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28 July 2008

Don’t be afraid of failure

Former teenage dot-com entrepreneur Benjamin Cohen says to prepare pupils for business you must let

By Benjamin Cohen

I didn’t have a conventional journey from schoolboy to adult. My education was interrupted by then undiagnosed multiple sclerosis. Yet by the time I started university, I had been a director of a public company and was once supposedly worth more than Prince William. The dot-com crash put an end to that.

While off ill – studying at home for my GCSEs – I became fascinated by the internet. After designing a couple of websites, I set to work creating CyberBritain (now a defunct company), a pre-Google search engine, but it was JewishNet a community website (now known as TotallyJewish) that proved an earlier hit.

The idea was born out of a Young Enterprise project at Jews Free School where I was studying for two A levels. We had discussed designing a website and selling advertising. I started working on one, but the “board” and its advisers – an RE teacher and a volunteer from industry – decided that selling inflatable aliens and key rings made from shrunk-down packets of crisps to younger pupils would be more successful. It wasn’t. I developed the concept they had discarded into a community portal and hit the headlines.

Young Enterprise, with its simulations of board meetings – including a good deal of reality when it came to the strictures on company law – wasn’t in itself an adequate preparation for real board meetings, particularly those with irate investors trying desperately to come to terms with the dot-com crash that was ravishing the industry.

Nor did school in general give me any clue how to manage a team of people who rely on you for both leadership and a wage.

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Young Enterprise, though, is probably the most effective way that entrepreneurialism has been taught in schools. Students raise share capital to finance a company that will sell a product or service to fellow pupils and the wider community. But it tends to be the more motivated students that volunteer or are asked to take part.

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It was certainly of more use than my A level in economics – probably, because it is led by volunteers from industry rather than teachers.

Academic teaching of business appeals to able students and creates cardboard cut-out entrepreneurs, copying well versed business models that fit the rigours of neo-classical economics.

Real business success stories are achieved by people who swim against the tide, seek gaps in markets, ignore assumed market rules or create markets that never existed before to make new profits.

For me being able to think outside the box meant accepting failure as part ofthe process. Things going badly wrong allow you to redefine a concept or make your next idea better. But traditional academic teaching punishes failure – things are either right or wrong.

The best way to teach business at school is not to teach it at all, but to facilitate it in practical terms. Teach the concepts but purely as styles, techniques in the same way that a good art teacher shows you how to use the tools and materials at your disposal, but gives you the freedom to use them to express yourself. Take advantage of the popularity of Dragons Den and The Apprentice and recreate them in school with help from industry.

There are lessons from my experience about why learning should involve doing as well as studying. The practical skills you learn in enterprise activities are so useful for getting on in life, it’s a wonder they aren’t part of the curriculum already. And like art, why not start from an early age? I was thinking of business ideas when I was at primary school – I can’t have been the only one.

Benjamin Cohen is the Technology Correspondent for Channel 4 News and director of His fee has been donated to the MS Society