Category Archives: Spring 2015

Missed Opportunities

RolledTenDollarBill-289x300The Big Challenge

Two weeks ago I presented my students a $10 challenge modeled after an exercise John Liddy conducted at Syracuse University. The challenge was I gave each group $10 and instructed them to make as much money (legally) as they could – whichever group made the most would get all the money from all the groups. John’s students turned $50 into $170 in 2 days. I gave my students one week (but it turned into two as I missed one class with the flu). My students missed the opportunity, unfortunately. One group made $64, one group made $26, and the other four groups didn’t do anything (gain or lose). My students turned $50 into $130 in 2 weeks.


The $26 group tried selling hot dogs outside a bar on Valentine’s Day. Due to poor planning, that didn’t happen, so Plan B was selling them at a house party. The $64 group did their own individual projects – one student provided massages, one student tried selling advertising through selfies, one student gambled. The groups that didn’t make any progress reported that the problem was poor (or non-existent) communication. I wonder why the students didn’t seize this opportunity? Lack of confidence? Lack of motivation? Lack of understanding? I’m not sure, but I’ve got to figure out how to get them motivated and believing they can accomplish these sort of challenges. These are such rich learning opportunities – they practice skills necessary to be entrepreneurs, they learn about their abilities, their shortcomings, and the list goes on.


Looking toward spring break coming up, I want the students to begin thinking about solutions. I talked to them a bit about traction, which generally comes from a great book by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares. As they cite:

“Traction is basically quantitative evidence of customer demand. So if you’re in enterprise software, [initial traction] may be two or three early customers who are paying a bit; if you’re in consumer software, the bar might be as high as hundreds of thousands of users . . . It’s the Supreme Court definition of porn. You’ll know it when you see it”
– Naval Ravikant, founder of AngelList

I asked students to review the links below that provide information about the basic traction channels for a startup and to send me their thoughts on which channels they will use for their business and why. In addition, we will have an Idea Fair in class on March 5 – as this is the day before Spring Break, this will set the stage for beginning to work on solutions when the return from break.

Traction Channels

1. Viral Marketing:
2. Public Relations (PR):
3. Unconventional PR:
4. Search Engine Marketing (SEM):
5. Social and Display Ads:
6. Offline Ads:
7. Search Engine Optimization (SEO):
8. Content Marketing:
9. Email Marketing:
10. Engineering as Marketing:
11. Target Market Blogs:
12. Business Development (BD):
13. Sales:
14. Affiliate Programs:
15. Existing Platforms:
16. Trade Shows:
17. Offline Events:
18. Speaking Engagements:
19. Community Building:

We’ve covered problem, we’ve covered customer, we’ve covered value proposition. We’re now turning to generating traction for a solution to that problem for those customers. Now the fun really begins! I don’t have the level of engagement I would like with this cohort of students. I’ll keep working on that and hopefully it gets a little stronger as we move into solutions (where they all want to go naturally).

Driving in Really Bad Fog

This course this semester is like driving in really bad fog. I think I know where I’m going (based on a mix of memory and experience), but can’t be sure. I can’t see where the next turn is. I can’t see what’s coming toward me. It’s scary and exciting at the same time.


Heart pumps a little faster. Palms are a little sweatier. Mind is a little sharper. I like it.


I had to deal with the inevitable wintertime flu nonsense, so I had to cancel class on Tuesday. Aside from that, I’ve made myself quite busy with a variety of projects. I have a much better understanding of how students can slack off in this class; because I have no overt accountability built into this experience, it’s easily the first thing to let slide. When other projects and illness take over, starting my business in this class goes on the shelf. I’ve still been talking to students, and working a bit on the business, but by no stretch have I devoted as much time and energy to it as I should have.

Forward Progress

I keep talking to students, but am not sure they are the right ones (foggy!) I talked to 14 business students, 8 IT students, 4 technology students, and 5 communication students. I have previously validated that a problem exists with students wanting to more easily connect with each other. Next I worked on channels – how do they want to connect? I hypothesized that Facebook and Reggienet (our learning management system that everyone loves to hate) would be the channels they indicated. I asked them:

1. How they communicated with students in their own courses. 90% (28/31) indicated Facebook and Reggienet.

2. How they communicated with students in their discipline but not in their courses. 74% (23/31) indicated Facebook and Reggienet. The other popular answer here was student clubs/organizations.

3. How they communicated with students outside their discipline in their own courses. 77% (24/31) said they only had majors in their courses (juniors and seniors so that’s typical). Note to self: interview freshman and sophomores about this

4. How they communicate with students outside their discipline and not in their courses. 68% (21/31) said they didn’t. When pushed further they indicated the need to do so at various points in their college careers. They also indicated they didn’t know who “the good students” were in other disciplines, how to verify that/vet them, and how to go about connecting. Note to self: you’re on the right track!


I’m fairly confident that Facebook and Reggienet are good channels to use. But it doesn’t feel complete (foggy!) Just a gut instinct, but I’m going to trust it, and keep digging. Next steps – talk to more freshman and sophomores to get their perspective. And talk to more students about the tools they use to communicate. Once I nail this one, then I’ll have problem, customer, and channel validated. I will begin working on what sort of traction plan I want to roll out once I start working on the solution.


I am getting a much better sense of how this course feels for my students. I feel almost guilty that I haven’t done more, but I know I’m doing what I can given other constraints. Or at least that’s what I tell myself! I think I know next steps I can take, but I get how the students might feel lost and stuck, not knowing what to do next. I don’t like giving them structure, and I offer them every opportunity to reach out to me. But maybe I need to be a little more proactive in staying connected with their progress. Maybe that will make it less foggy for them.


You Know I’m All About That Value Proposition

And Now a Word From Our Sponsors

We started class with 2 minutes of questions. Nothing of substance. I think I would be a little brave and ask some borderline questions if I were in their shoes. But maybe not (it’s hard for me to remember back 20 years!!) I hope by the end of the semester they’re comfortable and curious enough to really dig into me. While it did kill the cat, it also helps us figure out and be amazed by our environment.

Photo Credit: Fuddled via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Fuddled via Compfight cc

We also had a brief presentation from the folks behind the Illinois Business Concierge – a small business support system offering business intelligence and connections. This is an awesome service coming from the Stevenson Center at ISU to help entrepreneurs and small business owners with market research. For FREE!!!!!!!! they provide things such as consumer mailing lists, demographic profiles, competitor’s sales figures, financial benchmarking metrics, and so much more. Basically, if an entrepreneur or small business owner needs market research within Illinois, they knock it out. I wanted the students to hear this for when they get a little further down the road, because this sort of service and this sort of information can really propel them once they get a little traction. For those interested, contact these good folks at

Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

We are still reading Diana Kander’s book All In StartupThe chunk we read for this week (chapters 15-25) had to do with searching for facts and testing them in the real world (“successful entrepreneurs are detectives, not fortunetellers” as Diana notes).

All In StartupThe students are still digging the book, being able to put the learning into context, to absorb some important lessons and ways of thinking and doing through a different medium that is fun and engaging. Again, if you’re teaching entrepreneurship and don’t incorporate this book into your class, you’re missing the boat. Your students will thank you for it, I promise!

I wanted to continue to focus on pushing the students to identify a problem to solve. But at the last minute, realized that beating that dead horse would not help those who had, and would likely not help those who hadn’t. So what to do? AHA!!! Value proposition. I can put problems in a different context. This would 1) give those who had identified a problem a way to progress and 2) help those who hadn’t identified a problem a different perspective to uncover one.

Ask 100 people what a value proposition is, and you’ll get a ton of different answers. For this class/discussion I tell the students that a value proposition is simply the bundle of benefits/outcomes a customer receives from using a product/service. Keep it simple, stupid! I borrowed the class exercise from Alex Osterwalder’s book Value Proposition Design.

Value Proposition Design

Copyright Business Model Foundry AG The makers of Business Model Generation and Strategyzer

In this vein, the value proposition can be comprised of six elements, 3 from the value side and 3 from the customer side. Miraculously, the 3 match up from each side (go figure!) The customer elements are Customer Pains (what bothers them when trying to get a job done), Customer Gains (what benefits they want), and Jobs (what they’re trying to do). On the flip side, the value elements are Gain Creators (how the product/service will create gains), Pain Relievers (how the product/service will alleviate specific pains), and Products/Services (the stuff). Part of why I really enjoy Alex’s work is because he presents it in such a simple way, it’s so powerful and so easy to pick up. I gave the students his Ab-Lib Value Proposition Template to fill out – had them pair up and gave them 5 minutes to collaborate on one student’s and then had them switch for 5 minutes on the other student’s. They turn these in, Mike and I give them feedback, and they are then all off and running with a value proposition. The template basically has them fill in the blanks:

“Our ______________ (products and services) help(s) __________________ (customer segment) who want to ________________ (Customer Jobs to be done) by ___________________ (verb, i.e., reducing, avoiding) ______________________ (customer pain) and ______________________ (verb, i.e., increasing, enabling) ________________________ (customer gain). (unlike _______________________ (competing value propositions))”

The students who had something already made quick work of this. Although, in walking around and talking to some, I helped them realize they were missing some key elements and had just been focusing on the solution already. The students who didn’t have something already left with something. The lightbulb went on, and the excitement (or maybe relief!) was visible. It was a good day of class. With a value proposition in hand (I’m sending them feedback from Mike and I this morning) they will be able to really crank things up because they have some direction in mind, and they have the beginnings of a story to tell.

Challenge #2

Not many (in fact only 1) of the students took me up on the $1 Challenge from a few weeks back. I decided to try again, but this time raise the stakes. I stumbled across my friend John Liddy’s post about his students doing a challenge. I would give my students this challenge and see if we can’t outdo John’s class. The basics:

  • I split the class into 5 groups
  • Each team gets $10
  • Each team has 7 days to make a profit, any legal way they want
  • Next Tuesday, the team that makes the most profit wins all the money

John’s students returned a 340% net profit in only 2 days. My students will work on this for one week. This week includes Valentine’s Day – not a fact lost on me when I decided to do this.

Photo Credit: floralapp® user via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: floralapp® user via Compfight cc

Guys are notoriously and stereotypically horrible with this day, and with finding the right gift, doing the right thing, etc. for the special someone in their life. Plus, we often wait until the last minute so we’re desperate. Let’s see if any groups figure that out and capitalize. The groups immediately got to planning, figuring out their idea, their strategy, their location. Do they all work together with $10 or do they each take $2 and work independently? Do they do one single big event or do they try to stretch it out? Lots of variables at play here. One student asked on the way out what dollar I expect would be necessary to win. I hadn’t thought of it, but replied it will definitely need to be something in the 3 digits. If a group can’t turn $10 into at least $100 over the course of one week, they screwed up.

I’m going to keep up this challenge theme and give them some more throughout the semester. Things like Jim Hart’s marble game.

Next week I planned on talking more about the problem from the customer point of view. I’m not sure now what direction I’ll head – I’ll probably figure it out Sunday or Monday night and run with it, based on feedback I get from students between now and then. Stay tuned!

Class in Review: A Student’s Perspective!

This is the first in a series of posts by Jack Sutherland, a student in the class. Jack is the co-founder of Ideafeed, which was founded by “2 involved college students who were tired of the group-think and boring ideas coming out of the student organizations and internship teams they were a part of.” Jack also co-founded the Over Beers Podcast, where they “believe every great idea, every great story, and every great friend starts over a good ole’ cold one”. These are his words, thoughts, experiences, and opinions, unedited.

To preface this evaluation of sorts, coming into this class I knew that it would be a bit different than most classes taught anywhere. Doan is a forward thinking individual and that sets him up to be a successful entrepreneurship professor. I come from a 3 year startup background, working on successful startup teams in Chicago and in turn starting my own venture and a podcast. So some of the exercises I have experience in working with but definitely not in a classroom setting.

Good and the Bad

I will steal from our co-teacher Michael’s premise of weighing the Good and the Bad of this class experience so far. I think his post did a lot to explain how this course is going and challenged Doan’s thinking very well. Which is necessary and encouraged in this environment.

The Good

It has been very fun and exciting to share in an entrepreneurship journey with some of my peers in college. To this day, most of my experiences with this type of journey have been with people much older than me, so I enjoy the fact that students are exploring these avenues.

Doan has done an excellent job laying out the runway for students to launch these new ideas.

Photo Credit: MatthewCollier737 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: MatthewCollier737 via Compfight cc

One thing that I loved so far was that he used his resources available as a professor and purchased us all a copy of All In Startup. I can’t think of many professors who would go out of their way to purchase the book for a college class.

It is an interesting idea that Doan will be going through the same exact journey that we will be at the same times. There is an entrepreneurial bond that I have talked about with many people before, where if you have gone through it you immediately have a bond with other people who have done the same. This is important in the context of this class and whether or not students find a good experience from it.

To this date, this class has been a success for sure. I had a student next to me that I had known from other classes, and he was interested in dropping Doan’s class on the first day of the year because he wanted another elective. It took some time for me to convince him to stay and in talking to him about a potential business Idea he decided to stick it out. In just a few short weeks he already has outside customers. All it takes is a little encouragement and collaboration to get a great idea off the ground.

The Bad

I won’t necessarily call it the bad, but will call it the “Not So Good”.

As I mentioned above, the encouragement and collaboration is key in these type of entrepreneurship journeys. That is even an aspect of which Doan is trying to solve with his project. Yet, in this class there is no collaboration at all. We meet once a week, which trust me is completely alright by me, but if we wanted to meet more with people in our class to collaborate we would have to figure it out on our own and not everyone could make it, its just not feasible or readily available. If there was a co-working space for this class, I think the success rate and experience would be much more indicative of the startup environment found in most instances.

I will have to call Doan out on a certain way of thinking in this class. He has said a couple of times that he is going along with his project in this class for a goal to make a certain amount of money. In my short experience with startups and founders, if your end goal is to make money than you really won’t be creating the best value for your customer. I follow a very product-centric approach to my endeavors in the startup world and that is because the problems that I choose I am fully passionate about, to the point where solving the problem becomes more important than the money.

Photo Credit: LievenVM via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: LievenVM via Compfight cc

I don’t think Doan is necessarily wrong in his thinking; however, I do think that promoting that way of entrepreneurship could be more detrimental than otherwise. However, in the context of this class and the time frame we have, it may be a good goal. I think we should open that up for discussion.


As a student, and lover of all things entrepreneurship, this has been a great experience these last few weeks. Not only is Doan on a mission to help fix the issues surrounding higher-ed, he is always on a mission to encourage students to take a leap and experience something new. And that is a mission I can get behind!

Weeks 3 and 4 Recap

Here is Michael Luchies’ week 2 recap, in his own words

Week 3&4 Recap: I Disagree

My brain’s been scrambled lately, but I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my Tuesday’s in Doan’s class. I missed the recap for the third week, so I’m cramming weeks three and four together.

We’ve been covering asking the right questions, which is probably the most under-appreciated and underestimated aspect of testing an idea. Just one set of bad questions can taint the entire process and lead a future venture down the completely wrong path. Asking the right questions is a different type of boring skill that most creative entrepreneurially minded students don’t come hardwired with. It took me dozens of painfully bad interviews on Under30CEO to learn how to ask good questions.

Photo Credit: winzor2007 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: winzor2007 via Compfight cc

Let’s jump into my review for the past two weeks.

The Good:

The Topic: As mentioned above, this is a very important topic that isn’t discussed enough. Data doesn’t mean sh*t if it’s coming from the wrong place or addressing the wrong problem. By going over how questions shape the answers we receive, students can work to improve their researching process, which will greatly improve their results when trying to come up with a problem worth solving.

Problem Solvers: The majority of the class have their problems selected.


Still Jumping the Gun: I love their enthusiasm, and I was the exact same way; but jumping past the problem stage to a solution without properly determining if it’s worth solving is becoming a trend, and I’m a little concerned of the potential results.

Photo Credit: via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: via Compfight cc

Why Doesn’t the Problem Matter? So here is my beef with Doan. Maybe I’m being petty, but this is something I’m very passionate about, and I feel that this exact issue is what prohibited my entrepreneurship experience from being all it could’ve been years ago in a different entrepreneurship program.

When explaining that each student needs to have a problem to solve in the next week or so, Doan mentioned several times “I don’t care what the problem is – that doesn’t matter at all.”

I strongly disagree.

I understand the importance of not over-thinking it and just using an example to make sure the student will be able to go through the process, but how valuable is the process if it’s not carried out in a way that imitates what would happen outside of the classroom?

The problem that the student chooses to find a solution to influences every single aspect of the process from then on. It should be something they care deeply about and will be at least mildly entertaining to work on for the next 10 or so weeks.

If I’m working on a way to clean cat hair out of carpets and I don’t have any cats, how motivated am I going to be to find the real solution? Even if I try hard to keep myself motivated and respect the process – my results won’t come close to those of someone who is passionate about the problem and the time I spend solving it will also be significantly less. The end result is a half-assed completed process that could’ve been better if it aligned with something the student enjoyed or cared about.


My Goals for Next Week

Get involved more!

Connect with students and force them to interact with me. I want to help, but they aren’t asking for it yet.

Where Is This Runaway Train Going?

I often see a certain look in the eyes of my students. I wouldn’t call it confused. I wouldn’t call it distant. I wouldn’t call it empty. I would call it doubtful.


That kills me – it’s my eternal battle in the method by which I choose to teach.

What should I be doing?

What should I do next?

Who should I talk to?

How do I know if I have a good idea?

The questions mostly stay in their heads – or at least if they ask them they don’t often ask them of me. I always wonder why. Perhaps I’m too honest (I can’t count the number of times I’ve told a student their idea sucks – but in my defense I always follow that up with some very pointed and productive direction and encouragement). Perhaps I’m not approachable (I’m certainly hard to meet with, but this generation doesn’t really mind communicating virtually, so that’s not it). I’m just not sure.

My Train

Photo Credit: Al Fed via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Al Fed via Compfight cc

I’ve been at work listening to students. Random students in the hallway. Random students on the quad. Deliberately formed small focus groups of students. They feel isolated from students in other areas/disciplines. They aren’t sure what sort of capabilities other students have. Business students think they want some IT students to help them build an app, or a website. But they’re unsure if those IT students have that expertise where they can actually be helpful. Business students think they want some communications students to help them with PR campaigns and social media campaigns. But they’re unsure whether those students have that expertise. So what I’m learning from the business students is that:

  1. They want to connect with other students (they keep mentioning IT students and communications students, and I’m starting to hear more about TEC students – robotics and machines and such)
  2. They know where these students are (i.e., what building on campus, where classes are, where student clubs are)
  3. They are not sure these students have the capability they need (reading between the lines and making an assumption I believe they aren’t sure what capabilities they truly need, or why)
  4. They are unsure how to contact those students and present a value proposition to get them interested in a conversation about working together

My train is only slightly off the tracks, mostly because I am juggling too many things. I know a few students have talked to me about their progress, and their train is a bit moreso off the tracks. I try to right that by encouraging them to stop thinking about solutions, stop thinking about ideas, and focus on the problem. It’s tough, but when the lightbulb goes on, it’s magic (makes it all worth it!)

The Class Train

We’re heading toward a solution. But first we must know what we’re solving, and for whom. How do we keep this train on the tracks? We listen to potential customers.

Photo Credit: kurals via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: kurals via Compfight cc

Plain and simple. I will become a broken record to my students on this point, but it’s important they understand the critical importance of this. Diana Kander stresses it in her book All In Startup that they’re reading. Justin Wilcox stresses it in his videos that they’re hopefully watching.

We’re heading toward a traction plan and an idea fair. Students should be engaging in problem discovery and understanding, via customer development, interviewing, etc. As they do more of this, they refine the problem they’ll attack, they start to get more grounded ideas of a solution because they actually understand the problem that needs solving. So, the next station stops are:

Traction plan

This all borrowed from Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers, by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares

“Traction is basically quantitative evidence of customer demand. So if you’re in enterprise software, [initial traction] may be two or three early customers who are paying a bit; if you’re in consumer software, the bar might be as high as hundreds of thousands of users . . . It’s the Supreme Court definition of porn.  You’ll know it when you see it”

– Naval Ravikant, founder of AngelList

A startup can gain traction (growth) through 19 basic channels. I want the students to be thinking of how they might go about achieving growth – get the plan together of what channels to use when the time comes so they can execute more rapidly.

  1. Viral Marketing:
  2. Public Relations (PR):
  3. Unconventional PR:
  4. Search Engine Marketing (SEM):
  5. Social and Display Ads:
  6. Offline Ads:
  7. Search Engine Optimization (SEO):
  8. Content Marketing:
  9. Email Marketing:
  10. Engineering as Marketing:
  11. Target Market Blogs:
  12. Business Development (BD):
  13. Sales:
  14. Affiliate Programs:
  15. Existing Platforms:
  16. Trade Shows:
  17. Offline Events:
  18. Speaking Engagements:
  19. Community Building:

Idea fair.

Students will come up with a 5 word business concept, will pitch that to the class and will receive feedback on it. Like the middle school science fair, except for startup ideas.

This train isn’t running away from anything, it’s running toward something. That something is an innovative solution to a vetted problem. From there they are off and running to build that solution (after the debauchery of spring break of course!)

Photo Credit: VoyageDream via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: VoyageDream via Compfight cc

What’s Your Problem?


We continue to read Diana Kander’s All in Startup: Launching a New Idea When Everything Is on the Line. This section (chapters 8-14) is about people buying solutions to their problems, not products or services. It goes perfectly with the class thus far, because my almost one-and-only focus thus far has been on problems. The students seem to enjoy reading it, and are gaining a much better understanding of some core lessons and thoughts surrounding starting a business. The book introduces and discusses topics in a far more interesting way than I could, so it’s a fantastic complement to the class. I’ll use it every semester. Anyone teaching startup entrepreneurship should use it.

2 Minutes of Infamy

2 Minutes

I remembered this time to offer up two minutes of questions. I had questions about the Super Bowl. I had a couple safe business-related questions. One guy asked me something about my biggest mistake in terms of people in a startup. That would be co-founding a business with someone I really didn’t know. I got excited about the idea and didn’t do my homework on the people I was getting in bed with. TOTALLY different values and approach to life that really caused some friction and was detrimental to the business. Lesson: know the people you’re founding with, and be comfortable with who they are as people because you’re going to be in bed with them for a long time.

The Class

Students always want to know where they should be, what they should be doing. They’ve been trained to wait for this sort of instruction and permission from the instructor. I mention they should have identified a problem to solve, and should be interviewing customers. By a show of hands, many don’t have a problem yet. That’s troubling. I encourage them to talk to me and Michael about it. I encourage them to just pick one and go – not to overthink this and try to find the perfect one, or one they care passionately about. The point here is to go through the process, and they can’t if they don’t start. I hope they get going soon or they’ll miss the journey.

I wanted to show them how to interview customers. It’s difficult to do with a class (as opposed to one-on-one), but I gave it a shot. My business problem is that ISU college of business juniors and seniors can’t easily connect with other students across campus.


I asked how many students in the last couple weeks had needed or wanted to connect with students from another discipline, either for work or for play. Maybe 5 or 6 hands went up (out of about 35). Uh-oh!!


I picked on Jessica. She said she needed help with writing a paper or assignment. I asked her to tell me more about that – what was she doing, why did she need help. She wanted to improve her writing. OK, so she needed expertise to help her with classwork. Check!

I asked her how she went about solving that problem, and she mentioned she asked a few friends and that was it. It quickly became obvious to me, by words and by body language, that she wasn’t really interested in solving this problem. It wasn’t a big deal, she didn’t spend much time or money on finding a solution. She was OK leaving it be. So I pointed out to the class that this is one instance where I can say that people needing help with writing may not be my target customers. I’ll work to verify that with a few more students who have writing assignments.


I next picked on Jack. He has a startup (Ideafeed) and needed programming help. Without much prompting, he rattled off what he was doing – the process he went through to find and recruit programmers. He mentioned it took a long time (the process) but didn’t seem to express frustration at any point. His face didn’t exhibit any sort of frustration. I dug deeper about certain elements – why did he choose one particular guy to contact, how did he find that guy/know about that guy, what was he doing now. I specifically asked what was the most frustrating part. His answer was there wasn’t anything frustrating. Interesting. I asked what was the most difficult part. He said the long process. OK, there’s a nugget there. I pointed out that if I was talking one-on-one, I would dig deeper to better understand his actions/decisions, and to better understand how he was trying to speed the process up. Jack is a little different (in a good way!) than most students. My assumption is that many students don’t know where to start to find IT talent. They know we have a School of IT, but they’re unsure how to start that connection process. I’ll check this assumption with more students one-on-one.

And I’m Out

I left encouraging them to find a problem and to get going with interviewing customers. I encouraged them to remember the starter questions I gave them last week as a good place to start. I encouraged them to make an assumption about who their customer was, to find them and start talking to them. That’s all I want them doing at this point.


Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy: Giving Away $$$

My students may or may not think starting a business in a semester is difficult. I borrowed one of Diana Kander’s challenges to illustrate to them just how difficult it might be. The challenge is to give away 5 $1 bills to strangers. Sounds simple enough – but it’s crazy difficult.

Photo Credit: Great Beyond via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Great Beyond via Compfight cc

The Challenge Details

They must approach strangers of the same sex – this limits many biases. The people they approach must either be walking or talking on the phone; they must be doing something actively, which simulates interrupting actual customers in the real world. They cannot tell these folks they are doing a class exercise or experiment – they have to develop a real reason why they want to give them a dollar. There are only five attempts (one for each bill) allowed.

Where to Start

As is my nature, I of course wanted to dive right in and start finding people. But I thought I’d run an A/B experiment on this challenge. I would try to develop a plan for handing out three of the dollars, and would trust my gut and just wing it for two of the dollars.

With A Plan (A)

Where: I would approach students on the quad here at ISU

Who: I will try to find confident-looking male students who are walking alone. I figure if they are in a group it would be more awkward and they’d be less likely to stop and chat because there would be more going on in their moment.

What: I will mention to them that today is their lucky day and that I want to give them a dollar because they _________. I will customize this last part based on circumstances. For instance, if they are wearing purple, then it’s because they are wearing purple. If they have on ISU gear, it’s because of that. I’ll pick out something that I can highlight about their appearance.

Attempt 1 (A)

I wandered out to the quad, trying not to look professorial (I didn’t have much difficulty with that). I spotted a young man in sweats and a hoodie walking solo toward the College of Business, earphones in, head bobbing. I walked up to him: “Excuse me”. He stopped and removed one earphone (SCORE!!)

“Today’s your lucky day . . .” I begin.

“No thanks, I don’t need any” he says and steps around me

“Hold on a second, I want to give you a dollar” I call after him

“No thanks” earphone back in.



Attempt 2 (A)

So I learned that going with the cheezy opening doesn’t work. Check. My plan goes out the window (this is of course part of the lesson I will stress to students – you can plan all you want, but as soon as you contact customers, all bets are off and the plan becomes mostly irrelevant)

I decide to lead with the dollar – maybe seeing the money will give me a better shot. I spot a guy skateboarding, talking on the phone (impressive!) I walk towards him and hold up my index finger as I nod at him. He steps off his skateboard and holds up his “hold on a second” finger. SCORE!! I stand in awkward silence as he tries to get off the phone – he eventually hangs up.

“What’s up dude?” he asks as he looks down at the dollar bill I’m holding out

“I’d like to give you this $1 bill” I figure maybe if I don’t make any kind of sales pitch it might raise his curiosity a bit and increase my chances

“What for?” he asks as he physically takes a small step back. (Interesting!)

“I decided today that I would reward students who are strong enough to express themselves. You’re skateboarding, you’ve got your own style [he had some strange clothes on]. I just want to encourage that” I can tell I’m a little nervous and not really owning my explanation.

He shrugs, grabs the dollar, shakes my hand with a “thanks dude” and heads off.


Attempt 3 (A)

My confidence is huge (not that I need help with that). I’ve already completely forgotten the first failure (which isn’t necessarily a good thing). It takes me another few minutes walking around before I spot another guy walking alone. He is focused on his phone (likely texting I guess) so fits the requirements of being busy. As I walk to intercept him, I start thinking about what I’ll say. I start getting a little nervous and overthinking it. DAMN!!

“Excuse me” I call out as I approach. He doesn’t respond. I try again a little louder as I get closer to him. He looks up from his phone with eyebrows raised. “I wanted to give you a dollar, if you have a minute for me to explain” He stops and tilts his head – I can tell this is going to be a little bit of a battle. “O…K….” he says with tons of suspicion.

“I wanted to reward students who are strong enough to express themselves” I begin (hey, it worked last time!) “You stand out from the typical student wandering around here”

“I should” he interrupts. “I teach here.” DAMN!! “Have a nice day – good luck” as he begins to wander off.

“Well, hold on a sec . . .” I trail off as it’s obvious I lost this one. I made an assumption that he was a student and once I put that out there and he realized he wasn’t my audience, he check out. Lesson learned.

FAILURE! Planning Score: 1-2

wing It

Without A Plan (B)

Attempt 4 (B)

The next day, I had about 20 minutes between meetings, so I headed to the quad to wing it. I hadn’t thought about any sort of plan (maybe being a little too purposeful about this), and was a little excited to see how this one worked. Hopefully better than yesterday. I spotted a bunch of students hurrying to buildings (it was a bit cold out – would be more difficult). I thought about yesterday and that I approached students head-on. Maybe today I’d try rolling up on them from behind or the side.

I spotted my target. A kid (definitely can’t be faculty – way too young!) coming out of the fine arts building, carrying a portfolio looking thing. He was talking on his phone. I followed, trying to eavesdrop on his conversation a bit. As it sounded like he was ending up, I got to his side and said “Excuse me”. He stopped, stepped sideways, and shot me a furrowed brow look. I held out a dollar bill. He held up a finger (the index one, thankfully!) In a minute he ended his call. “Hi” he said.

“How are you doing?” I started. “I saw you coming from the fine arts building, and with that folder, figured you were an artist. I really enjoy art, and was hoping you could show me some of yours. I’ll give you a dollar for just a quick peek” OK, that was totally creepy and I regretted saying it as soon as it was out.

“Um. . .  OK” he stammered. He grabbed a couple drawings and showed them to me. I had no idea what I was looking at, and whether it was any good.

“That’s great – I dig where you’re going with it. Keep up the great work – you’ve got lots of potential. Here’s the dollar – have a great day” I wanted to run as quick as possible!


Attempt 5 (B)

I worked my way to the other end of the quad. I spotted a guy sitting on a bench talking on his phone. I hadn’t tried someone sitting yet – I figured I’d change it up. I sat down next to him and pretended to text. As I thought he was finishing his call (eavesdropping again), I nodded to catch his attention and said “Hey, I got a quick question”. He held up his finger (index again – still haven’t gotten THE finger yet). When he finished his call, he looked over and said “Whassup?”

“Can you tell me where the College of Business is?” I asked. Totally different approach. I’d let him help me and reward him. Not sure if that follows the rules, but I think it does.

“It’s that big brown building down there” he pointed to it.

“Alright, thanks.” I tried handing him the dollar without mentioning anything about it. He wouldn’t take it. I insisted. We went back and forth a few times. I explained that he saved me a bunch of time wandering around in the cold. He kept refusing and got up and walked off with a “Have a nice day”

FAILURE! Without a plan score: 1-1. Overall score: 2-3

Lessons Learned

Plans don’t work. Detailed ones anyway. But some basic idea is good.

Being genuine and transparent is helpful. Sales pitches don’t work. Being sneaky doesn’t work. Lay it out there up front so folks know what’s up.

People want to be helpful and hear you out, but they’re guarded and suspicious, especially with something out of the ordinary (i.e., someone wanting to give them money).

It is uncomfortable approaching strangers with a goal in mind (whether with or without a plan), hoping to achieve good results.

I’m interested to see if any students tried this and what their experience was. For me, it was a lot of fun – very valuable in terms of trying something new, getting out of my comfort zone, and understanding just how difficult it is to give money away. I’m thinking to myself “if it’s this hard to give money away, how hard will it be to get someone to buy something” I hope my students come to the same conclusion.

Asking Better Questions

Knowing what questions to ask is really tough. I struggle with it every day I’m in class trying to get students to participate.

How do I structure the question to invite them to respond?

How do I make it easy for them to learn it’s safe to speak up?

Photo Credit: frankrizzo805 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: frankrizzo805 via Compfight cc

I am slightly nervous of questions every day we have class. I have instituted a policy (stolen from a good friend) where for the first two minutes of class, students can ask any questions (ANY QUESTION!!) and I will answer it truthfully. A different good friend challenged me on this recently, on whether I would answer. I promise, I will answer any question they pose. I need them to trust me on this journey, so part of establishing that trust is making myself an open book. Also, they can learn from my experience. And they can learn that it’s OK and safe to ask any question. I’ll come back to questions in a second.


All In Startup

We have begun reading All In Startup by Diana Kander (chapters 1-7 specifically). It’s a brilliant way for my kids to absorb some basic tenets of the startup world. Diana highlights the startup loop of despair at the beginning:

IDEA – BUILD – BRAND – CUSTOMER (and back again)

And she tweaks this loop to highlight how successful entrepreneurs might attack it:


The idea being that an entrepreneur needs to find customers first before building their product. This way, they can be more assured they’re building something that real customers really want. I would add one more step in this process:


I encourage my kids to start with a problem. Figure out a problem people are having. It could be a problem they are having. How should they do that? Ask questions, listen, and observe people. Once they uncover a problem, then fill in the rest of the process, starting with discovering which customers experience that problem most painfully.

The students are enjoying the book (those who are reading it). Most have read far more than the “assigned” chapters. They see how it relates to class. It challenges some of their assumptions. It provides them encouragement that they can do what I’m asking them to do. The book reinforces what I’ve been telling them about finding a problem, about building a solution to someone’s problems, about the importance of finding customers. It’s a phenomenal resource because the students enjoy the story aspect and because it really nails the key lessons I’m trying to convey.


So back to asking better questions – the topic of the day. For this part I relied heavily on Justin Wilcox and his perspective on customer interviewing. The goal, I explained, with asking better questions is to obtain richer information from target individuals (customers, competitors, random strangers, aliens, unicorns, whomever). I threw out a few general strategies for the students to follow in interviewing: ask open-ended questions, interview face-to-face to pick up nonverbal cues, don’t sell them (avoid “would” at all costs!!), use “why”, “how”, and “what do you think about” a lot.

I asked for a problem. They threw out the inconvenience of getting groceries for students. We talked about what sort of questions one might want to ask customers about this problem to dig deeper. First was “what grade are  you in”. Many students didn’t think that was a good question, but the young man who offered it explained that it might be good information for later when building the solution. I agree – knowing if you’re talking to a freshman or a senior is important. I expressed that they not focus on demographics, but that some of that information is critical. Other questions centered around how they currently get groceries, which is fantastic. I stressed they should focus on behavior – getting the interviewee to talk about their behavior and decision making process. I then had them pair up and practice interviewing each other. It was uncomfortable to watch the pain some of them experienced! I wanted them to understand how hard it is to interview someone really well. They mentioned it was difficult to keep them talking, it was hard knowing what questions to ask, it was awkward, they felt like they wasted their time. Some asked good questions, some got good information. It was a learning experience (ding, ding, ding!!)

To wrap it up, I gave them a few questions they can always start with and/or include (per Justin’s video):

What’s the hardest part about _____________ (problem context)?

Can you tell me about the last time that happened?

Why was that hard?

What, if anything, have you done to solve the problem?

How often do you experience this problem?

How much are you spending to solve this problem?


I left them with a challenge, from Diana’s materials. The goal is to give away 5 $1bills to 5 strangers. With a few constraints – they must give the money to someone of the same sex, they must approach people who are walking or talking on their phone (i.e., they’re doing something, not just sitting there), and they can’t tell the people they’re doing an experiment for a class or anything along those lines. I told them to go in pairs so someone can secretly record it. I hope some do – it’s a ridiculously painful exercise, but so valuable. It definitely creates butterflies, and even worse back sweat and breathlessness.

I explained to them how most think it would be super easy to give away free money. But it’s really difficult. And if they engaged in this exercise, they would have some perspective on how difficult it would be to get information from people, and would work harder to do so. It gives some great perspective. I hope they engage.

Photo Credit: frankieleon via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: frankieleon via Compfight cc

Next week, on to selling, and more All In Startup!

PS – I haven’t had any uncomfortable questions asked of me yet, but I’m expecting them as the semester continues and they become more comfortable with me. My nervousness particularly stems from one guy who very much reminds me of me when I was that age J

Week 2 Recap

Here is Michael Luchies’ week 2 recap, in his own words

Week 2 Recap

I could tell that engagement was going to be increased in week two after Doan’s two-minutes of questions exercise at the beginning of the class. I was a little worried that we would have a long moment of silence, but they were able to reel off about six questions to Doan before time expired.

We covered legacy this week, which is a difficult, but important topic to talk about. It got a little heavy for an entrepreneurship class, but it helped the students understand the importance of legacy and how it will impact their future decisions and career.

The Good:

Photo Credit: Meredith_Farmer via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Meredith_Farmer via Compfight cc

Vulnerability: Learning shouldn’t be boring, and it doesn’t always have to be conducted in an emotionless and workplace like atmosphere. Both Doan and I shared tough failures and showed that we’re human. Several students stepped right up to the plate and followed suit.

Less Jumping Ahead: I was nervous after week one, but I should’ve had more faith in the class. They were able to focus on the legacy talk and their wants in life instead of jumping ahead to trying to solve a problem or carve out their perfect business before that time is here.

Student involvement: We ran them through several steps and the students were eager to share their failures, successes, and what describes their desired legacy.


Breaking the shell: The business college is a place of keeping to your self and acting professional. Several professors within the school even require business attire. The part of this I don’t understand is that most of those very same students are planning on working with State Farm or in an industry that has shifted to all casual wear. We don’t want to look like slobs, but being overdressed is just as bad.

This type of forcing a student into a professional environment has its benefits, but it also discourages being human and vulnerable, and doesn’t give them an opportunity to be who they are and share real feelings and emotions.

Photo Credit: botoxhouston via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: botoxhouston via Compfight cc

Thinking outside of the graduation and job box: As a student, I didn’t let what I learned in class interfere with my half-brained career plans. For the students to get the most out of this class, they have to be able to table their thoughts about what they are going to do after graduation and allow their business to develop organically instead of forcing it.

My Goals for Next Week

Announce goals to help others keep me accountable (carried over from last week).

Serve as a stronger example, even at my own embarrassment to allow the students to feel safe contributing.