Back from a family humanitarian trip/vacation to one of the last bastions of Communism where “marketing” isn’t even a profession and entrepreneurship is a crime. The irony is that the “Revolutionary Square” in all these Communist countries will be the the first place the McDonald’s go when the system collapses.
In my last post I described my approach to one of the three classes I teach at Stanford in the engineering school: Fundamentals of Technology Entrepreneurship. The key things I want students to take from the class are:
- Understand that a startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a profitable business model
- Learn how to put together a business model, not a business plan
- Understand that a business model is only a series of hypotheses that need to be validated outside the building
As described in the previous post, this is a hands-on class. The 55 students formed 11 teams, and each team had to come up with an original idea, size the opportunity, propose a Business Model, get out of the building and test their hypotheses and analyze and explain each of the parts of their model.
The class wouldn’t have been possible without lots of hands other than mine.
Having a teaching partner makes life a lot easier and the class improves. A partner allows me the flexibility to miss a session or two (my job as a California Coastal Commissioner meets three days every month up and down the coast of California.) But the best benefit is bringing a second set of eyeballs to the curriculum which always makes it better.
This was the year I finally got the “business model versus business plan” concept nailed down. In previous classes I had experimented with moving away from the traditional focus on writing a business plan to a hands-on approach to building a business model.
But it wasn’t until Ann Miura-Ko joined me as a teaching partner that this “teach the model not the plan” idea jelled. Ann who had been my Teaching Assistant while she had finished her PhD at Stanford felt the same frustration about teaching entrepreneurs to assemble a business plan that we knew in the real world wouldn’t survive first contact with customers. After Stanford, Ann joined Mike Maples’ Venture Capital firm Floodgate as a partner. Over the summer we had both been impressed with Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Template work. At first we thought of adopting his template for the class, but found that an even more simplified version of a canonical business model that Ann developed worked better.
Teaching at both Stanford and Berkeley I get to see the difference between the resources in a private university and those of a state university. (For the first 5 years at Berkeley, I taught 60 students by myself with no teaching partner or teaching assistant.) As the Stanford entrepreneurship program for the engineering school sits in the Management Science and Engineering Department, most of our TA’s are students in the MS&E PhD program. For this class Daisy Chung and David Hutton were our Teaching Assistants (TA’s.) TA’s make managing 60 students working on cases and team projects manageable.
They set up and keep the class web site updated. They provide logistical support for guest speakers. They answer enumerable emails about logistics as well as substantive questions about class content. In addition to Ann and my office hours, Daisy and David held their own office hours to provide student support.
Most importantly, while Ann I reviewed all the grades, the TA’s managed the logistics of grading: grading the homework (in this class the case study summaries) and the business model written summary, keeping track of class participation and rolling up all the grades from the formal presentation. And they gave us feedback after each class session letting us know if we were particularly incoherent and kept us abreast of the usual student and team dynamics/crisis.
Finally our TA’s managed the mentors we had supporting the students.
One part of Silicon Valley culture that doesn’t get enough credit is the generosity of entrepreneurs and VC’s who are willing to share their time with students. Ann and I recruited VC’s and entrepreneurs to be mentors for each team. (We’ve never had a problem in getting help for these classes.) Typically we have a mix of new mentors and those who have volunteered their time before.) I wrote a handbook for the mentors to explain their roles (here.)
Essentially mentors support and coach each team. They typically met once or twice in person with the team, help them network outside the building, answer emails, provide critiques, etc. On average, mentors spent about 6 to 8 hours of time over the quarter with students. Some even came into to class to cheer on their team for their final business model presentations.
Two important things I learned early on in teaching are: 1) regardless of how good you are, students get sick of hearing you drone on week after week, and 2) hearing a guest make a point you’ve been trying to get across often makes it stick. So we tried to break up our lectures with guest speakers.
Ideally we attempt to match the guests with the case or class session subject. For example, when we taught the value of getting out of the building and agile development, we had Eric Ries talk about the Lean Startup. When we covered partnerships with the WebTV case, we had Spencer Tall who negotiated the deal with Sony for WebTV come in and explain to the class what really happened. (Ann also kept me in the 21st century by making sure we had several woman entrepreneurs as guest speakers.)
In the last decade, entrepreneurship has become faddish, particularly in college. It’s now “cool” to be an entrepreneur, and every school wants some type of entrepreneurship course. While that’s gratifying, the fact is that most people are ill suited to survive in the wild as founders or early employees.
I taught this introductory undergraduate class without many compromises. If you want to know what being an entrepreneur is going to be like you didn’t get to sit in a classroom listening to lectures for a quarter and then write a business plan. (I also teach a less intense introduction class for engineers called the Spirit of Entrepreneurship and the Customer Development Class at Berkeley which I’ll describe in a future post.) I actually hoped that some students who were curious about entrepreneurship would discover that it is definitely not for them. Better to find it out in a classroom than as a career choice.
While that did happen to a few (some are still in shock that I “cold-call” in class, others can’t handle the team dynamics or complain that there is no “right” answer, or were disoriented that the mentors, professors and customers all had different answers) the class seems to have had the opposite effect on an interesting segment.
Sometimes you get emails like this at the end of class:
“Just want to say thank you for the “big ideas” you brought to us. Thanks to your class, I have been thinking thoroughly about my future career and have decided that I would become an entrepreneur rather than anything else. Actually I made up my mind just on my plane to my final round of interview with the Boston Consulting Group. I flew there and told the partner that I would become an entrepreneur instead.”
In the fall Ann and I are going to develop a new graduate-level class for Stanford that will take this one to the next level. Students will not only have to assemble a team, come up with the idea and leave the classroom to test the business model – they’ll need to come back with real customer orders. (And if it’s a web-based product, they’ll have to build it.)
I wonder if we can fill the class.
A few more of the final class presentations are here (click on the thumbnails to enlarge):
One last presentation here: