Bob Pinckney (BBA ’82) brings real-world startup experience to the classroom.

If there’s a buzzword in business education right now, it’s entrepreneurship — in part because building a business from the ground up has never been easier. For one thing, there’s an app for everything — from initial funding and payroll to legal services and shipping, and everything in-between. 

As advantageous as all that sounds, the best digital tools in the world are no guarantee that a product is destined for success. 

That’s where Bob Pinckney (BBA ’82), director of UGA’s year-old entrepreneurship program, comes in. He has a degree in economics from Terry, an MBA from the Harvard Business School, and he has founded or co-founded several consulting, software, and telecommunications firms. He recently concluded his tenure as CEO of Athens-based Evoshield, which ranked No. 1 in the 2011 Bulldog 100 rankings of the fastest-growing, UGA-owned and operated businesses. 

Pinckney has a keen understanding of what makes modern startups flail or soar. 

And, spoiler alert, it’s probably not what you think. 

Pinckney’s résumé doesn’t follow the boom-and-bust mythomania that underpins today’s cult of entrepreneurial geniuses. He doesn’t claim to be a self-made man betting against outdated establishment thinking. Instead, he defines his success as a product of hardscrabble perseverance and team effort. His advice to students is not only insightful but experiential, and he doesn’t sugarcoat how difficult it is to create a successful startup regardless of how good the initial idea is.

Bob Pinckney addresses the crowd at the Collegiate Next Great Consumer Brands competition
Pinckney addresses the crowd at the Collegiate Next Great Consumer Brands competition, which attracted students from all across the country to compete for a $25,000 prize and a trip to New York City.

“What I tell my students,” says Pinckney, “is that in the beginning, when you’re starting a business with friends or investors, everybody’s interests are usually aligned because there’s no money on the table. You’re not splitting anything up; it’s all hypothetical. Ironically, it’s when you hit on something really successful that you oftentimes run into trouble, because suddenly people’s interests are no longer aligned. As something goes from zero value to being worth a lot of money, that’s what often happens.”

Boiled down, Pinckney’s pedagogical thesis is simple:

“Entrepreneurship is a difficult thing to teach. But it can be learned.” 

If that sounds contradictory, it’s not. Teaching people to take risks, he says, requires a different approach to instruction — both inside and outside the classroom. 

“A lot of entrepreneurs have great ideas — and they fall in love with those ideas, and they want to profit from them. But what I tell my students in class is, ‘Okay, so you’ve got an idea. But have you asked customers what they want? And are they willing to pay what you’re asking for the product in order to turn a profit?’ I may think I have a great idea that will lead to a great product. But the market may tell me something entirely different. So you’re better off finding that out sooner than later.” 

UGA’s entrepreneurship program is open to students from all academic disciplines, so Pinckney’s classes are stocked with art majors, history majors, pre-journalism hopefuls, undergraduate scientists — and, of course, business majors. Disparate as they may be, Pinckney feels a connection with each and every one of them. 

“Mashing all those different points of view together is extremely beneficial in enhancing the students’ classroom experience,” says Pinckney. “One of the things we’re trying to do is to promote interdisciplinary options. At a university you get silos, right? Everybody’s kind of focused on their own thing. To some extent, we can bridge those silos with this program and get into interdisciplinary territory. Entrepreneurship isn’t a business school-only item. If you look at the Bulldog 100, the winners this year came out of the psychology department. So recognizing that entrepreneurship can come from anywhere on campus is key.”

Instead of relying solely on coursework that consists of writing business plans and memorizing the do’s and don’ts of launching a startup, Pinckney worked with university administrators to construct a marketplace-ready curriculum that fosters entrepreneurial thinking, encourages problem solving, and highlights how to manage growth. He forgoes the traditional lecture model of undergraduate teaching for discussion-based classes built around case studies from his former alma mater.

In fact, it’s possible to draw a line directly from Pinckney’s Harvard days to his classroom at UGA. Not only does he teach Harvard Business School cases, he actively consults with one of his HBS professors over cases for his syllabus.

“We use case studies of entrepreneurs at different points in their journey,” says Pinckney, “so that students develop a framework for how you look at issues and different ways to solve them. Because once you graduate from college, the world is no longer multiple choice questions and answers. There are no right or wrong answers, there are just decisions based on the information you have available at the time — and then you have to be able to come back and evaluate was that the right decision . . . and is it still the right decision?” 

Case studies, he says, open students’ minds and activate their imaginations through narrative. For many new companies, forging a profitable path means navigating uncharted waters, and that requires a willingness to consider uncommon thinking. 

“We do cases like Dropbox, Airbnb and Apple,” says Pinckney. “Airbnb was a couple of guys in San Francisco who saw that the hotels were all booked up during a conference, so they put a couple air mattresses on the floor and made a business. It’s not rocket science. Part of the mission is to open students’ eyes to what’s possible. We look at how these companies were started and why, which takes some of the mystery out of it.”