Teaching Entrepreneurship – The “Survey” Class

The Fundamentals of Technology Entrepreneurship course at Stanford taught undergraduates how to take a technical idea and turn it into a profitable and scalable company. By getting out of the building on a team project, the class helped students viscerally understand that a startup is a search for a profitable business model. Students formed teams, came up with a business idea then talked to customers, vendors and sales channel partners to validate their business model. (And learned how to pivot their model as reality intruded.)

For undergraduates taking multiple classes finding the time to do it well was tough. But for those with full time jobs this class was a disaster.

Too Much
The first time I taught the Fundamentals of Technology Entrepreneurship class, a quarter of the class were foreign students in a special engineering-entrepreneurship program where they took one entrepreneurship class each quarter at Stanford while working full time in technology startups in Silicon Valley. The Fundamentals of Technology Entrepreneurship was intended to be their introduction to entrepreneurship. However, working full time while simultaneously attempting to participate in a team based project and Customer Discovery outside the classroom just didn’t work. The foreign students felt overwhelmed and the full time Stanford students thought they weren’t carrying their weight (when in fact they were carrying much, much more.)

We quickly realized we needed a different class to introduce entrepreneurship to students who were already knee deep in working in a startup 24/7.

Design a New Class Around Entrepreneurial Guest Speakers
Brainstorming with Tina Seelig we came up with the idea of a survey course – an introduction to entrepreneurship built around Stanford’s Entreprenuerial Thought Leaders speakers series which brings technology speakers to campus every week. In this survey course, the students would listen to the speakers and then attend twice-weekly classes which focused on the basic concepts of a startup (demand creation, sales, partnerships, team building, financing, etc.) We’d use the lectures and guest speakers to help students new to the field understand that a startup is simply a temporary organization to search for a repeatable and profitable business model.  Then we’d have the students interact directly with entrepreneurs and industry leaders in the classroom.

The Spirit of Entrepreneurship – An Interactive Survey Class
We christened the class The Spirit of Entrepreneurship. Open to all students at Stanford it was taught as two, one-hour sessions, one held the day before the guest speaker and one immediately after each guest speaker. To prepare for each speaker, we asked students to analyze the speakers company over the weekend. (For the students who were working full-time this schedule gave them the time they needed to complete their analysis.)

This new class also appealed to a wide variety of non-engineering Stanford students. In addition to the overseas work/study students I found myself teaching history majors, English majors, education majors, et al who were interested in getting their toes wet but weren’t sure they wanted to commit to the hardcore Fundamentals of Technology Entrepreneurship course.

Each week the students had to submit a two-page analysis of the presenting company’s business model, distribution channels, demand creation activities, and engineering. As some of the companies were already large, the students had to find out how the founders discovered their business model, built their team and got funded.

Since I did not select the guest speakers, the course turned into a continual improv session as I tried to match my lectures to the unpredictable variety of industries (biotech, enterprise software, video games, media, web 2.0, etc.) and different life cycle stages of the guest speakers’ companies (startup to 20+billion.)

Guest Speakers
The students saw the guests speak before a live-audience of several hundred of their fellow Stanford students.  (The videos of these speakers are edited, indexed and available as 1600 free videos and podcasts as part of Stanford’s E-Corner, on-line here.)

The heart of the class and its improvisational nature came when every speaker agreed to walk over to our classroom and sit and chat with our class one-on-one for an hour. I would interview them for the first 20 minutes or so and then turn the questioning over to the class. This personal first-hand interaction with entrepreneurs created lots of opportunity for insights. For example, hearing David Heinemeir Hannson of 37Signals talk about why his company will never get “big” and then have Steve Case of AOL/TimeWarner talk the next week about why his did helped students understand that there is no “right answer”. Similarly having the students question Trip Adler from Scribd one week about why posting documents on-line is the future and hearing from Rashmi Sinha and Jonathan Boutelle of Slideshare the next week remind us that it’s all about PowerPoints, vividly demonstrated that entrepreneurs can interpret the same market in very different ways.

I spent quite a few dinners with my students in this class. The Stanford students were curious whether startups were for them and we talked about whether entreprenuers are born or can be made (the nature versus nurture debate.) The overseas students were trying to make sense of Silicon Valley, its work ethic and how its entrepreneurial culture would fit back home. In Silicon Valley we take for granted that someone who failed in their previous company is considered an “experienced entrepreneur.”  I was reminded that in other cultures and countries the consequences of failure are much less benign.

Lessons Learned

  • Entrepreneurship is an art not a science.
  • Entrepreneurship is driven by people as well as business models.
  • Entrepreneurship only thrives in a culture that does not penalize risk-taking or failure.
  • There is no “right path” to success

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3 Responses

  1. “Each week the students had to submit a two-page analysis of the presenting company’s business model, distribution channels, demand creation activities, and engineering. As some of the companies were already large, the students had to find out how the founders discovered their business model, built their team and got funded.”

    This kind of assignment makes it very easy for students to have only one person to do base research and others copypasting and rewriting his findings, and since the range of answers is very limited (there is only one company) – the chance of getting caught is slim. Did you have this problem?

  2. Sounds like a great course!

  3. I wonder if similar programs will ever be made available to non-Stanford students (I.e., via continue education / professional development program).
    It will be invaluable.

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