Can an Old School Learn to Love New Media?

Professor James Short teaches students at the London Business School how to play by the rules of the Internet economy. His mission: To turn Europe's top b-school into a British version of a Silicon Valley garage.

If you were hunting for the next great Internet entrepreneur, you probably wouldn't start your search at a big-name business school. Most B-school students are just beginning to outgrow their devotion to consulting and investment banking. You certainly wouldn't start in London, where business leaders spend more time arguing about the euro than dreaming about Internet IPOs.

All of which makes James Short's lesson plan so intriguing. Short, 48, a determined American expatriate who was recently awarded a fellowship at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and who is currently a visiting associate professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, joined the London Business School several years ago. His mission: to turn the ultraprestigious LBS into a British version of a Silicon Valley garage. He developed a course ("Managing.com") that is oversubscribed far in advance. His new research facility, called i:Lab, is considered a hotbed of Web innovation. More and more of his students are launching startups, joining startups, or taking new-media jobs.

"Academic institutions are the last to respond to business trends," Short concedes. "We don't want to write case studies once the dust settles. We want to get in on today's e-commerce innovation right away."

How does Short inspire European MBAs to look beyond the business establishment and to leap into the Net? He introduces them to people with anti-establishment credentials. His i:Lab has become a hangout for filmmakers, computer-game programmers, software developers, engineers, and artists. Some of these people are freelancers who spend time between projects at i:Lab. Others are "on loan" from their companies. All of them come for the chance to work with one another and to experiment on cool projects using free equipment.

LBS students offer these creative types feedback on how their ideas might spawn actual companies. "It's a cross-pollination," says Adrian Sack, 28, associate director of i:Lab. "Technical people learn how to apply their inventions, and students learn about the technology that drives new markets."

Short's influence on his students extends beyond the walls of the lab. He has become a mentor to a group of international alums who have founded Internet startups of their own. Nadia Kokourina, 36, a Russian LBS alum, credits Short with spurring her to start Bearhug Ltd., a company that markets the expertise of Russian software programmers and Web developers. "I would never have had the confidence to start a business if it weren't for his courses and encouragement," Kokourina says. "His ideas and enthusiasm are just contagious."

Marcus Leaver, 29, a former student who is now director of new media at the music giant Chrysalis, agrees that Short was instrumental in providing contacts. "He pulls together some of the best leaders and idea generators in the field," Leaver says. "He has created a whole network of connections."

At first glance, Short looks like anything but a digital evangelist. His dowdy sweaters, quiet voice, and serious demeanor give him the mark of an academic - but then he starts talking about the lab: "I tell my students that researching and teaching online business is a contact sport. They can't learn about the online world offline."

Richard Downs, 33, who was a student in Short's class, started an e-business that uses the Web to rent ski chalets in Europe. The company, which is called IGLU.com, has become a thriving part of the university's entrepreneurial incubator, which provides office space and cash. Downs, who wrote his business plan with fellow students from Short's class, is planning to share what he's learned with the next generation of students. "The focus on entrepreneurship and new media should have an in-your-face profile," Downs says. "I'm happy to evangelize for the digital world and for Jim."

Downs is not Short's only evangelist. "The UK and Europe have some exciting times ahead as they get up to speed in the digital world," Marcus Leaver says. "LBS and i:Lab will be at the forefront of that."

You can contact James Short by email (jshort@lbs.ac.uk) or visit i:Lab on the Web (www.ilab.lbs.ac.uk).

Sidebar: Internet 101

Students who sign up for "managing. com," a course about Web business offered by James Short (above), or who hang out at Short's i:Lab, have plenty of enthusiasm for Web technology - but they don't have much know-how. So it's up to i:Lab's associate director, Adrian Sack, to teach these students the basics. Sack shared a few of those principles with Fast Company.

Good ideas beat great technology.

"One of the worst things you can do is hit your market with a technology before the market is ready for it. A more pragmatic strategy is to have a great new use for a technology that's already been accepted. Sound marketing can beat superior technology."

Revolutions take time.

"Companies love to claim that their technology will 'revolutionize' an industry. But often they don't have everything in place that is needed to make the technology successful. And the factors that lead to success are often the ones that you'd least expect - for example, creating a package that looks similar to a product that's already well known."

Depth, not breadth.

"If you understand one technology thoroughly, you can formulate strategies that people without that kind of technical knowledge won't even recognize. That's true for MP3.com Inc., for example. Just knowing about the technology that lets you stream audio over the Net won't help you understand why that company's IPO was so successful."

Contact Adrian Sack by email (asack@lbs.ac.uk).

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