revolutionary theory, the second discovered evidence to support that theory. Today there is a huge focus in entrepreneurship research and teaching on testing hypotheses through prototypes, MVP, canvas. Which is fine. But where do these hypotheses come from? From new visions and theories. So I hope to see more attention and groundbreaking contributions on how entrepreneurs can create contrarian theories in the first place.
I would like to see entrepreneurs more as barbarians than romans. Daring to crash falling, obsolete empires and propose new systems. I think new systems are necessary to find  solutions to the grand challenges that the planet faces today. And businesses can be the engines, the drivers of these solutions, rather than being the causes of the problems in the first place. We need to find ways to do well by doing good.