Sometimes It Pays to be a Jerk

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
William Shakespeare Henry V | Act 4, Scene 3

The concepts in my Lean LaunchPad curriculum can be taught in a variety of classes–as an introduction to entrepreneurship all the way to a graduate level “capstone class.”

I recently learned being tough when you select teams for a capstone class pays off for all involved.

Here’s why.


Our Lean LaunchPad class requires student teams to get out of the building and talk to 10-15 customers a week while they’re building the product.  And they do this while they are talking a full load of other classes.  To say it’s a tough class is an understatement.  The class is designed for students who said they want  a hands-on experience in what it takes to build a startup – not just writing a business plan or listening to lectures.

The class syllabus has all kinds of “black box” warnings about how difficult the class is, the amount of time required, etc.

Yet every year about 20% of teams melt down and/or drop the class because some of the team members weren’t really committed to the class or found they’ve overcommitted.

This year that drop out rate went to zero when I ran an accidental “be a jerk” experiment.

Here Are the Rules
We set up the Lean LaunchPad class so that teams hit the ground running in the first class. Before students are admitted, they formed teams, applied as a team with a business model canvas, had homework and were expected to be presenting their business model canvas hypotheses on day one of the class. Our first class session is definitely not a “meet and greet”.  The syllabus is clear that attendance was mandatory for the first class.

This year, at one of the universities where I teach in the engineering school, our quarter was going to start right after the New Year.  Some of the teams had students from the business school, law school and education school whose start dates were a few days later.

To remind everyone that attendance at the first class was required, we sent out an email to all the teams in December. We explained why attendance at the first class was essential and reminded them they agreed to be there when they were admitted to the class. The email let them know if they missed the first class, they weren’t going to be allowed to register.  And since teams required 4 members, unless their team found a replacement by the first week, the team would not be allowed to register either. (We made broad exceptions for family emergencies, events and a few creative excuses.)

I had assumed everyone had read the syllabus and had planned to be back in time for class.

Then the excuses started rolling in.

Be A Jerk
About 25% of the teams had team members who had purposely planned to miss the first class.  Most of the excuses were, “I thought I could make it up later.”

In past years I would have said, “sure.”  This year I decided to be a jerk.

I had a hypothesis that showing up for the first class might be a good indicator of commitment when the class got tough later in the quarter.  So this time, unless I heard a valid excuse for an absence I said, “too bad, you’ve dropped the class.”

You could hear the screaming around the world (this is in a school where the grading curve goes from A to A+.)  The best was an email from a postdoc who said “all his other professors had been accommodating his “flexible” schedule his entire time at the school and he expected I would be as well.“  Others complained that they had paid for plane tickets and it would cost them money to change, etc.

I stuck to my guns – pointing out that they had signed up for the class knowing this was the deal.

Half the students who said they couldn’t make it magically found a way to show up.  The others dropped the class.

The results of the experiment?  Instead of the typical 20% drop out rate during the quarter none left – 0.

We had a team of committed and passionate students who wanted to be in the class.  Everyone else failed the “I’m committed to making this happen” test.

Lessons Learned

  • Commitment is the first step in building a startup team.
  • It washes out the others
  • Setting a high bar saves a ton of grief later

Listen to the blog post here [audio]

Download the podcast here

31 Responses

  1. I have a slightly different approach, but one that has been equally effective. I offer 10 assessment points for ‘free’, but with strings.

    Students who fail to turn up or are late lose 3 points unless medical evidence or similar proof is supplied. They also have to have nominated another team member to cover their absences – this is done at outset.

    At the end of the session each student supplies ‘a contribution audit’, through which they rate the input of other team members. This is reviewed and agreed by the team – then factored in to the final grade.

    For example, if a 4-person team agrees 25% each, then the overall team grade is only adjusted for the individual according to their attendance ‘points’. If, as has been the case, someone only contributes 5% then it is entirely likely that the individual will fail, yet the rest of the team might get enhanced grades for covering the shortfall.

    Communication, reliability and resilience were the topic of pre-session 1, hence getting complete sign up is effortless.

    Last 7 years we have achieved 100% student satisfaction rates using this method… they know when they are going to fail I guess.

  2. Your stats are spot on ! Take NO Prisoners in 2014…LOL!!

  3. What a jerk!
    Thanks for the lesson on your smart move. I guess it’s similar to a barrier to entry situation like a higher price point to avoid most nagging customers later.
    You’re the best jerk I know 🙂

  4. Steve – This is a great post. My experience teaching lean startup principles at FounderSensei is similar to yours. You did the right thing.

    I disagree with your characterization though. You were not being a jerk. You were simply holding people accountable for the deal they had agreed to. In my opinion, holding students accountable is a core responsibility for any good teacher. Your actions, while viewed as harsh by some, actually taught a valuable lesson — honor your commitments to others.

  5. Great experiment but I don’t consider what you did as being a jerk. To the contrary, you did these students a big favor by showing them how it works in the real world. Try getting an appointment with a prospective investor and then cancelling because you thought you could make it up later.

  6. Here in Cambridge, MA one of the universities has started an innovation lab. The idea is good but they try so hard to make it cool with rah, rah presentations, free food, and meet and greets that the message that comes across is a startup is a fun and cool thing to do. All that is required is to attend presentations and eat;and during the presentations more than half of them spend their time texting and surfing the web. I’ve worked at many startups and it is the most grueling job you can have. Being a jerk now is much better training than giving students the idea that a startup is going to be one big party.

  7. LOVE this story. I’m a great appreciator of your insights. But I’m not crazy about the title of the post — probably a lot less important than the content, except that you’re a teacher by way of your blog, just as by way of your classes. So if there are subscribers who see the title and not the post, I flinch a bit about those who take the title as permission to be a jerk.

    For one thing, I didn’t find the title accurate. If in fact all you did was uphold the standard established, I don’t see how that amounts to being a jerk.

    For another thing, if the post’s title was to provoke readership, I’d actually call that a pretty low standard for marketing.

    So on this post, typical A+ for content, but C for title.

    Why my reaction? Too sensitive perhaps? I think it’s because I really value what I perceive as a “new and improved” ethos of capitalism that has accompanied the lean startup movement and the broader sphere of new attention to innovation and entrepreneurship. To me, the foundational wisdom of Peter Drucker and others (beginning with J.B. Say) finally is being understood broadly.


    • Karen, there are 2 communication lessons in this title:

      First Com lesson: “Be unique”. When you (a brand) communicates, he/she/it has to find a unique positioning. The one and only way is to be yourself as a person, and as a brand to draw from its unique founding values. I think Steve is what he is: he likes a bit of provocation, and his readers are (also) here for that…

      Second Com lesson: “Provocation is good press”. It’s the way it works, we like it or not. So I bet a honey pie that this post got as many – if not more – readers and comments as others. Saw the number of people who engaged on the title, including you and me?

      In Steve’s posts, you have the explicit Lessons Learned, and the implicit ones… I’m a fan of both!


  8. As “mean” spirited as this may sound you have to surround yourself with people who meticulously follow instructions and these people are committing the cardinal sin of “assumptions”…I tell everyone continuously that “egos and assumptions are the most expensive things we can indulge in”. These people were so proud as to think the first event was superfluous and that the world should accommodate them that they “assumed” because other events had fluff at the start that all will have fluff at the start…good lesson to start every group with the lesson…”egos and assumptions kill”. Also, maybe a heads up for other educators…don’t waste our precious money or time with first days with a bunch of sawdust…we come to eat meat…leave the “kumba ya” stuff to the touchy feely gang up the hall teaching that which has no value to our society (sorry to sound so grumpy but I have dropped out of 4 universities because of nothing of any value whatsoever was being taught in course after course…wow do I sound like a jerk here…maybe something going around?).

  9. What was the percentage that got dropped by not showing up (and having no valid excuse)?

    Even if it goes over 20% it was likely a win as it prevents teams from getting broken apart later. It would be an even bigger win if it was below 20%.

  10. Steve your tough-love post was interesting but not really a surprise. We completed the DC I-Corp program back in November. We knew it was going to be work and inconvenient. It didn’t disappoint. Like almost everything, the more difficult the journey, the more rewarding the destination. What a great program! Ironically, just this morning I sent the St. Crispian speech to team members who are going today into a customer engagement! The meeting and progress are a direct product of honing our canvass and getting out of the building. We’ve cleared technical review and are now into contracting… By the way I also periodically serve as a panel reviewer for NSF SBIR proposals. Those who have graduated from the I-Corp program propose significantly better proposals than those who have not. Though not surprising, it remains stunning to see how wide the gap has been each of the past couple of panels. Thanks for what you do.

    David Shaw Astrapi Corporation (214)-718-0325

    Date: Thu, 6 Feb 2014 14:01:54 +0000 To:

    • David,
      Great to hear about your I-Corps.

      The numbers on the NSF I-Corps funding is pretty amazing. 18% of teams who didn’t take the class get funded versus 60% of those who did.


  11. I suppose if your excuse was “I was busy talking to customers” then you might have been allowed back in the course.

  12. Maybe I’m old school but is it really unreasonable to ask “students” to be there the first day, on time? This society has become too accommodating to other people’s needs. I figure, your were there, ready to go, on time to begin the class. If they value what you’re trying to teach them, get there!! Its just common courtesy. “I’ll just make it up in a later class” That one kills me, typical student reaction. In real life, you sometimes “Can’t” make it up later, that may be your only shot. In business, you ask to meet someone at 10:00am, be there at 9:50am!!
    Being late says to the potential client that you value your time more than theirs. That can equal – lost sale or opportunity.

  13. As many of us know all too well, entrepreneurship is not for sissies!! The world outside the classroom has similar high standards.

  14. Observation from Another Jerk: building a business takes extraordinary commitment (far more personal stamina and focus than showing up to class as agreed). If you ain’t on the bus…

    When I counseled consulting clients on motivation and incentive compensation, there was no “partial bonus credit” for partial achievement of objectives. When you don’t enforce the rules of the game, you only teach people to ignore them.

    And as a personal experience, I once taught a graduate class with weekly case studies, and the rule was “in on time, or drop a grade per day late”. Apparently, they were used to turning work in “whenever”, so there were two students who did not submit the first case study. The next week, I posted the spread of grades (without names) up on the screen so everyone could see how they fared within the group. The two “0” grades hit me on a dead run at break–there were no more late papers from anyone.

  15. We do not allow grad students to take other courses with the capstone except under truly exceptional circumstances. Also do something similar to Andy P. I think of you as a “shark.” Mitch S.

  16. Steve
    Great experiment!
    Merrill Newman

  17. Setting requirements, whatever they are, and the sticking to them isn’t being a jerk. It is setting requirements and sticking to them. Doing otherwise is enabling bad behavior for which I believe you become partly responsible. For this reason you can rightfully partially blame the other teachers for setting the expectation that requirements don’t matter.

    But while it is catchy to say “It Pays To Be A Jerk” and this will most likely garner more readership than something less in-your-face, I think it also does a disservice. Like it or not, we now live in a world of sound bites and headlines, and many people will just see the title and share that and take that to heart. So the jerky part of this (no, I don’t mean dried meat) is that your title will be used as justification for truly jerk-like behavior – for which you must also accept some responsibility.

    • Sigmund,

      “… many people will just see the title…” Err, no not really.

      I’m a bit bemused that you confused this site with others that troll with link bait, but as you may have noticed there’s no advertising on the site. Nor am I trying to “…garner more readship…” If you’ve spent any time on the site you know I write what I like.

      The rest of my readership actually reads the content underneath the title.


  18. Thanks for sharing Steve, It was a valuable lesson !!!

  19. Steve, that’s not being a jerk.

    Setting policies and maintaining them, setting standards and maintaining them, and setting expectations of behavior and maintaining them is not being a jerk. It’s being respectful of the students who do the work.

    Moreover, students don’t respect us, nor should they, when we change the rules on them, when we fail to adhere to grading standards, and when we allow some students to manipulate the rules for their personal benefit.

    If you establish at the outset that you don’t mean what you say, you establish at the outset that the contract means nothing.

  20. Perhaps similar thing can be done in a start up environment to test if the job applicants/partner have 100% commitment. I don’t think showing up for the first meeting will be a proof. May be some other robust system to test the hypothesis, “X Partner or employee will be a committed.”

  21. Actually, being a jerk would have been not reminding the students and then dropping the ones from your class that didn’t show up that first day. You were actually being clear. Being a true jerk actually is crazy-making for the people you’re trying to lead, but being clear gives people comfort. They know that you are not arbitrarily punitive, what is expected, how they can succeed, that you will support them in that process and that you are reasonable should extenuating circumstances interfere.

  22. At the Founder Institute we’ve discovered that submission rate for the 1st homework assignment stunningly correlates with dropouts months later. It is not being a jerk…it is being data-driven and and being a stand for (standing for) the toughness of reality.

  23. Some of my best teachers came off as being jerks during the first week of class. I’ll never forget the 40 student diversity class that dropped to 13 by the second class. After that, no one left and the class average was above an 85.

    However, none of them would have reminded us that the first day was mandatory. I wouldn’t call you a jerk. You had clearly defined standards, but the students shouldn’t have been reminded. That would’ve been a jerk move.

  24. As an MBA candidate, I appreciate hard teachers. No degree should be a gimme… I tired of seeing pulse and a credit card degrees…

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