Walking the talk with Eric Thompson

We spoke with Eric about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur – and what sets this cutting-edge master’s programme (MCEI) apart.

Is there a desire? Is it feasible? Is it viable?

If you are planning to start your own business, answering ‘yes’ to these three questions is critical. In fact, according to Whitecliffe Head of School, Design Innovation Eric Thompson, nail these three metrics and you will likely smash it. And he should know. The entrepreneur and businessman has founded numerous successful businesses – from design agencies to landscape companies and even shoe shops. His experiences have taught him heaps, and now in collaboration with some of the world’s most successful movers and shakers, he will be sharing that knowledge with students on Whitecliffe’s new Master of Creative Enterprise and Innovation (MCEI), launching in July.

We spoke with Eric about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur – and what sets this cutting-edge master’s programme apart.

Eric, you have founded your fair share of businesses. Tell us about some of them.
I had my own successful design agency in the UK for eight years, then when we came back to New Zealand my wife and I started up a landscape design business. We did not have extensive knowledge of gardening, but we saw the business opportunity and had the self-belief that we could make it work. The business went gangbusters and we sold it after two years and set up a commercial cleaning business, which also did really well. If you are going to be an entrepreneur it might not be the fanciest service or product, it is about finding a niche. Recently my wife and I bought a boutique shoe business. We had to borrow a fair chunk of change to do it, so a big part of it comes down to being risk tolerant and having faith that you can make it succeed.

Have you had any failures?
Absolutely! The first design agency I tried to set up failed spectacularly, but I learnt from that. That’s the problem in New Zealand – we have tall poppy syndrome and people think if you fail you must be bad. But it’s not like that in any other country. Founders all over the world fail before they succeed, that’s just part of the journey.

You’ve recently developed a cutting-edge Master of Creative Enterprise and Innovation, which starts at Whitecliffe in July. Tell us more.
This will be New Zealand’s first-ever non-disciplinary MCEI and it’s been co-created with some of the world’s leading New Zealand mentors, investors, business owners and innovative thinkers. It is an 18-month full-time course that’s custom designed for future founders and startup entrepreneurs to learn how to launch a business, whether that’s a product or a service. It is less about learning how to create a business plan and more about problem-solving, being solutions focused, and developing the person.

It is very practical, we will also teach students to generate a sense of purpose and self-belief; we will show them how to go into it with their eyes completely open. Not only will we equip founders with the tools to go out and do it, we will also teach them what to avoid and how to navigate. The journey of build-test-learn is woven throughout the programme, with a strong focus on double-loop learning – relooking at problems in a creative environment. We will have masterclasses from leading venture capitalists, finance people, and marketers and students will learn everything about building a successful business.

How was the course created?
I used the same metrics as I do for any startup. I had a vision for what I wanted to create and then I asked myself three key questions: Is there a desire? Is it feasible? Is it viable? I went out to industry and said: “This is what I want to do, can you tell me what you would like to see in it? From your personal experience, what did you miss? What did you wish you had known?” I spent nine months talking to founders, venture capitalists, investors, and R&D department heads from all over the world and they all said the same thing – this is exactly what New Zealand needs.

What makes this degree different?
The master has been co-created with industry and is completely unlike anything currently on offer in New Zealand and Australia. Yes, there are other master’s and bachelor’s in entrepreneurship but they’re very much focused on technology and business. This is about bringing everything together to make it work. Being an entrepreneur is not about setting up a business, it’s about creativity. It is about being solutions focused rather than problem-focused. That is what we’ll be teaching students.

Who will it appeal to?
A bunch of different people! A lot of it is online, there are only four times each semester when it is compulsory for students to be on campus, so people can fit it around full-time jobs. We have had interest from people who are working full-time but want to develop their side hustle right through to intrapreneurs working in R&D for big organisations. Because the degree is non-disciplinary specific it does not matter what you’re currently doing or what you want to do, you just have to come in with an idea of the product or service you want to launch. Students have 18 months to develop their idea with our guidance and support, and then at the end of it they will pitch it to a panel of investors. I have already had investors lining up to be on that panel - industry is expecting great things from this programme.

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