Tag Archives: customer development

Entrepreneurship and the Art of the Pivot

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.”

Source: http://www.alexandercowan.com/creating-a-lean-startup-style-assumption-set/

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: 

  1. Junior & senior College of Business (COB) females
  2. Junior & senior College of Fine Arts (CFA) females
  3. 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.

The Pivot

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)

Source: https://thefocusframework.com/

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.

Next Steps

We created a blog where we share quick strategies and lesson plans around the most common problematic topics in entrepreneurship education.

Our first post was “Teaching Entrepreneurship Idea Generation” because many entrepreneurship educators struggle with helping students identify quality ideas. With each post, we include a 45-minute lesson plan so educators can quickly put our strategies to use in their classrooms.

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.

How to Find Early Adopters

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:

  1. have the problem my students are trying to solve
  2. know they have the problem, and
  3. 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:

  1. Searches Glassdoor for career advice
  2. Gets advice from university career center
  3. Googles “how to prepare for a job interview”
  4. Attends career preparedness workshops
  5. Googles “best resume template”

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:

  1. Reviews Glassdoor
  2. Reviews career center on the career center Facebook page
  3. Tweets with #interview or #jobsearch or #employment
  4. 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.

Nuts and Bolts: Entrepreneurship Education in Action

The Possibilities of Entrepreneurship Education

Entrepreneurship Education

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

Confidence

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

Mentoring

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:

All In Startup

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.

Running Lean

Next up is the preparation for doing. Ash Maurya’s resources around the Lean Canvas and Alex Bruton’s resources around Idea Modeling.

Idea Modeling

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:

  1. A basic idea in place (rooted in an actual problem they know people experience),
  2. An understanding and level of basic comfort about identifying, approaching, and interviewing customers, and
  3. 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.

I Like The Mess

My Big Questions

  1. How do you conduct customer problem interviews?
  2. Do simulations play a role in (true) experiential education?

Customer Development is Messy

Photo Credit: jope. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jope. via Compfight cc

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Photo Credit: Philip Dehm via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Philip Dehm via Compfight cc

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.

My Journey

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.

A New Beginning All Over Again

My Big Questions

  1. What would you do? Read below and share your thoughts on what customer development I should do
  2. How can entrepreneurship classrooms be more authentic and scary?

Here We Go Again: A New Version of the Same Entrepreneurship Experiment

infinity

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!):

  1. Read Diana’s book
  2. Conduct customer problem interviews
  3. Constantly share ideas and progress with each other (i.e. do work!)
  4. Constantly give each other feedback (i.e. empower their colleagues to do work!)

Entrepreneurship Comes Alive

Design Thinking

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.

Child hunger

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.

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.

Concerns

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!”

Lloyd Dobbler

 

My Mess Got In The Way

Service Bell with Check in  Sign at Hotel Desk

Checking In

This experiment this semester is a mess. Sometimes it’s a glorious mess. Sometimes it’s a nasty mess. For each student it is different, depending for the most part on how they engage with me and the experience.

I offered 30 minute calls over the past few weeks to each student, to touch base about where they are, what problem they’re solving, who they’re solving it for, and what solution they are thinking of developing. Many students took me up on that offer. Many did not. Those who did let me know they got a ton of direction and motivation out of it, because they had a much clearer direction and purpose and more belief and confidence that they could do this. Learning lesson: next semester I’ll force a 30 minute meeting with each student very early in the semester. I waited too long this semester to do this. I didn’t push them enough.

Many students are cranking away on their “businesses”. Some have something to sell already. Nothing that’s going to change the world. Some have jewelry. Some have a minor product. But it’s something! Some have a website where they are gathering emails or other information about potential customers’ intent to engage (purchase, share, etc). Again, nothing too significant, but it’s something they have put into the world having done a little bit of research. Many students have seemingly checked out. They still show up to class (a victory in and of itself since it is totally voluntary). But they don’t engage, in class or outside class. I think some of them are working on their business idea. I’m sure some are  not. This is one of my eternal battles with my approach and this class – how intrusive do I get into their experience?

“No Dad, What About You?”

I’ve been validating. I previously validated my assumption that professionals would give 15 minutes of their time once a week to talk to students interested in their line of work, and that students would want to spend 15 minutes talking to a professional about a job they’re interested in. I have been working on validating my assumption that students will be willing to pay for this connection. I have talked to 50 random students across ISU’s campus – some at the student center, some on the quad, some in random buildings. Some looked young, some looked older. Some looked like athletes, some looked like nerds. Some were white, some were black. Etcetera – I got a somewhat random cross-section of our student population. I asked them three questions:

  1. If they knew what job they wanted to do after college, would they have questions they want to ask someone who currently does that job?
  2. If they could spend 15 minutes on the phone or Skype asking someone who currently does that job those questions, would they pay $5?
  3. If they wouldn’t pay $5, would they pay $2?

Out of the 50 students I asked, 46 said they knew what they wanted to do after college. Of those 46, 100% said if the opportunity presented itself, they would develop questions to ask someone. Of those 46, 12 (26%) said they would pay $5 – most had some qualifier on their answer like “if they were really qualified” or “if they had a lot of experience”. For the 34 who said they wouldn’t pay $5, 20 (58%) said they would pay $2, but most again had some sort of qualifier.

What this leads me to believe is that students will be a little leery of this – not necessarily trusting that if they’re paying, the person on the other end of the phone/camera is qualified and should be trusted. This makes sense. So part of what I need to do is be able to somehow legitimize the professional. Maybe include a short bio, or a link to a LinkedIn page.

I wanted to have set up a preorder landing page to run this experiment by now. With a vacation to Disneyworld, TEDxNormal and a Legacy Out Loud launch event in New York City in the works, I just haven’t gotten to it yet. That’s the next step – getting a landing page to test it out.

I Have an Idea

Expose Students to “Real” People

Visitor

Last week we had wonderful visitors. It is critical for any student in any discipline to hear from people who actually DO what they are learning about. The professor may be that person, but from my experience the students just won’t see the professor as anything other than a professor. So, I like to bring in entrepreneurs to share their story and insight. Their insight and recommendations are usually the same as mine, but when students hear it from “real” people, it sticks.

Both our visitors talked with and highlighted for the students various aspects of starting a company:

  1. On Monday we welcomed a good friend who also happens to be an ISU professor who is starting her own greeting-card-with-a-twist business. She shared what led her to her idea, which is a very common mix of “it just hit me” with “I couldn’t . . . ” She had a problem she needed solved, and realized she was the perfect person to solve it in a way that could create a business. Then we turned the tables on the students and she asked them for feedback – she did the same sort of customer development on them they are learning how to do on others. What a learning opportunity to actually feel what it’s like! The students provided amazing feedback to my friend about her products, but they really provided something much more valuable (Note: I can be really sneaky and manipulative if I need to be!) In talking with my friend I kept telling her she needed to put the idea out there, to talk to strangers about it. She was hesitant. So I invited her into my class under the guise of getting feedback. What she got out of it was confidence – to share her idea, to accept feedback (negative and positive), and that she had an audience eager for her product. My students won (they felt their customers’ experience and they heard a great story of the development of an idea). My friend won (she gained confidence in sharing her idea and also got tremendous feedback). I won (my students are now more engaged, they believe more of what I’m telling them . . . and I didn’t have to prep!!)
Yippee

Photo Credit: cmr727 via Compfight cc

  1. Jessica Tenuta stopped by on Wednesday. Jessica is an amazing young woman! She is a recent ISU alum who is part of the team leading Packback Books to new heights of disrupting the educational experience for students. Shameless plug – if you are teaching anything at all, you should use Packback’s platform to create a much more engaging learning/discussion experience for your students than whatever LMS you currently are using! Jessica shared her story of emerging from her shell of a very nervous young girl to become a leader in a student startup that landed a deal with Mark Cuban on Shark Tank and is killing it in the Chicago startup scene. She shared the story of Packback Books and some advice to my students about just getting out there and doing it. She again flipped things on the students – she asked what businesses they wanted to start. One student mentioned she already has a photography business and Jessica gave her advice. Another mentioned he’s working on a hunting product, and another student piped up that her uncle owns a hunting business. Sparks were flying! In an entrepreneurship classroom. Go figure!

Packback

 

What’s Next For the Class?

The students are struggling through their Online Venture Challenge project. Some are figuring out their initial idea doesn’t work (because they jumped instead of talking to potential customers). Some are figuring out it’s a lot of work. Some aren’t figuring out very much. I am getting them to also turn their attention to their individual businesses they will start toward the end of October. They need to turn in a concept in the next couple days, and then I will meet with each of them for about 30 minutes, so I get them excited and so I know how I can best help them.

What’s Next For Me?

So what is my business? I have been talking to lots of students, and have hones in on a problem and an opportunity. At least here at ISU, many students have a sense of what they want to do post-graduation. But they have very little clue about what that choice means, what it entails, what it requires. What I am hearing in my conversations with them is that

  1. They do not know how to get a realistic preview of their chosen career path
  2. They do not know how to find out the specific opportunities in that space
  3. They do not know what experience they should be working on getting right now

I have also been talking to a ton of entrepreneurs, business leaders, business owners, and employees. Many of them acknowledge they would have loved the opportunity to chat with someone actually doing what they wanted to do.

What I’m hearing is students want connections, and professionals want to connect with students. Nothing deep here – they’re all talking about a short phone call to ask and answer some basic questions, to provide some very basic insight/guidance. Sure, more will evolve in many cases, but the idea is to provide a way for that initial connection.

I’m doing more customer development before turning my energy to the product itself – more to come in the weeks ahead!

SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!!

No Sweat

Act I: “No Sweat!”

The students have been making more progress with their Online Venture Challenge projects. As a reminder, they have one month to make as much money as possible that they will then donate to a charity. A few groups have made sales (three figures!) – which means they have identified a charity, identified a product that aligns with the charity’s mission, set up a Shopify store, marketed their cause and product, and closed customers! They for the most part don’t really see the progress they’ve made, even though I work hard to point it out. One student remarked “this entrepreneurship thing isn’t as hard as I thought.” That’s funny – can’t wait for him to hit the wall. Here is a quick breakdown of where they are:

Can Crafts

 

 

Can Crafts is supporting the Wounded Warrior Project with airplanes made from recycling cans. It’s a fantastic charity, a great product, and since these guys have a steady stream of cans, they should do well.

 

 

 

Drinksbee

 

 

Drinksbee is supporting Mothers Against Drunk Driving by selling a game popular with college students at tailgates and outdoor events and spaces. (I know – I had the same look on my face)

 

 

 

Wishbone

Wishbone Tees is selling t-shirts to support the Wish Bone Canine Rescue. Not just any shirts, though. They have a picture of a dog at the rescue and the saying “Rescued Is My Favorite Breed”.

 

Other groups are slowly getting there (I’m struggling as usual with wanting them to pull the trigger, but also needing them to learn that lesson on their own). I’ve explained to them the basics of customer development and experiments – how to set up the basic experiments they need to run, how to analyze data they get, how to set non-vanity metrics. I’m not sure they’ll put any of that to use in this one month challenge – they’re just going balls out without much experimentation and discovery and such. More just hardcore selling and hustling. Which is OK – that’s a great experience for them, to see just how much good they can accomplish with an idea and some hustle. But when they get to their individual venture after this, I will again revisit and stress the experiment and customer development process.

Act II: The Learning

We are continuing to read Diana Kander’s All in Startup. Every semester, every time I open this book I’m amazed at how engrossing it is. The students are devouring it (at least those that have cracked it open are). They’re really picking up and internalizing the ideas of making small bets and of looking for real problems that real customers have. I fear that many of them will still be focused on problems they have and get blinded by that. So, I keep hammering them with getting off campus and asking questions, measuring, analyzing, pivoting. And most of all, hustling!

Looking toward their individual efforts, I’m very excited to have developed a tri-class collaboration around my students’ new venture ideas (the next phase of my class):

*   I will to provide an IT prof 30ish startup ideas early October with name and concept, target audience, short-term goals, and tangible deliverable (app, website, etc)
*   The IT prof’s class will work on ideas, and develop them into flat high-fidelity mockups during the month of October
*   The IT prof will hand off 10 flat mockups (most likely with multiple screens) to an Arts Technology prof for online heat-map testing first week of November.
*   The Arts Tech prof will return data the second week of November.
*   The IT prof will return data back to his students for changes and edits to design

And then it all comes back to my students. It’s not a perfect scenario because it won’t be truly collaborative, but it’s very exciting that three classes in three different Colleges in ISU will be working together and all students are getting a “realistic” project to work on.

Last, I think to encourage and support them in their individual efforts, I will require them to individually meet with me for 30 minutes sometime over the next few weeks to chat about where they want to go with that opportunity. I want them to feel comfortable approaching me, to feel supported, and to feel excited. Best way to do that is to meet with them and lay it all out there.

In the meantime, I’m still struggling to find a problem to solve for my project. Oh well, it will come to me as I keep engaging with my environment and tons of folks in tons of settings.

Straight Outta Normal

Leap of faith

Week 1 is in the books, and my students took the leap of faith!

Let’s Get It On: Day 1

I had told the students before class started that on Monday to meet me in the little shopping district just off campus called Uptown Normal. Here are some picturcombine_imageses of their environment:

 

 

 

 

As students showed up, I gave the first one 10 $1 bills, and the next three I told were in a group with that first person. As each 5th student showed up, I began the process again. You can imagine their curiosity and anxiety when on the first day of class they have to meet away from campus, and their teacher is handing them cash with no explanation. Once all students arrived, I announced (some version of this):

“You have 35 minutes to make as much money as possible. Each group has 10 $1 bills [some actually had 15 bills and 5 members because a few stragglers showed up and I had to wing it]. Look around you – there is a CVS, there are plenty of stores, there are a wide variety of people walking around and sitting. There is a hotel and conference center. There is a hotel being constructed. There are cars everywhere. Whichever group LEGALLY makes the most money gets all the cash. I’ll see you back in the room at 2:45″

I saw mostly shock and confusion. Not a whole lot of excitement. But also not a whole lot of fear (likely because those with fear could lean on the group dynamic to cover it up and/or hide it). I walked back to my car super excited to see what they would come up with.

The Delivery

I was impressed that all the groups seemed to accept the challenge and at least engage with some enthusiasm (after all, there was at least $80 in the pot, plus whatever profit they made). The group that won made $27 profit. Nothing earth shattering. But profit. In 35 minutes. All other groups except one made something; one group lost 76 cents [I’m still not quite sure how that happened]. The most common strategy seemed to be buying bottled water and reselling it. Nothing shocking there. The groups that made some profit headed back to campus and sold it to college students. The group that won headed over to the Hyatt Place hotel being built and sold it to the construction workers.

Bottled Water

Quick Lessons Learned

  1. The money is a distraction. Most students will immediately think of what they can buy to resell. I purposely planted or reinforced this seed by pointing out the CVS only a block away.
  2. Selling anything to college students is difficult if you want to make a profit. They are usually on a budget. They are usually in a hurry.

The Debrief

We talked about the variety of approaches to this experience. I tried to hammer home the idea that money is a distraction and that it is a bad idea to spend first and then figure out how to dig out of that hole. Instead, I introduced the idea of focusing on the potential customers. Identifying a problem they might have and figuring out how to solve it. There were plenty of individuals and plenty of businesses these students could have approached to interview and identify problems they could solve. Opportunity overlooked.

A few days after this class session I spoke with a friend of mine who related this story. Turns out she was standing on an adjacent corner from where the students started when the exercise went off. She had a $20 bill in her hand. A couple groups passed her by, but when one group caught her eye, she asked them if they were in my class. They said yes, so she showed them the $20 bill, explained she had money and wanted to know what they could do for her. Apparently, they had a very difficult time answering that question. Eventually one young woman mentioned social media, and my friend asked how many likes they could get her on Facebook and Instagram. The students floundered and didn’t get the money. How much easier could it have been?

In the end it was a fantastic exercise to introduce them to my course and to what I would be asking them to do the rest of the semester. They resoundingly said it was a good exercise and I should do it again, so I will. I was proud of the students for engaging [uncertainty is scary] and for being able to see the opportunities they missed.

Let’s Get It On: Day 2

How do I follow up that first day? With Idea Sex and Idea Math. As with most things, I don’t come up with these things, I just borrow them from others much smarter than I. In this case, these come from James Altucher, who is a genius in so very many ways.

Idea Sex

Idea Sex

I had each student make a list of things they loved, were passionate about. I then had them pair up and combine one from each person’s list. [Three guys got together and used three lists – referring to it as a threesome – gotta love college humor!] Most of the ideas were silly and really bad. The one I remember most was something about people paying to ice skate with a walrus. I mentioned how that was a terrible idea in so many ways, but that people might pay to ice skate with penguins (they are safe and cute) so they could work with the original nugget of an idea to arrive at a much more viable alternative. I encouraged them to write lists all the time – of things they observed, of thoughts they had about any random topic, of ideas they had. Anything, just as long as they were making lists, then they could come back to those lists and have Idea Sex anytime to keep their brain firing and to keep coming up with better and better ideas.

Idea Math

Next I asked one student for a food, an article of clothing, and a country [my memory is horrible – I should have taken notes – I think it was homemade macaroni and cheese, knee-high socks and Australia]

I had the students, in groups, come up with an idea (product, process, concept) that involved those three things. I should have written the ideas down [my memory is horrendous] – they were all pretty bad. One was using the sock to hold candies with Australia shapes that tasted like homemade macaroni and cheese I think. None of them stood out as anything with much potential.

I explained the concept behind addition, subtraction, multiplication and division in this context, and that each member of the group should take one operation and come up with a new version of the original idea. The ideas didn’t get much better, but brains were working.

Wrapping Up

This first week was an adventure, for the students and for me. I exposed them to uncertainty, to anxiety, to selling, to customer development, to ideation, to creativity, to frustration, to profitability, to winning. I feel good that they are excited, that they seem eager to engage and are anxious to dive in. I hope I can sustain that and continue to keep that flame burning bright.

60 Minutes

Next week is Justin Wilcox’ 60 Minutes to Launch exercise and introducing the Online Venture Challenge.

The Entrepreneurial Experience 2.0: The Next Iteration of My Class

In my class last semester, I put myself in the role of a student. It didn’t work in terms of traditional metrics – I didn’t really build anything, and I certainly didn’t sell anything. It was definitely a failure. But I learned a ton, about myself, about what my students go through in my crazy experiment, and about what I should or shouldn’t do in my class. Some changes I’m thinking of implementing for the fall semester:

The 1st week we will work together as an entire class to do the 60 Minute Launch – a great opportunity developed by Justin Wilcox.

The 1st two weeks we will also spend getting them in teams, defining an idea and a charity to donate proceeds of their first venture foray to.

Two things will be happening simultaneously during the next four weeks:

1. Those teams will work to implement their idea via the Online Venture Challenge. This way they will all go through the experience of pulling the trigger on an idea, with a good bit of structure surrounding it and a short-term end goal in sight (make money to donate to charity).

2. Each student will read All in Startup by Diana Kander. This will be a great complement to understanding customer development and a variety of other crucial components necessary to launch.

For the remainder of the course, each student will individually work to start their own business.

I think if they have two very short and semi-structured experiences up front of starting something (through both Justin’s 60 Minute Launch and the OVC), they will be more ready and excited about the opportunity to do it on their own on a larger scale for the remainder of the semester.

I will meet with them twice per week this semester – the Monday session will be more of a review of progress/problems, going through any content, answering questions, etc. The Wednesday session will be to play – exercises, fun stuff, visiting local businesses, etc.

Thoughts?