Program helps turn ideas into formal plans

USC Instigator offers resources for student entrepreneurs

A program through the Darla Moore School of Business wants to help students turn their business ideas into plans.

Launched last summer, USC Instigator is making a new push to interest students after having been approved to carry over its space to the new business building.

The Instigator program is a “virtual water cooler” for students to discuss their business ideas with one another and with business faculty, according to Dirk Brown, the director of the business school’s Faber Entrepreneurship Center.

“Entrepreneurship, by definition, is doing something for the first time. You want to surround yourself with as much help as possible as early as possible,” Brown said. “We’re trying to take people who think they might have an idea and provide them with an infrastructure to [develop] it in a collaborative environment.”

Instigator administrator Joel Stevenson, a professor of entrepreneurship and strategic management, said the program provides resources for students to turn their ideas into business plans that they can then take to an entrepreneurial incubator program, like the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator, which can then offer resources for them to commercialize their business plan.

USC Instigator prepares students who do not yet have a plan to take to an incubator, Stevenson said.

“One of the biggest problems is students will have an idea for starting a business, but they don’t know what to do with it,” Stevenson said. “This is not an incubator; this is an instigator. What do students do? They instigate. They get things started.”

The Instigator program offers students a communal office space in the business school and resources to research and develop their ideas and turn them into working business plans, Stevenson said. He and other faculty work with students to define and research their idea and map out what’s needed to go into a formal plan.

The first thing Stevenson said they help students do is a feasibility analysis, which includes figuring out whether someone else already has a business based on the idea, defining the features and benefits of their product or service, organizing their founding business team and determining the possible costs of the business.

“Know something about the industry, what market you’re going to sell in, who are your customers. That’s the first thing that needs to be taught to a potential entrepreneur,” Stevenson said.

The next step after the feasibility analysis is to help students further consider market forces that could influence a business plan, including the consideration of factors like supplier and customer bargaining power and the threat of new market entrants.

“These are questions you can ask yourself that will help you develop this business plan,” Stevenson said. “I’m not going to answer the questions for you, but at least you (now) know what to ask yourself. It’s a road map.”

After all this, students may discover that there’s nothing to their product or service after all, and the Instigator program will have saved them the time, money and heartache of pursuing a business plan that won’t work, Stevenson said.

The key to the entire Instigator process, Stevenson said, is giving students someone to just talk to about their ideas.

“The biggest problem entrepreneurs have is loneliness,” Stevenson said. “If you’re lonely, you don’t know who to talk to. So we’re going to give you someone to talk to.”

The Instigator program has worked with about four to six student clients since last summer, Stevenson said. Full-time undergraduate and graduate students in any field of study are eligible to participate in the USC Instigator.

Among the business projects the Instigator has helped students launch is a “rideshare” application, according to Brown.

Brown said USC Instigator is just one part of the university’s broader support system to promote entrepreneurship, which includes the Center for Entrepreneurship and Technological Innovation, and resources through the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Computing, and Pharmacy.

“We’re ‘architecting’ a very good strategy for building up the ecosystem for entrepreneurship at the university and throughout the state,” Brown said.


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