Tag Archives: students

Two Stories Every Entrepreneurship Student Should Tell

An entrepreneur needs resources from others. Financial capital. Human capital. Social capital. Political capital. The easiest path to someone’s resources is a great story.

After hammering away at discovering a problem and identifying early adopters, I turn my focus to my students’ storytelling abilities.

Entrepreneurial Story

My students “meet” Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte. In particular we watch Nancy’s incredible TED talk about how great talks wiggle between what is and what could be.

I then give students a preview of a great deck: Airbnb’s redesigned deck.

The students are in no position to assemble a deck for an investor. Knowing the components necessary to tell a story successfully to an investor is a critical lesson for anyone wanting to build a scalable business. The Airbnb deck has those components. Each student must fill in a template of that deck about their idea.

They struggle with doing real research.

They struggle with estimating market size.

They struggle with explaining a simple business model.

OK, ok. They basically struggle with every slide except the first one (and some even struggle there!) They understand why they need to tell a powerful story, and how hard it is to tell a powerful story.

Personal Story

I then shock my students.

I have them fill out a second deck. They are the product.

Students need to see themselves as a product with value. They need to understand how to position that value in the marketplace. They need to get comfortable selling themselves to potential employers. They struggle even more with this deck, but past students have told me this is one of the most valuable experiences in their college tenure.

Selling Through a Story

I want my students to understand that they need to always be selling. As an employee, they are selling a product or service, to internal or external customers. As an entrepreneur, they are selling product or service, selling value, selling equity. They are selling possibility, they are selling reality (hopefully!), they are selling solutions to problems.

Talk to your students about storytelling.

Make your students tell their entrepreneurial story.

Make your students tell their personal story.

It will hurt, but it is a powerful exploration they need to take.

Problems, Assumptions, & Customers Oh My!

In my entrepreneurship class, I push students to start a business within the semester (evidenced by achieving authentic sales from strangers for something that they “created”). It is a scary landscape for my students. Instead of just talking them through it, I lead them through it; I hold myself to the same standard and also try to start a business within the semester.

College Students Need Better Career Advice

We find problems through personal experience and observation. Having engaged with hundreds of (mostly business) students every semester for 6 years (and having been a student a few years back), a problem I recognized is that students are dramatically unprepared for the uncertainty they will soon face. And, more importantly, I see tons of them actively scrambling to find resources to help them prepare. It is not just a problem I observe, it is a problem I see them actively trying to solve, and I hear from them that the solutions they are finding tend to be inadequate.

First we identify a problem: College students cannot find timely, actionable career preparedness advice in an easily digestible format they enjoy

Then we frame our problem as a question: “How can we provide timely, engaging on-demand career advice for college students?”

Then we reframe the question to lead us to more powerful conversations with potential customers: “How can we get students excited about their freedom?” or “How can we prepare students to create their future?”

Assumptions Will Sink You

As we prepare to engage with potential customers through problem interviews, we want to also be able to acknowledge the assumptions  we come into the conversation with. These are the leaps of faith, so can make or break our journey. Deliberately investigating our assumptions will help us experiment more effectively. The Assumptions Mapping Worksheet available from David Bland and his team at Precoil is a great resource to identify out desirability (“do they want this?”), viability (“should I do this?”), and feasibility assumptions (“can I do this?”).

Some of my assumptions:

College business students want help preparing for their career

College and online career preparedness/advice resources are inadequate

College students are scared of the uncertainty of post-college

College students will pay for targeted, on-demand career advice

What About The Customers?

My students want to get talking to potential customers. They want to learn about their problems. They want to sell them a solution. It’s really hard to be patient, and to prepare adequately for engaging customers. But it’s critical to do so methodically. I encourage them to really work on formulating a solid problem, and dig really deep to identify their assumptions. Next step is to do some work (through the FOCUS Framework worksheets “Who Are Your Early Adopters?” and “Your Early Adopters” by Justin Wilcox) to narrow down on the specific niche who will hopefully be our early adopters. For me, I’m thinking that niche will be 2nd semester junior business students. Freshman and sophomores aren’t quite there yet in terms of the urgency. Seniors often think they are all set, or just don’t care. Generalities here of course. We’ll get some planning done with these two worksheets and be much better prepared to talk to the right potential customers about the right problem so when we get to a solution we’re building the right solution.

What are your thoughts about this journey? Any suggestions for how to improve it? Any steps I’m missing?

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.

My Mess Got In The Way

Service Bell with Check in  Sign at Hotel Desk

Checking In

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

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

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

“No Dad, What About You?”

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

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

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

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

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

I Have an Idea

Expose Students to “Real” People

Visitor

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

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

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

Photo Credit: cmr727 via Compfight cc

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

Packback

 

What’s Next For the Class?

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

What’s Next For Me?

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

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

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

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

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

SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!!

No Sweat

Act I: “No Sweat!”

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

Can Crafts

 

 

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

 

 

 

Drinksbee

 

 

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

 

 

 

Wishbone

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

 

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

Act II: The Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Straight Outta Normal

Leap of faith

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

Let’s Get It On: Day 1

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

The Delivery

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

Bottled Water

Quick Lessons Learned

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

The Debrief

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

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

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

Let’s Get It On: Day 2

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

Idea Sex

Idea Sex

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

Idea Math

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

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

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

Wrapping Up

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

60 Minutes

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