Tag Archives: Pedagogy

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.

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).

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.

For a Good Cause

A Rough Start

Last week started with a disappointment. We kicked off the Online Venture Challenge (OVC) portion of our course. I told the students that on Monday they could pitch me to be a member of their team, and I would bring my expertise, network, and resources to bear for their team’s benefit. I figured they would jump at this opportunity (it is, after all, a competition!) None of the teams prepared a pitch for me, and 3 teams gave it the old college try.

Photo Credit: mido1842 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: mido1842 via Compfight cc

I chose not to join any team. The 3 who “pitched” did a good job winging it, but they didn’t pitch me on why I should join their team. They explained their product/service, but forgot to convince me why I would gain value from joining their team. So, a little disappointed that here was the first opportunity, and nobody jumped on it.

No More Jumping

Back to the OVC. I’ve never used this platform and experience in my course, but I think it’s the perfect introduction to what I’m trying to get my students to learn. I usually have them proverbially jump in the deep end and get to starting their own business right away. As much as I hate to admit it, I think the learning curve (or is it the comfort curve?) is too steep. They take too long to get going, they get too discouraged. So this semester, I’m using the OVC to help them wade in before they jump.

Photo Credit: Christopher Setty via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Christopher Setty via Compfight cc

My OVC is one month long. Students work in groups to design and sell products/services for a designated local charity, with all profits going to the charity at the end of the month. I encouraged students to first identify a charity they wanted to work for, then figure out what sort of product/service idea would align with the mission of that charity. For the most part, the students identified some level of fit between their product/service and their charity’s mission. For those who did not, they’ll soon believe me when they talk to their charity to receive their endorsement!

The crew behind the OVC is fantastic in terms of how they set everything up, so the students got going rather quickly with their Shopify store. They all had ideas right out of the gate. Some were fairly typical ideas (selling shirts and selling some artwork to benefit animal shelters), some were more unique (selling vehicles made from soda cans to benefit Wounded Warriors).

The Goal

For one month, the students need to design, build, and sell. Something. Anything. I’ll assess them on the design of their site, their performance (revenues, profits, users, visitors, etc.), and a series of tasks & metrics built into the OVC platform (getting customers from Facebook, getting an endorsement from their charity, etc.). Again, the OVC team has done a great job developing metrics that capture the sort of tasks I want my students to be performing.

Last (But Certainly Not Least)

We are also reading Diana Kander’s All In Startup. I can’t recommend this book enough to anyone teaching any variety of entrepreneurship or small business or innovation. Students devour the story, which is a very engaging story one it’s own, and thereby learn a TON about customer development and some of the very basic steps necessary to starting a new business, growing an existing business, etc. Diana delivers great discussion questions to help the professor along, and even goes so far as to suggest a variety of activities (some easy, some hard) to go along with her book. With a relatively inexpensive book and accompanying discussion/instructor’s guide and activities, what could go wrong?

Lightning

 Why?

Hopefully, at the end of this month, students have 1) devoured Diana’s book and have a decent sense of what customer development is about (and why it’s so important), and 2) iterated through the process from idea to sales. This should position them much better than I have in past classes for success for the journey they’ll begin for the rest of the class: starting their own real business.

I am pretty sad I won’t be working with any one team specifically during the OVC segment of this course. I really looked forward to kicking some ass! Guess that will have to wait until the portion when we all start our own business (myself included). I don’t have any ideas yet about what to start – any thoughts?

Next week is stepping on the gas and hopefully making a ton of progress (and money) with their OVC businesses. Nice and simple!

Time to Launch

This week got a lot more serious. We did Justin Wilcox’ 60 Minutes to Launch as a class on Monday, and got goin on the Online Venture Challenge on Wednesday.

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Just Launch

I have been a big fan of Justin Wilcox’ work for some time. He and I keep circling some of the same goals, connecting here and there, brainstorming here and there. I have been impatiently waiting to try his 60 Minutes to Launch exercise in my class. Since my class is 75 minutes long, it is perfect! He recommends splitting into three teams:

  1. Landing Page
  2. Video
  3. Payments

I struggled all week with how to implement this in class. I could have the entire class work on one project, or split students into many small groups to work on their own projects. I went with the class working on one project. Honestly, I’m not 100% sure why – as is my nature, I made the decision as I was walking into class. I think I was hoping that way we could all talk about a common context. As I do frequently, I chose wrong! 5 or 6 students wanted to be on the landing page team. Too many. 7 or 8 students wanted to be on the video team. Too many. The remaining 20 or so students wanted to be on the payments team. WAAAAY too many.

In debriefing with Justin after the class, he explained to me his strategy when he uses this exercise in workshops and events. He has people form teams of 3 (maybe 4 at most). And he encourages/forces people to do the thing they don’t want to. So the creative mind who is good with video needs to work on landing page or payments. The more technical folk who want to work on landing page or payments need to work on the creative video piece. Why? This way, people understand just how painless it can be to put on another hat. From now on, anytime I use this (which I plan on doing at the upcoming NACCE conference and also at the upcoming USASBE conference) I will use this approach.

The Big (Bad) Idea

I also gave my students the idea. For many semesters I’ve heard complaints from male and female students about male gift-giving behavior (or lack thereof!) in relationships. Very generally speaking, the feedback I hear when I push further is that

  1. The men don’t enjoy gift giving and aren’t sure what to get
  2. The women don’t appreciate men putting it off to the last minute, which often results in lame gifts
  3. The women even more so don’t appreciate the men forgetting important dates (birthday, anniversary, etc)

I explained the idea and rationale to the class. They mostly agreed it was a problem, although a few questioned how big a problem it was. We proceeded with this idea – a service where young men could go to reserve and/or purchase a customized gift basket for their significant other.

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Students got to work on http://www.gifttotherescue.com/ (it didn’t last long – don’t bother trying to find it). They created a landing page, a video (Mission Impossible style – very clever!) and payment capability. As Justin implores and reminds, it was done but certainly not perfect.

  1. We had a functioning landing page with payment system for pre-orders before class ended. But many students missed a big part of the learning opportunity. Very small teams next time will encourage the engagement I was seeking.
  2. Students understood that done is better than perfect
  3. Students saw how “easy” it can be to put something into the world

Mission (mostly) accomplished! Thanks for the great exercise Justin.

The Next Challenge

Next class I introduced the students to the Online Venture Challenge. This is a fantastic program that costs students very little, can be a short module in a class, and engages them in powerful learning as they start, run and liquidate a “business”. I am using the next month for this activity in my class. Geoff Archer shared some great resources with me that he has developed and uses with this – master grading sheet, slide deck, etc. I gave students the context, gave them the basic structure, gave them the basic grading buckets (design of site, power of the site, performance overall – with lots of ways to triangulate within those buckets per the master grading sheet). I told them they needed to

  1. Identify a local charity to support (after this exercise is done, the teams have to donate all proceeds to the charity). I let students choose to pay themselves back their initial investment if they’d like ($25) – let’s see who is greedy and who is not!
  2. Identify something they can sell through their Shopify store that aligns with that charity’s mission.

All groups emerged from this class with a team in place, with a charity to work with, and a basic idea to begin with. I was a little baffled by a couple ideas, and very impressed with two ideas in particular.

One tweak I put on Geoff’s process was to inject myself into the competition (at the end of the day, students see this as a competition where they have to beat the other teams). On Monday, the students have the chance to pitch me on why I should join their team. If one pitch strikes me more than any other, I will join that team. I told them it is not guaranteed I will join a team, so they really needed to move me with a pitch.

Wrap-up and Looking Forward

It was a great week, for me and for the students. They experience the pain, confusion, and excitement of creating something and putting it into the world with the 60 Minutes to Launch exercise. They got moving on their first big challenge with the Online Venture Challenge (OVC).

Next week, we will officially start the OVC, and will also begin reading Diana Kander’s All In Startup, which will provide some guidance and background to what they need to do to succeed in the OVC and in their eventual individual leap into starting a business.

I’m interested to see the pitches on Monday to see what students think will move me.

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?

The Good and the Best About Being an Educator … There is No Ugly Here

Note: This was originally posted a year or so ago, and was composed using voice-to-text, so apologies for goofs 

The beauty of being an educator

Photo Credit: young_einstein via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: young_einstein via Compfight cc

I spend a lot of time bashing my profession but recently have had cause to smile about my profession. Actually I always have cause to smile when I am engaged with my students. I do what I do because I love giving back and helping my students find and engage their passion.   The other day one of my students, told me that she is graduating in a couple weeks and is completely unsure of what she wants to do after college. She is getting an HR degree but when talking to her I pulled out of her that the things that she’s really passionate about and loves to learn about in practice have to do with beauty and makeup. No this is not one of my areas of expertise I know this is shocking, so I started reaching out to colleagues of mine in Chicago who may be able today introduced this young woman to people in the beauty industry. Lo and behold instantly the number of my colleagues in Chicago we’re willing and able to introduce this young woman to people in the beauty industry.I believe that this process will help to change this young woman’s career path from something that she would settle for to something that she could live for. That’s an impact. That’s why I’m here. That’s the beauty of what I do. It doesn’t usually happen in the classroom during class time. Sometimes it does, when those light bulbs pop on. But more often it happens outside the classroom, during deeper discussions about purpose, passion, and uncertainty.

Educator’s impact is outside the classroom

I have had these discussions with many students in the few years I have been teaching. I have students who have found their way, on my urgent, to Boston. They ventured out on their own because they wanted something new, something exciting, something challenging. They were willing to face uncertainty and to take full advantage of what it offers. I have other students who are working their dream jobs in the Chicago area. They did not find these jobs with a resume, a cover letter, or any other vehicle that would make them seemed like every other robot coming out of college. They found these jobs because they were willing to stand up, speak up, and take a chance that somebody would be willing to help them figure out where they wanted to go and how to get there. I was willing to help.

Educators should do more than educate

I get excited when I see students excited. I rarely see students as excited in the classroom we’re talking about class related material as when I am talking to them trying to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives.it does not take anything very special to make a dead in these young men and womens futures. it takes listening to them, asking difficult questions, supporting their fear, in their passion, and being their champion. Is that so hard? Even if it is I would argue it is the most meaningful experiences an educator can have.

The best part of being an educator, in my humble opinion, has nothing to do with education per se. it has to do with supporting our students in their search for meaning, for challenge, for security, for fun, and for the future that is fulfilling. That cannot be accomplished through traditional means of education and in a traditional formatted classroom.

My challenge to educators

I challenge all educators to change their view of what our role can be and should be in the students lives. And to think through how we can have an impact and be responsible champions for our students in their pursuit of a meaningful future.

What are you doing? What could you do better? How are you impacting your students in lasting waves? If you are not, shame on you. If you are, please share how you do that so the rest of us can learn and can be better at what we should do.