In an entrepreneurship journey, knowing when to pivot is critical. Teaching students to know when to pivot is really hard. In this lean startup process, a pivot is “mak[ing] a structural course correction to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy and engine of growth.”
The best way I can help my students understand the nuances of pivoting is to show them through my own example.
My original problem hypothesis:
College business students cannot find timely, actionable career preparedness advice in an easily digestible format they enjoy. I know this because for 6+ years I have been mentoring these students through career preparedness.
My early adopters:
Junior & senior College of Business (COB) females
Junior & senior College of Fine Arts (CFA) females
Random freshman females
I conducted problem interviews with 5 junior & 6 senior COB females, 5 junior & 5 senior CFA, and 3 freshman females. In those interviews I asked students about their behavior surrounding post-college and preparing for their career. Only 2 of the 24 I interviewed mentioned anything about these behaviors as problematic. Most just shrugged it off.
I reflected on why I was so sure this was a problem for these students. It’s because I have heard from so many former students who are 2-5 years out of college that it’s a problem. AHA!!!!! I fell into a typical entrepreneurship trap – listening to one customer group (recent graduates) and ascribing the problems they mention to another group (juniors & seniors). While I and the recent graduates know that the lack of adequate and timely career preparedness advice is problematic for current students, I did not validate that those students see it is a problem.
I now had a choice. I could continue working on what I know is a problem for these students. If I continued, I would have to sell students that this is a problem, then sell them my solution to this problem. That’s really hard. Or I could go back to the drawing board, not be married to my idea, listen to the interviews. That’s what I did.
I thought about another group to whom I had easy access and had some inkling of their problems. New (assistant) entrepreneurship professors. Many of them reach out to me for advice on how to teach certain topics, what resources to use, how to make their classrooms more realistic. I have found in talking to them that many do not have any practical entrepreneurship experience. They want resources, BAD!
My new problem hypothesis:
Entrepreneurship professors don’t have tools to teach experientially. I know this because for 6+ years I have been approached with requests for resources / reviews of syllabus.
My early adopters:
Assistant professors of entrepreneurship in US (ideally with no/limited practical experience)
I teamed up with Justin Wilcox for this effort because he is a guru of customer interviewing (among many other things lean startup) and because I love the tools he created in FOCUS Framework. What we found in our early interviews is that there are professors who do indeed want simple tools to help them teach entrepreneurship in a more experiential way.
We created a blog where we share quick strategies and lesson plans around the most common problematic topics in entrepreneurship education.
Our second post was “Intro to Problem Validation” because many entrepreneurship educators struggle with helping students validate their problems. Again, we include a 45-minute lesson plan so educators can quickly put our strategies to use in their classrooms.
Sharing this journey with my students seems to help the learning sink in. After explaining this in class, many approached me with confidence that they had either validated or invalidated their problem hypothesis based on customer interviews. They were thinking about next steps – I suggested to many of them to start a WordPress blog or to develop an Unbounce landing page as a lead generation strategy. It’s a quick and easy next step to validate customer interest.
I am a firm believer that educators should have practical experience in the subject matter they are teaching.
Someone teaching nursing should be a practicing nurse.
Someone teaching mathematics could have been a logistician or an actuary.
Someone teaching history could have been an archivist or a lawyer.
Someone teaching acting/theater should work as an actor or behind the scenes of a theater.
For those teaching entrepreneurship, we should be currently engaged in entrepreneurship. This way, we understand the nuances and tools of today’s entrepreneur. I share this belief with students, and then share my current experiences in entrepreneurship with them. To show them that I try, that I fail, that I learn, that I succeed, that I persist.
Most importantly, I show them that I am willing to do what I am asking them to do. A role model is a powerful thing!
Below are the high-level points of some of my entrepreneurship stories I share with my students:
This is a story of entrepreneurship gone wrong. I collided with two guys around the idea that internships suck, for students and for employers. The process is long and painful and not transparent, among other problems. So we hatched the idea of micro-internships between students and local small businesses. The business pays maybe $10 to post a job-to-be-done. The student doesn’t get paid but gets real experience and a real connection to a real business person, all with little time commitment.
Our original goal was to be a data giant and get acquired by LinkedIn or Monster.com or some similar entity for many millions.
Mistake #1: We were not lean. We empowered one of our founders to be the CEO and gave him plenty of leeway. He chose to delay release of the product for years, until it was “perfect”, instead of launching a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and iterating quickly based on customer feedback.
Mistake #2: To support this long product development cycle, we took on a few hundred thousand dollars in investment from local friends. This was a bad idea because these “investors” were investing in the CEO more than in the business. Of the two real investors approached, one asked for his money back after a couple years of zero traction, and the other basically laughed at the proposition of investing in this as a “business”.
Mistake #3: Because we took on investment, we got distracted by pursuing potential revenue streams instead of sticking to our original goal of building a data goldmine of young people pursuing employment. We twice approached a large corporation to build a platform for/with for them. We twice got turned down. We worked to integrate with Khan Academy and a variety of other ways for young people to gain valuable skills. We forgot our original practical goal and bloated into a fantastical dream.
Because I no longer agreed with the culture or the direction of the company, after 6 years, I sold back my 10% for a mere $2,500. This was a significant discount from the $5 million valuation our CEO was shopping to investors, but I just wanted out because the business and culture was something I could no longer support. Along the way, I didn’t fight for the business I wanted to build.
Establish a strong outcome goal and don’t waver
Don’t take investment to build product (only take it to scale traction)
This is a story of unrealized potential. I realized that the women in my classes were significantly better students in all the ways that mattered (i.e., not grades), and that there were very few women in my classes. Over a year or so, I spoke with 500+ female entrepreneurs, investors and business leaders (mostly through LinkedIn hustling) about how I might attract and support more women in entrepreneurship classes & programs on college campuses. One entrepreneur had a similar vision, so Elisabeth and I started down the road of building a community and eventually a business. We would recruit female college students and deliver some sort of curriculum (what they didn’t get in college but what we knew they really needed).
Mistake #1: We didn’t have a strategy or structure. We didn’t know how we were going to generate revenue. So it was more of a hobby for us than a business (because the things in our respective lives that generated revenue would always take priority – I was an educator and Elisabeth was already an entrepreneur).
Mistake #2: I lied to my wife about the time and financial commitments I was making to this endeavor. I eventually contributed roughly $20,000 to finance an awesome experience for some of our students to attend and be highlighted at Women’s Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations. Without a revenue model, we have no way of recuperating that investment, which is a sore spot in my personal life.
Elisabeth and I continue to pursue our mission. We have run two pilot cohorts of college students through our curriculum, where they experientially learn sales and other elements of personal growth they don’t find in their college curriculum. We learn, we ideate, we iterate, and we still struggle with structure and strategy.
Don’t start without a revenue model
Develop a rhythm of productivity
Be honest and transparent (this is just generally good life advice, but particularly good advice when it comes to balancing a relationship and a business)
Pull the trigger
Entrepreneurship Education Project
This was a research project I began as a doctoral student, to better understand how people were teaching entrepreneurship. With very few resources and the collaboration of a few colleagues, this turned into a massive global dataset and an annual conference. My original goal here was to develop a longitudinal data project that would
produce research toward my tenure requirement,
build a large network of entrepreneurship educators, and
improve how people taught entrepreneurship
Mistake #1: I did not understand the resources it would take to sustain a longitudinal global research study, so the data gathering petered out after two years (although, a core group of more experienced researchers are now rebooting the project with a strong plan for sustainability).
Mistake #2: I did not have a strategy or structure to scale or sustain this project. As the number of participating faculty grew into the hundreds, and it became necessary to translate our survey into dozens of languages, and coordinate the timing of administering, aggregating and sharing data around the world, I got buried and lost interest.
Ask for help (not only is it OK, it improves the chances of success)
Have some semblance of a resource plan (what it might take, and where those resources might come from)
It is good to share personal experience with students, particularly as it relates to the sort of things they are learning about and doing in the class. It creates connections that, I believe, allow students to feel more comfortable asking for help and taking risks. In addition to the business I try to start every semester, I try to model what I ask of my students in “real” businesses, and try to be very transparent in sharing those journeys with my students.
If you are teaching entrepreneurship, don’t forget to practice it, and to be transparent in sharing that experience with students.
I have been experimenting and daydreaming for many years about how education could be better for students (and, by extension, for faculty like me). More engaging. More productive. More lasting. More realistic. More fun.
There have been a plethora of articles, studies, and information put into the universe lately about innovative disruptions to the education system. From around the world (Finland to Japan). From here in the US. While some approaches are “cutting-edge”, some approaches have been around for a very long time. TED and other programs are getting in on the fun.
Most recently, my good friend and fellow education innovator Alex Bruton shared this Mindvalley Academy video with me. It is a very promising approach, but not quite there yet. I provide the transcript of the video below, and the some thoughts and reactions (search for “Thoughts and Reactions” to skip through the transcript).
No literate inquisitive, and imaginative person needs to go to college unless in need of a union card, or degree at the certified physician, lawyer, or teacher, or unless he requires access to certain heavy and expensive equipment for scientific research.
Yet when Watts wrote that in 1972, he couldn’t even have imagined what would be happening in the world today, with new technologies, rapid change, and shifts in how companies recruit. That would all combine to further make college kind of useless.
The Good Points of College
But the thing is, college has numerous good points:
We grow up.
We make deep meaningful connections.
We meet the friends and find the interests that ultimately define us.
So how can we completely re-engineer college to keep all of the good and disrupt all of the bad, obsolete points? Well, we think we have an idea. A new model that radically rethinks college. That questions all the rules about how we’ve been conditioned to believe education should look like, and takes advantage of emerging technologies, new social movements, new types of knowledge accessibility and new research on what truly creates happy, successful, fulfilled lives.
Ready to catch a glimpse? Okay, before I reveal this new model, first you gotta know what makes modern college so absurd in the first place. Let’s start with the length of time. So you take a teenager and you plant him in a bubble for 4 years. Same campus, surrounded by other nineteen-year-olds. Problem is, in today’s world things are changing at an exponential pace. Peter Diamandis said that between 2016 and 2022 there will be as many changes in the world due to exponential technology growth as between all of 1900 to 2000. Wow!
So we have kids coming out of college with knowledge that has become totally obsolete in their four years on campus.
So what if we got rid of this four-year model? What if instead kids went to college for one month of the year. And then spend 11 months in the field. You know. Doing real work. Like having a job or starting a business. And then they come back for one month every year. What if this did not stop when you’re 22? What if it continued? What if this four years was stretched out? So you come back one month every year for 48 years? Sounds crazy. Hold on, we’re just getting started.
Second, what if we got rid of expensive campuses? Think about all of that wasted tuition fees. I was stuck in the same campus in Ann Arbor Michigan for four years. But the world is so much bigger. What if we did away with fixed campuses and instead move this college to a different city every year? What if we picked international amazing cities? Like Berlin, Singapore, Barcelona. Places filled with culture, places you dream of visiting? What if we could drop the price by ten-fold? No campus means huge cost savings.
But now, let’s look at another odd design about college. They say you are the sum of the five people closest to you. But at college you’re hanging out with other 19 year olds. What could you learn from the average 19 year old if you’re 19? When I went to college, I remember my freshman year, the coolest guys were the ones that could sneak is into a frat parties or buy us liquor. Not exactly brilliant. So, what if we disrupted this? What if age did not matter? Your friends could be 19 or 30 or 50. We learn from the wisdom of our elders. They learn from you. Age becomes irrelevant.
But then, there’s the curriculum itself. Neil Gaiman, the legendary writer, said of school:
I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.
And you know what I’m talking about. Yes, you get a 4-year degree. But does it need 4 years? More and more of the job related aspects of college are free online. Harvard, Berkeley, MIT – their courses are now online. Just go to edX.org. You can learn anything from app development to physics for free. Study the classes you need for your chosen career, but why do we waste 4 years on a fixed campus, hanging out with 19 year olds, trying to get enough credits to fill some arbitrary degree that we might never ever use? The world is changing so fast. Many of the top jobs today were not available as college degrees a mere five years ago.
So what do you teach? You teach what Neil Gaiman preached – real-world skills:
How to lead, how to create a vision for your life, how to be a better parent, spouse, lover.
How to have healthy self-esteem and emotional intelligence.
Goal setting, crafting a vision for your life, entrepreneurship.
Personal growth skills, like how to keep fit and healthy, practice meditation and mindfulness.
These are the skills that truly lead to happy, successful lives. But you do not learn this in college. Which brings us to the teachers.
What About The Teachers?
Are the best teachers in the world today in the world’s universities? Not always, and here’s why. Teachers today have their hands tied more than ever. To survive as a teacher in a classical system, you are often rewarded for the research, much much more than your actual teachings. So as a student, you don’t always get the best learning experience. Books offered are quite dry, and classes not too engaging, leading you to disconnect and not truly retain the knowledge you’ve been given.
Those who have a true passion for teaching find themselves gravitating out of the traditional system. The very best teachers are the ones writing best-selling books, building their businesses, speaking at large seminars, speaking on the Ted stage. They have transcended the need to be stuck on a singular campus. Colleges may have great researchers and scientists. But not necessarily the best teachers. So what if you could learn from these people?
What if your teacher was someone whose work was so profound, he has sold 20 million books. Or broken a Guinness record. Or was a New York Times bestselling author. The best in the fields.
So let’s recap:
No more four years. It’s now one month a year.
No fixed campus. You move to a different spectacular city every year.
No fixed age. Your peers come from all around the world. And are of all ages.
No outdated curriculums. You learn the skills that actually matter to happiness and success and making an impact on the planet.
And your teachers are the best in the world.
But wait, despite all of this, college does have some good bits. You meet some of your best friends in the world, you form your character, find your community, and create incredible memories.
So what if we can retain and amplify these good parts, and disrupt and reinvent all the obsolete parts?
What would education look like then? We think we have an idea.
First, you don’t come to this for four years. You come for one month and then you go back into the regular world.
Now about the campus, rather than have a regular campus we take some of the most exciting exhilarating cities in the world. For 2017 it’s Barcelona. Hundreds of students are coming to Barcelona in June to join this new type of education model.
Next, age. It doesn’t matter if you’re 17 of 70. Everyone moves to this city together. Using Airbnb and other tools we make the city our living space. Our playground. The community works together in shared co-working spaces, form their own networking groups, and attend exciting new classes together.
And now about those classes. These are no ordinary trainings and certainly no ordinary teachers. Imagine a faculty that consists of some of the greatest minds in human development. For this upcoming beta project in Barcelona you might take a class from the likes of Neale Donald Walsh, who wrote the best-selling book series Conversations With God which sold 20 million copies. Or learn from Eric Edmeades, who trains people on the art of masterful communication, one of the key skills that will help you to ascend your career. Or study with Wim Hof, who holds over a dozen Guinness records and can teach you how to hone your mind and body to superhuman levels. Or study with some of the world’s top entrepreneurship and personal growth programs. Like Lifebook. Or learn to hack your mind with Marisa Peer, the hypnotherapist who works with A-list celebs and Olympians. Or learn mindfulness from Gelong Thubten, who trained the actors of Doctor Strange on Eastern philosophy.
But it’s more than just classes. Throughout the month, we organize meet-ups, masterminds, networking groups, volunteer opportunities. All to allow the students here to connect and bond and forge great friendships. After all a Harvard study said that the single greatest determinant of your happiness in life “is going to be the strength of your social connections”. With the social opportunities we create, and the fact that you can return every year for the rest of your life to plug-in, grow and re-connect, you’ll never feel lonely again.
You Found Your Tribe
And about that tribe. It’s not just young people. It’s all ages. It’s utter rubbish that we designed a society where we think you’re meant to see the end to college life by 23. On our campus you meet people of ages. Even families attending with their kids. Fathers and sons. Mothers and daughters. Teenagers and people in their fifties and beyond. All connecting, learning and being part of one international tribe. A curated community of people bound together by a desire to grow, to connect and craft epic lives. This is Mindvalley U. And our first city campus is in Barcelona. It’s happening this June 2017. Stop by for a month. Or a week. Or just attend a specific lecture. But know that no matter what you choose you’re participating in an experiment to redefine education. In the past decade we’ve reinvented the phone. The car. The TV. Now it’s time to reinvent how we learn. So you can choose to live an ordinary life. Same city. Same job. Same style of parenting and relationships and daily 9-5 as everyone else. Or you can choose to question everything. Welcome to a new style of education.
Thoughts and Reactions
Yes, college is about meaningful social connections.
Yes, 4 years is too long to keep young people in a bubble.
Yes, a physical campus is unnecessary. Not only is it unnecessary, it is dangerous. It enables students, faculty, staff, and administration to stay in a bubble, not threatened by the real world. It creates one more barrier to students experiencing the pain and wonder of reality.
Yes, higher education institutions tend to house a relatively homogenous group of students, certainly in terms of age and range of life (in)experience.
Yes, the typical curriculum does not present students with timely skills and competencies they can quickly put to use in their career path.
Yes, the majority of teachers are untrained. Most doctoral programs prepare researchers, not teachers. Because research is the currency in higher ed, teaching is often seen as a distraction.
One month of “school” out of every 12 months is an interesting proposition. Spending that month immersed in a different amazing city makes it an even more interesting proposition.
But . . .very few people can take a month off from their real lives. Very few people have the financial means to live in Barcelona or Berlin or Singapore for a month. We need to somehow utilize technology to provide the opportunity for anyone to come together, at any time, in real time. A big-shot from New York City. A farmer from a small village in rural Nigeria. A family living on the streets of Beijing. The experience becomes much richer when more “real” people can engage when their curiosity is piqued and/or when their circumstance necessitates it.
Those leading the learning are posited as the “greatest minds in human development”.
But . . .one significant barrier to students learning is that they don’t see themselves in the teachers. Mindvalley U exacerbates this disconnect. Students will struggle to identify with someone who sold 20 million books, who holds multiple Guiness records, who works with A-list celebs and Olympians. Many people without such success can deliver an equally powerful experience that would be easier for students to identify with.
In trying to reinvent education, we need to focus on the outcome, for the customer. What are students (customers) supposed to be able to do after their experience in higher ed? I firmly believe they should be able to embark upon a career path that is meaningful to them.
They need to identify what would be meaningful work to them. That means they need accurate previews, and short bursts of experience.
They need to develop skills necessary to sell, to build relationships, to create value. They will be selling themselves to potential employers or investors. They need to building relationships with a network to help them open doors and gain experience. They need to create value for some organization in order to carve out a living.
They need freedom to explore and discover, but with some pretty amazing guides who help them frame their experiences.
I am uncertain how to reinvent education, but I know it sorely needs to be reinvented. Mindvalley U is a valiant attempt, but it falls short in some critical areas.
What do you think a reinvented education system looks like?
The students are in no position to assemble a deck for an investor. Knowing the components necessary to tell a story successfully to an investor is a critical lesson for anyone wanting to build a scalable business. The Airbnb deck has those components. Each student must fill in a template of that deck about their idea.
OK, ok. They basically struggle with every slide except the first one (and some even struggle there!) They understand why they need to tell a powerful story, and how hard it is to tell a powerful story.
I then shock my students.
I have them fill out a second deck. They are the product.
Students need to see themselves as a product with value. They need to understand how to position that value in the marketplace. They need to get comfortable selling themselves to potential employers. They struggle even more with this deck, but past students have told me this is one of the most valuable experiences in their college tenure.
Selling Through a Story
I want my students to understand that they need to always be selling. As an employee, they are selling a product or service, to internal or external customers. As an entrepreneur, they are selling product or service, selling value, selling equity. They are selling possibility, they are selling reality (hopefully!), they are selling solutions to problems.
Talk to your students about storytelling.
Make your students tell their entrepreneurial story.
Make your students tell their personal story.
It will hurt, but it is a powerful exploration they need to take.
It is still amazing to me after working with hundreds of students and entrepreneurs for many years how quickly everyone wants to build solutions. I guess it makes sense – that is the “fun” part – but I try, often in vain, to get my students to understand that time spent engaging with customers now will exponentially increase their chances of 1) killing bad ideas sooner and 2) building solutions people actually want.
Which Customers are Early Adopters?
While some will argue that early adopters can’t be found, I push my students hard to think through what segments would be ideal early adopters, meaning people who:
have the problem my students are trying to solve
know they have the problem, and
are actively seeking a solution
Where Are My Early Adopters?
In two modules of FOCUS Framework, we learn how to differentiate customers into early adopter, early majority, late majority and laggard buckets based on the 3 categories above, then we map out 4 or 5 of our own customer segments. What I particularly like about this exercise it is forces us to think about what behaviors early adopters engage in, and then to dig one important step deeper, what externally observable behaviors they engage in. For instance, for my idea of delivering on demand career advice to college students, behaviors early adopters would engage in might include:
But I cannot identify what specific individuals are engaging in these behaviors, and thereby targeting them for problem interviews. So I need to convert these behaviors to actions they take that allows me to identify who they are, and ideally, make contact with them. The behaviors become:
Reviews career center on the career center Facebook page
Tweets with #interview or #jobsearch or #employment
Reviews career-related workshops on the workshop Facebook event page
Now I know where I can start looking for potential early adopters. I have trolled my university’s various Facebook pages and Twitter accounts related to our career center and related events and groups, and have found a plethora of students there who are providing very passionate reviews (both positive and negative). Targeting customers in this way allows me to be much more productive in my customer development.
In my entrepreneurship class, I push students to start a business within the semester (evidenced by achieving authentic sales from strangers for something that they “created”). It is a scary landscape for my students. Instead of just talking them through it, I lead them through it; I hold myself to the same standard and also try to start a business within the semester.
College Students Need Better Career Advice
We find problems through personal experience and observation. Having engaged with hundreds of (mostly business) students every semester for 6 years (and having been a student a few years back), a problem I recognized is that students are dramatically unprepared for the uncertainty they will soon face. And, more importantly, I see tons of them actively scrambling to find resources to help them prepare. It is not just a problem I observe, it is a problem I see them actively trying to solve, and I hear from them that the solutions they are finding tend to be inadequate.
First we identify a problem: College students cannot find timely, actionable career preparedness advice in an easily digestible format they enjoy
Then we frame our problem as a question: “How can we provide timely, engaging on-demand career advice for college students?”
Then we reframe the question to lead us to more powerful conversations with potential customers: “How can we get students excited about their freedom?” or “How can we prepare students to create their future?”
Assumptions Will Sink You
As we prepare to engage with potential customers through problem interviews, we want to also be able to acknowledge the assumptions we come into the conversation with. These are the leaps of faith, so can make or break our journey. Deliberately investigating our assumptions will help us experiment more effectively. The Assumptions Mapping Worksheet available from David Bland and his team at Precoil is a great resource to identify out desirability (“do they want this?”), viability (“should I do this?”), and feasibility assumptions (“can I do this?”).
Some of my assumptions:
College business students want help preparing for their career
College and online career preparedness/advice resources are inadequate
College students are scared of the uncertainty of post-college
College students will pay for targeted, on-demand career advice
What About The Customers?
My students want to get talking to potential customers. They want to learn about their problems. They want to sell them a solution. It’s really hard to be patient, and to prepare adequately for engaging customers. But it’s critical to do so methodically. I encourage them to really work on formulating a solid problem, and dig really deep to identify their assumptions. Next step is to do some work (through the FOCUS Framework worksheets “Who Are Your Early Adopters?” and “Your Early Adopters” by Justin Wilcox) to narrow down on the specific niche who will hopefully be our early adopters. For me, I’m thinking that niche will be 2nd semester junior business students. Freshman and sophomores aren’t quite there yet in terms of the urgency. Seniors often think they are all set, or just don’t care. Generalities here of course. We’ll get some planning done with these two worksheets and be much better prepared to talk to the right potential customers about the right problem so when we get to a solution we’re building the right solution.
What are your thoughts about this journey? Any suggestions for how to improve it? Any steps I’m missing?
I have one last semester here at Illinois State University before beginning a new chapter as the John J. Kahl, Sr., Chair in Entrepreneurship at John Carroll University. As usual, I am working on another iteration of my Entrepreneuship I course.
Entrepreneurship Requires a Goal
As always, I want students to develop a way of thinking and a few tools to enable them to act entrepreneurially in whatever career path they pursue. In other words, my goal is to empower them to develop an entrepreneurial mindset, and to provide them tools to act entrepreneurially. The vehicle I use for their learning is a startup; each student is challenged to start with a problem to solve and progress during the semester to achieve authentic sales from a stranger by the end of the semester. Most won’t make it. Most won’t even come close to that. But the journey is what is important.
Entrepreneurs Need to FOCUS
I have experimented with a ton of tools in this course over the last 6 years – books, simulations, web-based tools. I want something that students will intuitively understand and immediately be able to turn into action. My latest favorite tool for this is the FOCUS Framework. The wizard behind the curtain, Justin Wilcox, has been fantastic working with me to customize a solution for my students. Because the goal of his framework is to find product-market fit, and because it is a digital combination of videos, examples, and intuitive tools, it is a powerful way to engage my students.
Entrepreneurs Need to Sprint
The other process I will introduce to my students is the Sprint process outlined by the amazing folks at Google Ventures. The ideas behind this process are “that the biggest challenges require less time, not more; that individuals produce better solutions than teams; and that you can test anything in one week by building a realistic façade.” Makes sense to me!
Where We Are
As with anyone working on a startup, I create an environment of chaos. Students have control over their entire experience – I suggest tools, assignments, challenges they should use, I provide feedback and offer myself and my network as resources. The journey has to be theirs, and I need to be there to support it with everything I have.
So far, they have identified problems that matter to them. Some are big (building a community and scalable process to improve battered women’s self-esteem). Some are not (offer students small repair service cheaper than the landlords). I hammer them with the thought of focusing on problems instead of ideas.
They have written a personal press release to establish their goal, envision sharing that goal, and setting a path to achieve that goal. They are practicing reframing their problems into more powerful questions that will lead them to more effective solutions.
Here is our roadmap – of course, as with any good entrepreneur, it is a very fluid plan that I adjust based on my customers’ (students) experience. I have encouraged the students to work at their own pace, and that, as with entrepreneurship, there are no boundaries, there is only their ambition, drive, grit. Some students wait for me to tell them the next step. Some students are already well down the road. Some are lost. Some are on point. It’s amazing chaos!
I look forward to sharing this journey, and to your feedback. Please let me know your thoughts on what I could be doing to better create a real experience for my students.
I have recently had many inquiries from entrepreneurship educators about how I structure my class. Apparently, many think how I approach my classroom experience is “novel”, “pushes the boundaries”, is “scary” or “crazy” and a host of other awesome descriptors. To me, it’s just common sense.
As an entrepreneur and an educator, I view my classroom as one continuous experiment.
As an entrepreneur, my students are my customers.
As an educator, my students are my customers.
Therefore, I need to continually understand their perspective and experience, and work with them to create the value they are seeking. I talk to them, as human beings. I observe them in action interviewing customers, designing and building business. I get to know them personally. I trust them. And they trust me. Students exploring entrepreneurship should emerge with an understanding of what it feels like to be an entrepreneur. They should emerge with the mindset of an entrepreneur. They should emerge with skills around customer development, design, collaboration, and experimentation.
The Promise of Entrepreneurship Education
The promise of entrepreneurship education, to me, is that students can gain the confidence and mindset necessary to engineer their own future, whether that be a path up the corporate ladder, following in a parent’s footsteps in the family business, being a change agent in their local community, or landing their mug on the cover of Forbes or Inc. or Time.
The Essence of an Entrepreneurship Educator
I see my job as creating the most realistic entrepreneurial experience possible for my students, inviting them to dive in, and mentoring them through it. Sounds simple right? Not even close – it’s essentially having 30+ independent studies each semester. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. It is draining in every sense of the word. It is frustrating, it is confusing, it is dangerous. But above all else, it is invigorating and gloriously rewarding. I wouldn’t do it any other way. So, more specifically, how do I do it?
An Authentic Entrepreneurship Classroom Experience
It seems to students and most others that there is very little structure in my class experience. But that is just an illusion – there is some initial structure so my students and I can develop a common vocabulary and roadmap. Here are the main resources I have found helpful to kickstart my classroom experience:
I begin by having students read Diana Kander’s book All In Startup. It’s pure awesomeness, and if you’re teaching entrepreneurship without it, you’re missing the most engaging resource available today.
Once students have digested Diana’s book, we spend one class session diving into the VentureBlocks simulation. It’s quick and painless and an unbelievable powerful customer development experience for the students. In Diana’s book, we talk conceptually about identifying, observing, and interviewing customers and more. In VentureBlocks, students turn that learning into action, but in a safe environment of an online simulation.
I then turn their attention to the great work of Justin Wilcox, and more particularly the series of posts on Interviewing Customers. His material and message is elegantly simple, and his format is quick and dirty multimedia so students enjoy digesting it.
I plow through all of this in 5 weeks max (our class meets twice a week for 75 minutes each session). In parallel to the work mentioned above, I also am pushing students to develop ideas to work on during the semester. I hammer at them the notion of focusing on problems. I get them brainstorming their own problems. I encourage them to observe people in a variety of settings (stores, restaurants, parks, schools, churches, in traffic, etc.) to identify problems others have in their daily routines. My point here is to get them used to observing and being attentive to their surroundings. To identify a problem beyond their college campus experience that is reasonable to attack and get a basic solution to within a semester. I work with them to massage their ideas to be big enough to challenge them but not so big that it overwhelms them.
This first five weeks in particular is intense and overwhelming and a little confusing, but as I tell my students, “welcome to entrepreneurship!”
The Entrepreneurship Educator’s Goal: Student Confidence and Competence
At the end of the five weeks, my goal is for students to emerge with:
A basic idea in place (rooted in an actual problem they know people experience),
An understanding and level of basic comfort about identifying, approaching, and interviewing customers, and
A basic roadmap to product-market fit
I then invite real angel investors (not VC – angles are much better for this environment as they tend to be more interested in the people and the ideas than a typical VC) into class and students pitch their ideas and roadmap. The investors shred them, but with some good constructive feedback. That is week 6. After week 6, in addition to the idea, understanding, and roadmap mentioned above, students emerge with confidence and excitement about their path going forward. Because real investors have “validated” their experience thus far and given them encouragement and guidance going forward.
From that point, it’s game on. They go and do. This is where all hell breaks loose, because 30+ students are independently struggling to navigate the uncertainties of entrepreneurship and using me as their main resource. I have accumulated a massive list of a variety of resources that I can pull from for each individual student depending on their needs – feel free to check it out and let me know what you think, what’s missing, etc.
My Offer to You
I love to talk about how others “teach” entrepreneurship (I always have to put that in quotes because I truly do not believe it’s possible), to give honest feedback on classroom approaches, exercises, syllabi, etc. I invite you to reach out here and let me know how I can help you enrich your classroom experience.
After kicking off another iteration of my classroom adventure experiment, students have organized into a couple camps. Some have been in nearly constant contact with me outside of class – asking great probing questions, seeking feedback on steps taken and planned next steps. Some have engaged but only in class. Some have skipped town. Two of the skippers came into class with a “business” already and are pushing back that they don’t need this “customer interviewing stuff”. We are wrapping up what I would very loosely call the customer discovery module of the course. I invited students to create the following documents, to peer review each others’ work, and to get my feedback:
Concept Brief. And I do mean brief – like 2 sentences at most (and hopefully more like 4 or 5 words). I need them to learn about being able to communicate their idea very concisely. I got a bunch of these, but none that were very concise, which I told them indicates they need to think about it much more and narrow their ideas down.
Customer Problem Interview Script. I challenged them to identify their riskiest assumption about their customer-problem relationship, and to develop three questions that would provide them accurate information to evaluate that assumption. I got a bunch of these but with some pretty awful questions/approaches across the board. Students want to ask yes/no questions, or gather simple demographic information. I worked with many of them to understand why and how to use open-ended questions. More about this below.
Customer Observation. I wanted them to get out and covertly videotape customers engaging in the problem, then write up a short reaction paper explaining the what/why and lessons learned from this activity. I haven’t received any of these yet.
Students should have finished Diana Kander’s All In Startup book. This lays a powerful foundation for the process going forward, and particularly for the why and how to engage with customers. I then moved them into playing the VentureBlocks simulation during one 75 minute class period. This is a really great bridge between the classroom and the real world. Many of my students are very unsure of approaching and engaging with customers. I find this simulation is a fantastic way for them to gain more confidence in doing so. It is very quick – I spend about 60 minutes max (most students seemed to finish it in about 45) running it. Tomorrow we will debrief all the customer discovery work we’ve been doing (or not!) Diana’s book. VentureBlocks. Pounding the pavement learning. Most of us have not made it too far, because we are uncertain and lack confidence to reach out and search for certainty. Finding and interviewing customers is very messy, especially for young students who have never been pushed to take their learning out of the classroom and to take control of their learning. I see them scared, and I like that. It provides me the work I most enjoy – supporting them and mentoring them through that fear.
Next we move into the define stage of the class, where we redefine and focus our questions based on insights from the customer discovery phase, and develop our point of view (i.e. an actionable problem statement). I will push them to write a guiding statement that focuses on specific users, and insights and needs that we uncovered during the customer discovery phase, and to develop a solution-generation springboard that frames the problem, inspires people we meet to engage with us, guides our innovation efforts, and provides a focusing reference point. In this phase, I’ll ask them to develop user personas and composite character profiles, to concentrate on point-of-view, and build a new concept brief focusing on their unique value proposition.
Waiting, Waiting, Waiting
I reminded all the students that entrepreneurship is a mindset and that what we’re working toward here isn’t a successful startup, but an ingrained way of thinking and engaging with our environment. I find my students get hung up on the goal and aren’t good at paying attention to the learning during the process. They have been trained to wait by a dormant education system.I’m working hard to awaken that innate love of curiosity and learning we all started with. I succeed with some, and don’t with others.
I find myself in an interesting place this semester. I have come up with an idea I truly care about, that I think represents a significant problem that I wouldn’t mind working to solve. Previous semesters, I just went through the motions as a means of developing trust with my students and to model the process. But this semester is different. Helping hungry children get food is a noble goal, and something I want to work at. I am finding there are many processes in place to address this massive problem, but most are pretty ineffective and contain way too many cooks in the proverbial kitchen.
I have found it very hard to interview parents of these children. Ideally, I could identify them through the school district, but of course that’s not possible. I could make some very ignorant and stereotypical guesses based on where folks live in town. That’s not helpful. I have asked some friends in town who work closely with some non-profits to put me in touch with some parents. No word back yet. In the meantime I’ve been talking to a number of grocery store managers, as they are a second customer in my business model.
The large corporate grocery stores, I am consistently told, have policies in place for how to “dispose of expired and nearly-expired items”. I of course am quick to point out that expired or nearly expired food has considerable life beyond their shelves. Basically, the produce and similar perishable food they throw out in their dumpsters. The other non-perishable food they distribute to a variety of organizations in the community (food banks, churches, shelters, etc.) In my interviews with these managers, they are following corporate policy and basically don’t think about the food once it is gone. Changing their mind and their actions is going to be next to impossible.
The smaller, more local grocery stores are a different story. They follow a similar procedure to the corporate folks, but are more open to other possibilities, and have much more flexibility. One common theme I did hear during my 6 or so interviews revolved around liability. Something I’ll have to keep in mind. But these managers/owners did express in my interviews (by non-verbals mostly) some uncertainty and frustration about what happened to the food and goods once they left their store. They did also acknowledge verbally problems with the system to what one called “redistributing the food we should all have access to”. I like that quote!
My next steps are working on connecting with parents of children who face daily struggle with hunger. Also to work on user personas/profiles and the beginnings of a solution springboard. It’s messy going, but I keep slogging through it, because the problem is one I want to help solve. That makes a huge difference. I try to get my students to understand that, but it’s tough to get them out of their “it’s just a class” mentality and truly engage and learn.
What would you do? Read below and share your thoughts on what customer development I should do
How can entrepreneurship classrooms be more authentic and scary?
Here We Go Again: A New Version of the Same Entrepreneurship Experiment
The great thing about teaching is I can rebirth my courses every semester. This semester is no different – here is the syllabus for this iteration of my grand experiment: Entrepreneurship I Syllabus.
I will still try to build a startup from the ground up, just like I ask my students to. I will likely fail again, as most of them do. Diana Kander’s All In Startup book is still there. It’s such a phenomenal resource for students to learn how to understand and interview customers. Customer development is where it all starts for us. Our ideas suck, but my students don’t believe me, so I want them interviewing customers about their problems from day one. This semester, I added Venture Blocks (aka the Nanu Challenge), which is an online 3D simulation for customer development. We start our semester juggling a few things (just like a real entrepreneur!):
Constantly share ideas and progress with each other (i.e. do work!)
Constantly give each other feedback (i.e. empower their colleagues to do work!)
Entrepreneurship Comes Alive
The backbone of the class is a design thinking approach, which is basically a human-centered approach to resolving problems and creating solutions. In my class, customers are the center of our universe – we solve their problems, and we co-create solutions that solve their problems.
We empathize with customers by observing, engaging, and immersing. We define and redefine our questions and points of view. We ideate and ideate and ideate with business models and experiments. We prototype our solutions by failing quickly and cheaply. We test our prototypes, our business models, our customer use cases. We sell and we plan for growth.
Within this backbone, chaos ensues. Some students already have concepts off the ground. Some struggle endlessly to pick an idea to run with. Some rip through 12 or 20 ideas during the semester. Each student takes their own journey – including me!
Here We Go Again
At various times in my life, I have lived in or engaged with pockets of poverty. Growing up in a privileged existence, these times have always been eye-opening to me. This semester, the idea I’ll work on is more meaningful to me, because it has more potential to really make an impact. Child hunger is a problem. A big problem. It’s insane that in this country, with such wealth and opportunity, we have to deal with such a disgusting problem. But we do.
This is not a new problem. There are people who don’t/can’t get access to adequate nutrition for their children. There are businesses that have and dispose of excess food. There are a whole bunch of organizations and efforts working to close that gap and solve this problem. Food pantries. Soup kitchens. Churches. Organizations like No Kid Hungry and Feeding America. The list goes on. It’s not working. Or, if it is working, it’s not working fast enough. So, I’m going to take a design thinking and lean approach to solving this problem.
Working Up to an Entrepreneurial Idea
I lived in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Park Slope, Brooklyn years ago. I loved talking to my neighbors, trying to understand their past and present. But it was sad also, learning about their struggles – the kind I have never known. One theme in many of those conversations that stuck out to me was pride.
Many folks I talked to struggled to have enough resources to live – food, money, whatever – but wouldn’t take handouts. I heard the same theme when I was talking to some folks living in poverty during a recent trip to San Diego. People were willing to go to extraordinary lengths and take huge risks to get the very basics. But they wouldn’t take handouts; although they often didn’t have enough food to feed their children, they would not go to a food pantry or a soup kitchen or take food stamps. I am not here to say whether that’s right or wrong, it is what it is. But it is. Other folks I talked to found it too difficult to get to the places where the food might be available. They had to spend money to get there, money they didn’t have. They had to spend time to get there – maybe time away from family members they couldn’t spend away. For whatever reason, here is a segment of society not engaging with the “middleman” of this food cycle.
My idea is to take out the middleman. There has to be a way to get discarded food from establishments discarding it directly to people who struggle to put enough food in their children’s bellies. Transportation as a service. Not quite sure but that’s the beauty of this class experience – I don’t need a plan, because my customers will point the way.
Just as my students do, I confront a few “duh” concerns – many highlighted by some great entrepreneurs with whom I shared the idea for feedback. Liability and bad PR of dealing with potentially bad food. Logistics of food delivery. Establishments writing off instead of donating goods/food. On a more local level, as in our community here, the lack of proper storage for perishable items. So I need to talk to lots of establishment owners and managers and such (grocery stores, restaurants, etc.) to understand their process of disposing of excess food and goods, and why they make that choice. I need to talk to parents of children who struggle to feed them, to understand what they do to combat that problem, and to eventually get feedback on the solution I invite them to co-create with me. I would love to be able to pick up food from stores around town, drive to a common location where many of these parents live, and in full Lloyd Dobbler style, blast out an announcement of “food is here, come and get it!”