Entrepreneurs Experience – Do It and Learn It

In 2012, in partnership with Stanford UniversityU.C. Berkeley and NCIIAJerry Engel and I first offered the Lean LaunchPad Educators Class. The class was designed to teach educators (and the adjunct entrepreneurs that support them) the Lean LaunchPad approach (Business Model Design, Customer Development and Agile Engineering) for teaching entrepreneurship. In addition the class offers a suggested “Lean Entrepreneurship” curriculum and the details of how to teach the capstone Lean LaunchPad class.

Matthew Terrell attended our latest Lean LaunchPad Educators Class. Matthew is an Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Delaware where he teaches Introduction to Entrepreneurship in course called Entrepreneurs Experience.

He’s the Founder of Vision Creations & Founders Films. Matt asked some of the toughest questions in the class.

Matthew Terrell


I came to the Lean LaunchPad Educators Program 2 ½ day workshop to learn from the best in the business of entrepreneurship education. My fellow attendees were an accomplished collection of international entrepreneurs, investors, educators and in most cases, comprised all three disciplines.  I had posed many questions during the three-day workshop, but I was struggling to accept the answer Steve now provided.

During the last session of the program I raised my hand and asked Steve, “Based on what we were learning about the Customer Discovery process, would my students develop a better understanding of entrepreneurship by learning Customer Discovery methods, or by launching a business during the semester generating as much as $50K in sales.” Steve’s answer to my question made me physically and emotionally uncomfortable.

Steve replied, “You have to decide if you’re running an incubator whose goal is revenue or teaching students a methodology that will last them the rest of their lives. The students would be better served if they passed on the cash if it meant they developed a better grasp of the key skills needed to be successful entrepreneurs.” I awkwardly shifted the weight around in my chair, my body tensed up, and I could not believe my ears. Steve said I was welcome to disagree with him, but in the long term, the students would be better off in their careers learning Customer Discovery skills. (To be fair Steve did point out that he did have teams that did both in class. Krave Jerky started in his Berkeley class and showed up with a $500K check from Safeway in the middle of course.) Far be it from me to disagree with a legend, but I struggled to digest his advice.

Take the Money First?
I am a founder first and an adjunct professor second.  I am opportunity-obsessed, and I believe the advice I received from Babson President, Len Schlesinger: “Action Trumps Everything.” I love entrepreneurship because it is a full contact sport, requiring complete commitment. New ventures favor the hard-working hustler over the naturally gifted individual. I love teaching entrepreneurship because it sparks a fire in students. As with many educators in this field, I evaluate my success based on the number of new ventures that emerge from our class. Starting a business is a hands-on endeavor, and I am thrilled when my students take action and execute.

Admittedly I have traditionally taught my course with an emphasis on the business plan as the students’ culminating final project.  Last year in recognizing the power of the business model canvas, I changed the final project to an Entrepreneurs Action Plan that required two pages of text on each of the nine canvas blocks, and students were required to create an Advisory Board.  I felt this was an effective approach but during the Lean LaunchPad workshop, I came to accept the death of the business plan. Steve explained (smiling) that the business plan was most appropriate in a University’s English department, specifically in its creative writing courses as they were all fiction. (What he really said, was that an operating plan comes after you have some facts.)

During the break between sessions at the Lean LaunchPad workshop, I could not resist the opportunity to delve further into this topic with Steve. I explained my position: theories and models are useful learning tools, but nothing beats actual business development experience. We agreed, then, the question remains: What is the goal and desired outcome of the class?  My goal is to teach the key skills needed to become a successful founder. Steve said that if this was my goal, then indeed, the Customer Discovery approach is best.

What’s the Goal of Teaching Entrepreneurship?
This concept has consumed me since I returned from the workshop. In trying to accept Steve’s perspective, I surmise that perhaps the customer interview process is not a theoretical feedback survey or focus group, but in fact, it is as dirty as direct sales.  I continue to grapple with the issue and will see it firsthand in my class this semester, as my students dive deeper searching during the interview process.

Steve’s second piece of advice I struggle with is the removal of guest speakers. As part of my course, I created Founders Forum, where I host entrepreneurs to come share their early work experiences, their stories building their businesses, their lessons learned, and their advice to aspiring entrepreneurs. I find the firsthand accounts to be extraordinary learning tools for both my students and for me.  I discourage PowerPoints and recommend the speakers candidly share experiences from the front lines.  Additionally, meeting with speakers grants students an opportunity to develop networking skills. Furthermore, I find the Founders Forum to be a helpful tool in creating a more vibrant local entrepreneurial ecosystem. Steve said, “guest speakers are a wonderful addition to the entrepreneurship curriculum, (and ought to be part of every program as in Stanford’s ecorner speaker series) but they are a distraction in this class. The purpose of the Lean LaunchPad class is full immersion in customer discovery – everything else is a distraction.”

Since returning from the workshop I rewrote my curriculum and started class last night.  It may best be described as Lean LaunchPad Light. We are using much of the Lean methodology for our curriculum, but I also include key career development skills.

Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Generation and Steve’s Udacity Lean LaunchPad Lectures are required reading/viewing.  Additionally I recommend but I do not require: Startup Owner’s ManualFounders at Work and the Founders Films clips. I also recommend students keep a personal journal for mind-mapping and brainstorming business ideas. The first exercise we do in class is Dave McClure’s Half-Baked game (but students also have to use the Value Proposition & the Customer Segment.) This exercise demonstrates the need to be flexible in business.

Additional outside readings includes a number of excellent book summaries ranging from Tina Seelig’s InGenius, Tom Kelley’s 10 Faces of Innovation, Anthony Tjan’s Hearts, Smarts Guts and Luck and Dan Pink’s To Sell is Human.

Steve’s insight and inspiration during the Lean LaunchPad Educators Program was extraordinary. I am enormously grateful for the opportunity to learn from the legend and exchange ideas with the best in the field. I appreciate Steve’s continued advice as I do my best to carry the Lean LaunchPad flag in Delaware.
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13 Responses

  1. Great job leaving the dark side, Matt! 😉 I am impressed at the amount of change you created in such a short period of time and I hope you’ll continue to keep us posted! Natasha

  2. Awesome comments. Customer development has a lot deeper impact when you are also in the middle of achieving revenue. Connecting the dots to your own life creates ownership of the CD thought process. Repeated enough times, it becomes second nature.

    Great insights and I am now going back to my canvas to reconsider where we are and where we need to go. Thanks!

  3. Great post, and believe I can identify with both perspectives. Perhaps the most telling comment starts with the purpose of the course. At WFU we do not currently have a full LLP focused course. This does not mean we cannot incorporate many of the concepts and structure exercises that help students internalize customer discovery and development. Believe this helps students form their own mental model around how they view opportunities.

    Most of my students in the MBA and UG classes do not come with a venture idea. Therefore I approach this from two perspectives. One deals with creativity to the extent they can develop an idea that they can then frame the customer discovery and LLP concepts around. Many of these are more contrived, but several have resulted in near launches (TBD). We go through two iterations of BMC with much outside the class as feasable.

    The second exercise has gained more traction. I partner with a regional business plan competition that has some significant prizes. Applicants submit business plans that results in about 10 semi-finalists. I then get these finalists BP and the exercise for students is to perform due diligence on these ventures using much of the BMC and actually testing someone else’s customer discovery. The results are shared with judges and the entrepreneurs. This is our second year, and the results are significant for the students and the competition.

    Just a thought that we can use much of what Steve and others have tested, but modify for the specific purpose of our classes.

    Best regards…Stan

  4. Received with thanks.
    Very insightful and to the point
    Austin Okere
    Group CEO
    Computer Warehouse Group
    Tel: 01-7333444 ext 1001; Mobile: +2348034021266
    Email: Austine.okere@cwlgroup.com ; website: http://www.cwlgroup.com

  5. Great process in developing your class Matt. I believe the combination of the Lean Launchpad you are using and the hands on experience students get by going out to potential clients, asking questions and checking their facts is a very effective way to teach your class. The experience of testing out their concept in the real world will also bring another level of energy to the class.

  6. Reblogged this on paulcubbon and commented:
    Challenging educators to rethink what it means to “teach” entrepreneurship.
    Question what you do and why you do it – be prepared to blow up the curriculum. I attended Steve Blank’s first LLP educators’ workshop in Aug 2012 and am busily endeavouring to put it into practice, in parts in existing undergraduate, graduate and executive courses, but most notably, in full, in a university-wide non-credit workshop series, run on 4 half-days over 2 months. We started with 10 teams, have 8 left at half-way and it is working – teams are getting out of the building and finding out facts that cause them to pivot early. It’s liberating and powerful. My plan is to formalize LLP language and principles across programs.

  7. This is a great post – I appreciate the discussion of getting real experience vs. gaining skills that will serve a lifetime. Like Stan, we use many of the concepts in our classes at the University of Iowa but we are anxious to learn / incorporate more. Very disappointed that the January class was full when we heard about it!

  8. I think that the customer discovery process is about looking for patterns in the information that you gather from talking to and observing potential customers. I came across this example recently.

    “In an interesting focus group study that Phillips did to find out what color they should make a new electric kettle they invited groups of people to come in and discuss the merits of the different colored kettles on display. There were kettles in red, blue, yellow, green, and the traditional white. Most people liked the colored ones, and praised them for their looks and fresh approach. After the study they were told that as a thank you they could pick one of the kettles to take home. Almost all of them chose the white one. “

  9. This is very powerful Statement

    “Steve explained (smiling) that the business plan was most appropriate in a University’s English department, specifically in its creative writing courses as they were all fiction. (What he really said, was that an operating plan comes after you have some facts.)”

  10. Matt, I struggled with the same balancing act when I was teaching New Venture Planning MBA course at the Xavier University. There is no right answer in terms of students doing after learning or learning after doing. It all depends on the context related to underlying opportunity and entrepreneur’s passion, purpose, and perseverance in pursuing it.

  11. Matthew:
    Fascinating post, especially the detail. It provides some very good insight into the struggle most companies and investors have with customer discovery.

    I believe that your early comment that “theories and models are useful learning tools, but nothing beats actual business development experience” was interesting based on your early class requirement of a business plan — which of course some consider the antithesis of action.

    Your later comment “I surmise that perhaps the customer interview process is not a theoretical feedback survey or focus group, but in fact, it is as dirty as direct sales.” underscores a big idea and a key learning. What the customer development team is in fact doing is getting into a time machine to see what the sales team will see when the product is introduced. There are always surprises; let’s get them now.

    I do have to admit I was a bit crestfallen when I read your last section of what you highlight within your revamped curriculum — you outline the requirements (specific tools and the videos0. You recommend additional reading. You are keen on your first exercise.

    Expectedly, students will focus on what you highlight and suggest and require. So where is the highlighted requirement of at the very least 10 prospective customer meetings a week? I realize it’s not overlooked, but why not more prominent in your own vision of the class curriculum?

    Customer discovery is more action-oriented around the product-market fit than most entrepreneurs. It is the fount of 98% of the business model and later business plan facts.

    When one starts measuring getting out of the building and gaining commitment for the next step (or crawling home and throwing levers and twisting dials to figure out what needs to change), then the team can turn to the framework and theory get the most out of their action.

    Your bias for action IS correct. I wonder what you would change if you reviewed your curriculum yet again and see if it is similarly biased to the prime business development action of getting out of the building.

    Everything else is about how to do it better; without getting out of the building, it’s all theory and framework.

  12. […] may be good for you to read Steve Blank‘s blog Entrepreneurs Experience – Do It and Learn It.  I believe we’re doing both at Lean Startup Circle – […]

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