Tag Archives: lean startup

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.

Entrepreneurship Educators Should Have (And Share) Entrepreneurship Journeys

I am a firm believer that educators should have practical experience in the subject matter they are teaching.

Someone teaching nursing should be a practicing nurse.

Someone teaching mathematics could have been a logistician or an actuary.

Someone teaching history could have been an archivist or a lawyer.

Someone teaching acting/theater should work as an actor or behind the scenes of a theater.

For those teaching entrepreneurship, we should be currently engaged in entrepreneurship. This way, we understand the nuances and tools of today’s entrepreneur. I share this belief with students, and then share my current experiences in entrepreneurship with them. To show them that I try, that I fail, that I learn, that I succeed, that I persist.

Most importantly, I show them that I am willing to do what I am asking them to do. A role model is a powerful thing!

Below are the high-level points of some of my entrepreneurship stories I share with my students:

internrocket.com

This is a story of entrepreneurship gone wrong. I collided with two guys around the idea that internships suck, for students and for employers. The process is long and painful and not transparent, among other problems. So we hatched the idea of micro-internships between students and local small businesses. The business pays maybe $10 to post a job-to-be-done. The student doesn’t get paid but gets real experience and a real connection to a real business person, all with little time commitment.

Our original goal was to be a data giant and get acquired by LinkedIn or Monster.com or some similar entity for many millions.

Mistake #1: We were not lean. We empowered one of our founders to be the CEO and gave him plenty of leeway. He chose to delay release of the product for years, until it was “perfect”, instead of launching a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and iterating quickly based on customer feedback.

Mistake #2: To support this long product development cycle, we took on a few hundred thousand dollars in investment from local friends. This was a bad idea because these “investors” were investing in the CEO more than in the business. Of the two real investors approached, one asked for his money back after a couple years of zero traction, and the other basically laughed at the proposition of investing in this as a “business”.

Mistake #3: Because we took on investment, we got distracted by pursuing potential revenue streams instead of sticking to our original goal of building a data goldmine of young people pursuing employment. We twice approached a large corporation to build a platform for/with for them. We twice got turned down. We worked to integrate with Khan Academy and a variety of other ways for young people to gain valuable skills. We forgot our original practical goal and bloated into a fantastical dream.

Because I no longer agreed with the culture or the direction of the company, after 6 years, I sold back my 10% for a mere $2,500. This was a significant discount from the $5 million valuation our CEO was shopping to investors, but I just wanted out because the business and culture was something I could no longer support. Along the way, I didn’t fight for the business I wanted to build.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Establish a strong outcome goal and don’t waver
  2. Vet cofounders
  3. Don’t take investment to build product (only take it to scale traction)
  4. Fight for your ideas
  5. Launch it yesterday

Legacy Out Loud

This is a story of unrealized potential. I realized that the women in my classes were significantly better students in all the ways that mattered (i.e., not grades), and that there were very few women in my classes. Over a year or so, I spoke with 500+ female entrepreneurs, investors and business leaders (mostly through LinkedIn hustling) about how I might attract and support more women in entrepreneurship classes & programs on college campuses. One entrepreneur had a similar vision, so Elisabeth and I started down the road of building a community and eventually a business. We would recruit female college students and deliver some sort of curriculum (what they didn’t get in college but what we knew they really needed).

Mistake #1: We didn’t have a strategy or structure. We didn’t know how we were going to generate revenue. So it was more of a hobby for us than a business (because the things in our respective lives that generated revenue would always take priority – I was an educator and Elisabeth was already an entrepreneur).

Mistake #2: I lied to my wife about the time and financial commitments I was making to this endeavor. I eventually contributed roughly $20,000 to finance an awesome experience for some of our students to attend and be highlighted at Women’s Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations. Without a revenue model, we have no way of recuperating that investment, which is a sore spot in my personal life.

Elisabeth and I continue to pursue our mission. We have run two pilot cohorts of college students through our curriculum, where they experientially learn sales and other elements of personal growth they don’t find in their college curriculum. We learn, we ideate, we iterate, and we still struggle with structure and strategy.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Don’t start without a revenue model
  2. Develop a rhythm of productivity
  3. Be honest and transparent (this is just generally good life advice, but particularly good advice when it comes to balancing a relationship and a business)
  4. Pull the trigger

Entrepreneurship Education Project

This was a research project I began as a doctoral student, to better understand how people were teaching entrepreneurship. With very few resources and the collaboration of a few colleagues, this turned into a massive global dataset and an annual conference. My original goal here was to develop a longitudinal data project that would

  1. produce research toward my tenure requirement,
  2. build a large network of entrepreneurship educators, and
  3. improve how people taught entrepreneurship

Mistake #1: I did not understand the resources it would take to sustain a longitudinal global research study, so the data gathering petered out after two years (although, a core group of more experienced researchers are now rebooting the project with a strong plan for sustainability).

Mistake #2: I did not have a strategy or structure to scale or sustain this project. As the number of participating faculty grew into the hundreds, and it became necessary to translate our survey into dozens of languages, and coordinate the timing of administering, aggregating and sharing data around the world, I got buried and lost interest.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Ask for help (not only is it OK, it improves the chances of success)
  2. Have some semblance of a resource plan (what it might take, and where those resources might come from)

General Thoughts

It is good to share personal experience with students, particularly as it relates to the sort of things they are learning about and doing in the class. It creates connections that, I believe, allow students to feel more comfortable asking for help and taking risks. In addition to the business I try to start every semester, I try to model what I ask of my students in “real” businesses, and try to be very transparent in sharing those journeys with my students.

If you are teaching entrepreneurship, don’t forget to practice it, and to be transparent in sharing that experience with students.

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.

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.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Missing In Action

Missing In Action

It’s been a whirlwind few weeks while I’ve been missing in action. TEDxNormal is quickly coming up, which I have been organizing for many months. My new venture, Legacy Out Loud, is partnering to produce the after-party for Women’s Entrepreneurship Day on November 19th in New York City, so I’ve been hustling to make that happen with zero budget. Yup, a super high-end party in Manhattan with no budget. Talk about taking a risk!!!!!!! I was honored to give a keynote speech at the annual conference of the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship and also a workshop about my approach to this class. And, most importantly, I received the prestigious ATHENA Leadership Award for my contributions to inspiring and encouraging the empowerment of female leaders. Oh yeah, and teaching, and family, and eating and sleeping, and . . . .

Back to School

Class is plugging along. The students wrapped up the Online Venture Challenge (OVC). It was a pretty disappointing exercise, to be honest. I consider it a small success and a large failure on my part. I realize I did not present enough setup structure for the students and enough encouragement. Of course, my point with this class is to introduce them to an opportunity and let them decide what to do with it. In this case, though, I fear they may not have understood the opportunity. A few teams made a profit, but only around the $100 range. A few had a few customers (8 or 10). Nothing mind-blowing, nothing impressive. They underwhelmed me, both with their effort and their performance. My lesson learned is to create more excitement at the beginning of the month, and to create more pain if they don’t engage.

Here’s where my philosophy gets tested – do I let the failure be theirs, do I share in the failure, do I take ownership of the failure?

Tomorrow we will debrief the OVC and I’ll see what they have to say about the experience and hopefully that gives me some fodder to adjust the experience for next semester.

On Deck

On Deck

Now we turn 100% to the individual project – starting a business. I have scheduled 30 minute phone calls with each student to check in with where they are, what they need, etc. I have encouraged them to provide me the following details so I can get them encouragement and feedback:

  1. The problem they are attempting to solve.
  2. The customer who experiences the most pain with that problem.
  3. The solution they are proposing to build.
  4. Their routine. I want to know how they will stay productive, and have encouraged them to have a routine. I presented them with the concept of a Lean Sprint as one model, but condensed into 5 days – one stage per day. I really don’t care what their routine is, but I tell them they better have one so they stay on task and don’t let themselves slack.

I have received nothing from any of them. I know a few of them are working on ideas, a few are actually at the point of messing around with prototypes in preparation of our big student startup competition here at ISU in a few weeks. But I don’t hear from them.

Next conversation is about experiments. I will again explain them in the context of Diana Kander’s tools – determining and documenting the goal, the hypothesis, the subject, the logistics, the currency, and the success and failure criteria. I hope they jump in the pool instead of sitting on the sidelines or just dipping their big toe in!

My Work

I am already getting excited about next semester. I have ideas of how to better incorporate the Online Venture Challenge – I will make it a competition with students from other schools using the tool, I will model for them the behavior I’m looking for, and I will do a much better job of setting up better structure to get them some forward inertia. I also learned about rejection therapy, and am giddy to include that next semester so my students (and I) get better at accepting rejection. Rejection Therapy

I think I will also incorporate some sort of rhythm to the individual project portion of the class. Like the Lean Sprint idea. I’ll have to figure out how to balance doing that with letting the students have their own experience.

With my business, I am off and running. I have 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. I called 40 professionals in my network (a broad variety of industries and tenures), and 37 of them said they would donate 15 minutes per week. I then set up a basic landing page with this very simple request: “Many college students are interested in learning more about your job, your employer, your industry. Provide your email address if you would be willing to spend 15 minutes per week answering these students’ questions.” Of those 40 professionals I talked to, 34 provided email addresses. Hypothesis validated (30 of 40 professionals would donate 15 minutes per week to talk to college students interested in learning more about their job)!

I also validated my assumption that students would want to spend 15 minutes talking to a professional about a job they’re interested in. I talked to 40 ISU students – 10 junior business students, 10 senior business students, 10 freshman, and 10 sophomores, 20 male 20 female. Of these, 35 said they would (the 5 who didn’t were freshman, which didn’t surprise me). I think the seniors and some juniors were actually drooling when I was talking to them 🙂 I then set up a basic landing page with this very simple request: “Provide your email address if you would be willing to spend 15 minutes asking work-related questions to a professional who has a job you’re interested in pursuing.” Of those 40 students I talked to, 38 provided their email address. Perhaps the freshman thought about it a little bit after we talked and changed their mind!

So, next steps are to validate the revenue model. My assumption is that students will be willing to pay for this connection. I can’t imagine professionals would pay for it. So, I will talk to more students and set up a preorder landing page to run this experiment. I will talk to and drive 50 students to the landing page and success is if 25% preorder. If 12 students preorder, I will set up a very basic Carbon site to begin gathering student and professional info and make matches. I will also have to likely hunt down professionals to match up with students as they sign up. If this has any legs, it can be an on-ramp for one of my student’s businesses (NuGrad), and another of my businesses (internrocket).

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?

A Lean Approach Is Right (Not Just For Some)

Lean Blah Blah Blah

I get that people are tired of reading and hearing about lean startups, that people have started to poke holes in the methodology and very eloquently explain the shortcomings of lean.  I definitely understand – it’s become like that really annoying song on the radio that you can’t get out of your head, and no matter what station you listen to, it is in the rotation.  I’m guilty of promulgating it.  But that’s because I believe, at its core, it is the right foundation upon which to build a startup.

Lean Is The Heart and Soul of Startups

Key word being foundation.  It is not the be all and end all of startups and entrepreneurship.  But if you look at the build-measure-learn loop, that’s the right foundation upon which to start almost anything.

Lean StartupWhy?  It’s the scientific method.  Testable hypotheses (build), the tests of those hypotheses (measure), and the analysis of the data from the tests (learn). The scientific method is a disciplined search for knowledge about something of interest.  Isn’t that what entrepreneurs do?  Or at least they should do?  Be disciplined.  Search for knowledge.  Pursue something of interest.  It just makes sense.  If you don’t think so, I call shenanigans.  You’re nuts.  All the buzzwords, I agree, are getting tiring.  But put those aside, look at the foundation, and it’s a rock solid foundation.

Look Within and You’ll Find Lean

Entrepreneurs – what to do?  Take the lean approach, put it into practice.  Build something.  Measure how people use that thing, how they interact with it, how they feel about it and about using it.  Measure whatever is important about the thing.  Then learn something from that measurement.  And do it all again.  And again.  And again.  Any entrepreneur out there not do that?  Really?  Put whatever label you want on it.  Whether it’s lean or something else, it doesn’t matter.  Fact is, you likely have gone through some version of that build-measure-learn process.  Because if you haven’t, you’re likely not in business anymore.  Because the scientific method is the the core of knowledge acquisition.  And isn’t that what we all do?  So, in the end, get over what anyone calls it.  Today’s label is going to be replaced tomorrow with new labels.  Forget about the labels – just understand the foundation (build-measure-learn) and learn to build your startup on that foundation.

Steve Blank is Wrong

On the Shoulders of Giants (like Steve Blank)

Steve Blank is one of the creators and biggest champions of the lean startup methodology and movement.  A huge tip of the cap for being on the cutting edge of getting things rolling, and for using his tremendous network, resources, and platform to promote everything lean.  Without Steve and the others at the forefront of this movement, I would not be able to impact my students as meaningfully as I do.  So, for that I say thank you.

Where Has Lean Gone

lean startup

In one of Steve’s recent posts, I noticed pictures of a film crew, and a highly professionally produced video.  It looks and sounds great, but it’s not very lean, Steve.  Not that everything he does should be lean – after all, don’t the startups grow into the gorillas and stop being lean?

Then I wanted to dig a little deeper, so I started going through all the great material from Steve I have accumulated.  His Udacity course and his Slideshare account, his NSF/NCIIA I-Corps materials.  There is an awful lot of repetition throughout these materials – I feel like I’m chewing the same bubble gum but it’s just a different color.  Again, not very lean Steve.  I don’t see a whole lot of experimenting, MVPs, pivoting.  Now, I admit that I have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, and I would imagine (and hope) that Steve is experimenting with new approaches.  I don’t see much talk of that, however.  I see partnerships with the NSF, with the Kauffman Foundation, with big name universities.  All good, and all impactful.  But, again, the reproduction and regurgitation is not very lean.

As an educator, I would love to see a more transparent perspective on where and how Steve is staying lean.  What is he experimenting with?  What is his next MVP?  What are his pivots?  He has been a role model and the standard for so many – I hope he doesn’t lose that focus and become the gorilla that stops innovating and experimenting.  I want to continue to learn from him, but feel I haven’t been able to recently.

As we have all learned from Steve, Eric Ries, Ash Maurya, Alex Osterwalder and others at the forefront, it shouldn’t take much to stay lean.  For instance, I developed a webpage a while back (took it down recently) in about 30 minutes based on a random idea I had after learning about the Datawind Ubislate 7Ci tablets.   I had tremendous response and feedback from educators and entrepreneurs in the hour or so after posted it through social media channels.  I had an idea, I made some hypotheses, I put them out there to test, and am gathering data to reinvent the offering.  Nice and lean.

Don’t forget where you came from Steve, it would be ashame to lose your authentic and powerful lean voice.  Would that be wrong if he continued down the path he seems to be on, which is silencing that great lean voice?  I think so, because I want more of the the raw, real, lean version of Steve.  I’m partial to New Yorkers, what can I say?

Now For The Fun Part

Wait For It . . .

In my classes, I’m always telling students to hold off on thinking about solutions. They want to immediately jump to describing the features they want to build into a website or an app.

Building it

They are answering the “what” question before they answer the “why” question. Big mistake. Huge. I push them to discover
1) the problem

2) who has the problem

3) what they’re currently doing to solve the problem, and

4) what isn’t working about that solution. Then build it. I’ve gone through those steps for my business, and am ready to get to building it. Here is what I have learned to get to this point.

The Problem. ISU students cannot easily find and connect with students in other disciplines.

Who Has the Problem. ISU students. Mostly I heard this from students in the College of Business, the School of IT, the Department of Technology (renewable energy, robotics, manufacturing, etc.), and the School of Communication (journalism, PR, etc.)

What They’re Currently Doing to Solve the Problem. They rely on word-of-mouth referrals from friends, other students, faculty and staff. They try connecting through Registered Student Organizations and Facebook groups. Of course, they don’t for the most part try actually visiting those schools or departments and talking face-to-face to strangers (would have been my first move).

What Isn’t Working. They generally speaking don’t get any response, or only get a response from students who don’t have much skill in the area they’re searching for it in. For instance, lots of students mentioned something along the lines of they heard back from a freshman without a developed skill set when they wanted to hear back from a junior or senior who knew how to ________ (fill in the blank skill).

Traction

Before working on a solution, I encouraged my students to think about a traction plan. How will they get traction once they start building a solution. I borrow this from Traction, an excellent resource for any entrepreneur, manager, or anyone looking to gain traction (and if you’re in business and not looking to gain traction, you’re an idiot). There are 19 channels that Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares lay out as possible avenues to gain traction. I did some research, both via customer development conversations, and also through Internet research, on the college demographic and methods of communication they rely on, etc. to help me identify some strong potential avenues for traction. I settled on viral marketing and email marketing. Because my target customers are all ISU students, I can utilize the email system to which I have access to very specifically target groups of students. And I can make the email marketing campaign look very legit and they will very likely respond as it will look like more official ISU communication. Otherwise, I’m not sure I’d use this traction channel with this group.

And Here It Is

So the solution. The time is finally here. I can now finally dive into the features and the “what”. It’s nothing exciting at this point; I purposely try very hard to hold myself back from thinking big and fancy. I want cheap and dirty at this point. A true MVP (minimum viable product). With basic features. Duct taped together. Barely working. But outwardly looking fantastic. That’s easy enough to do nowadays with wordpress sites (like this one!!) and the like.

The Plan

I need a basic site where students can indicate their interest in connecting with other students. All I need is some very basic information to try to connect them. That’s the first step. Will they provide this basic info, and can I make a meaningful connection with just that? I want to collect: 1) their name

2) their email address

3) their major

4) the concept they’re working on (or thinking about), and

5) exactly what sort of skill set they’re looking for connecting with.

I may also ask them something about whether they’re looking for a partner sort of relationship, or a contract/worker sort of relationship. With this information I will also find their Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn profiles. I hypothesize with this information, I can make more meaningful, productive, and lasting connections between ISU students looking for each other. I’m not sure what I will call this yet, how it will be branded, or any of that. Probably Redbird something-or-other (that’s our mascot here at ISU). But that isn’t that important at this point – I’ll just slap a picture of Reggie on the site to make it look legit to these students.

ReggieI will see if I can make 10 meaningful connections between students from different disciplines. By “meaningful” I mean that the students actually follow through and meet up, that they talk about the project and either get to work on it, or refer another friend who would be more appropriate for the desired goal. Basically, I am looking for

1) the connection to actually happen, and

2) some progress to be made beyond just the basic connection

If I can get close to that with my first 10 attempts, I’ll feel good. If I can accomplish that 7 out of the 10 times, I’ll feel really good. That’s my goal. 7 out of 10.

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.

Fog

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

Interruptions

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!

Findings

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.

Understanding

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.