Tag Archives: interviewing

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


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.


Many folks I talked to struggled to have enough resources to live – food, money, whatever – but wouldn’t take handouts. I heard the same theme when I was talking to some folks living in poverty during a recent trip to San Diego. People were willing to go to extraordinary lengths and take huge risks to get the very basics. But they wouldn’t take handouts; although they often didn’t have enough food to feed their children, they would not go to a food pantry or a soup kitchen or take food stamps. I am not here to say whether that’s right or wrong, it is what it is. But it is. Other folks I talked to found it too difficult to get to the places where the food might be available. They had to spend money to get there, money they didn’t have. They had to spend time to get there – maybe time away from family members they couldn’t spend away. For whatever reason, here is a segment of society not engaging with the “middleman” of this food cycle.

My idea is to take out the middleman. There has to be a way to get discarded food from establishments discarding it directly to people who struggle to put enough food in their children’s bellies. Transportation as a service. Not quite sure but that’s the beauty of this class experience – I don’t need a plan, because my customers will point the way.


Just as my students do, I confront a few “duh” concerns – many highlighted by some great entrepreneurs with whom I shared the idea for feedback. Liability and bad PR of dealing with potentially bad food. Logistics of food delivery. Establishments writing off instead of donating goods/food. On a more local level, as in our community here, the lack of proper storage for perishable items. So I need to talk to lots of establishment owners and managers and such (grocery stores, restaurants, etc.) to understand their process of disposing of excess food and goods, and why they make that choice. I need to talk to parents of children who struggle to feed them, to understand what they do to combat that problem, and to eventually get feedback on the solution I invite them to co-create with me. I would love to be able to pick up food from stores around town, drive to a common location where many of these parents live, and in full Lloyd Dobbler style, blast out an announcement of “food is here, come and get it!”

Lloyd Dobbler



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.



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: http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/viral-marketing
  2. Public Relations (PR): http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/public-relations-pr
  3. Unconventional PR: http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/unconventional-pr
  4. Search Engine Marketing (SEM): http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/search-engine-marketing-sem
  5. Social and Display Ads: http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/social-and-display-ads
  6. Offline Ads: http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/offline-ads
  7. Search Engine Optimization (SEO): http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/search-engine-optimization-seo
  8. Content Marketing: http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/content-marketing
  9. Email Marketing: http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/email-marketing
  10. Engineering as Marketing: http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/engineering-as-marketing
  11. Target Market Blogs: http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/targeting-blogs
  12. Business Development (BD): http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/business-development
  13. Sales: http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/sales
  14. Affiliate Programs: http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/affiliate-programs
  15. Existing Platforms: http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/existing-platforms
  16. Trade Shows: http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/trade-shows
  17. Offline Events: http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/offline-events
  18. Speaking Engagements: http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/speaking-engagements
  19. Community Building: http://discuss.tractionbook.com/c/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