Beyond the Lemonade Stand: How to Teach High School Students Lean Startups

While the Lean LaunchPad class has been adopted by Universities and the National Science Foundation, the question we get is, “Can students in K-12 handle an experiential entrepreneurship class?” Hawken School has now given us an answer. Their seniors just completed the school’s first-ever 3-credit semester program in evidence-based entrepreneurship. Students are fully immersed in real-world learning during the 12-week Entrepreneurial Studies course.

Here’s what Doris Korda Associate Head of School and Tim Desmond, Assistant Director of Entrepreneurial Studies did, and how they did it.

Teaching students to think like entrepreneurs not accountants
We realized that past K-12 Entrepreneurial classes taught students “the lemonade stand” version of how to start a company: 1) come up with an idea, 2) execute the idea, 3) do the accounting (revenue, costs, etc.).

We wanted to teach our students how to think like entrepreneurs not accountants. Therefore we needed them to think and learn about two parts of a startup; 1) ideation – how to create new ideas and 2) customer development – how do they test the validity of their idea (is it the right product, customer, channel, pricing, etc.)

Our first insight was that if broke the class in half, and separated ideation from customer development, our students would understand 1) that an idea is not the company, 2) almost all initial ideas are wrong. 

So rather than starting with their own business ideas, we decided to first give our students experience doing customer discovery on someone else’s idea.  Then in the second half of our semester let our students come up with their own ideas and then run the customer discovery process on their own product.

Customer Discovery in the Real World
Our students first worked with two local startups who agreed to be their clients, on real-problems. These two startups had problems they could not solve on their own due to lack of resources—time, people, money. The startups and the teaching team crafted a challenge for the kids to tackle using the Customer Development methodology, Lean Launchpad tools and the business model canvas.

For their first startup, we chose a 3-year old funded company that was working to refine its customer segment and channel for its physical product.  For the second startup, we chose a year-old web/mobile startup whose market is college bound teens, with a founder who had skipped the initial customer validation process. These two startups served as the students’ introduction to customer development methodology. Each student team conducted over 100 detailed interviews in an effort to develop results for each client.

Hawken students doing Customer Discovery in a mall

Hawken students practicing Customer Discovery in a mall

Because these were high school kids with, for the first time, a real business relying on them, this portion of the class shook them so badly they couldn’t move from their seats–literally. All their hard-wired school habits turned to dust as the kids realized their school tools were useless: there were no solution keys, no rubrics, no answers in the back of the book. Feeling the pressure, after 3 wasted days, one student on one team finally convinced her team they needed to get out of the building, like in Steve’s video. That’s when everything changed.

Knowing they had 3 weeks before presenting to the company co-founders, the kids felt intensity like no traditional classroom could generate. The pace and uncertainty of the class picked up and never let up from that point.

The second startup, because it was in an earlier stage and more complicated than the first, had the kids going even deeper into the 9 blocks of the business model canvas. Because the students’ customer development narratives revealed the client’s user interface was problematic, students with no programming experience began redesigning the user interface using Lean UX principles, tools and strategies.

Yet students were still afraid to rethink the client’s product: “if we tell [her] how to unclutter the interface, it will cost her a ton of money and she’ll be mad at us.”  One of their mentors, a professional UX designer, encouraged the kids, “You have the facts. You’ve developed archetype and narratives from a ton of real customer interviews. You need to propose disruptive solutions. What can you propose that will solve the customers’ problems and set this product apart in a meaningful way?” This was a huge learning moment. Their final presentations were substantive and evidence-based.

Starting Your Own Company
For the last three weeks of class, the 16 students came up with their own business ideas that they pitched to their peers; 4 of these ideas moved forward in the quest for viable business models. Interestingly the four founders of teams whose ideas “won” argued over which team would get the students with the most advanced technical skills. By the end of the half hour, students were suggesting that our school should offer more programming earlier in school and throughout this course.

We assigned one mentor to each of the four teams and used LaunchPad Central to hold all the details together, including hundreds of customer interviews, narratives, days in the life, archetypes, storyboards, user interfaces, live presentations and tons of often painful feedback.

Teams spent 3 weeks getting out of the classroom and iterated and pivoted, put to use the visual and lean tools along with all they learned from Steve Blank’s Udacity lectures, then pulled together enough data and crafted compelling stories for their final Shark-Tank style presentations. They presented to local sharks from four local accelerators—Bizdom, JumpStart, FlashStarts and LaunchHouse (which runs the country’s first kid launched/kid run accelerator for kids, called LightHouse).

Hawken students pitching the local "Sharks"

Hawken students pitching the local “Sharks”

Having practiced negotiating terms, students calculated their companies’ valuations, ranging from 50k- 300k, and wrestled with the sharks over equity. Sharks, in turn, argued with one another and even attempted to form syndication in one instance.  At the close of the presentations, two teams were invited to apply for funding through local accelerators. The semester concluded with pizza and ice cream.

Pioneers are the Ones With Arrows in Their Backs
Trying to fit an Entrepreneurial Studies course into a college prep high school outside of Silicon Valley is an interesting challenge.

Being a pioneer means that there’s nothing familiar about this for parents, students and our administration. Hawken is exactly the right school to do this, but still our high school students and parents and other teachers are steeped in more traditional classes and subjects, college placement-related pressures, graduation requirements, AP courses, grades, etc.

Creating it feels a lot like building something totally new inside an existing business. But the course was spectacular for its students in ways that no other course is, so we’re getting money and institutional support for growing it. We’re learning a lot as we go…we’re figuring it out.

The Entrepreneurial Studies course serves as a vehicle for the school to realize its mission — forward-focused preparation for the real world through development of character and intellect.  The 16 seniors who just completed the first Entrepreneurial Studies course told us that it was different from anything they have ever done in school – all the learning was active and all the work was collaborative and team-oriented. In evaluations they explained the biggest lessons they learned were often about themselves and how they handled failure, their character and their own strengths and weaknesses.

From one senior: “For the first time I am working because I care. Not just for a grade.”

Lessons Learned:

  • Students work harder, better and deeper when the stakes are real
  • Working for local startups gives them a great way to quickly gain business and life experience alongside customer development experience
  • Working for local startups creates real world intensity and urgency in the course
  • Kids freak out, get paralyzed and waste time doing so. It’s all part of the learning process
  • The learning and growth of how to work well on a team is reason enough for students to enroll in Lean Launch Pad
  • We never anticipated the amount of learning that happened here
  • Even at a very progressive school, we are breaking new ground and challenging all the traditions and biases of regular school

This June, Hawken School is holding an Educator’s Workshop for middle and high school educators who want to build or grow their own LLP-based programs.

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19 Responses

  1. Fascinating! I recently attended a seminar at my University where the speaker said that more and more employers are looking to hire job candidates who have had entrepreneurial training. I think we can all understand the value in being able to think in innovative and resourceful ways.

  2. Steve, this is excellent, my children have gone through Enterprise City in their 6th grade coursework, but this sounds like it’s leaps and bounds above that. This sounds engaging for the students, and provides them with tangible experiences to grow from.

  3. Awesome! Like artistic talent, the spirit of entrepreneurship exists within everyone and just needs to be cultivated. Loved this as an example of how to develop the right habits early. I think even 3rd grade wouldn’t be too early.

    • I agree. Actually, the older the students, the more ‘unlearning’ has to happen. Also, this is great when tailored to very young students, with empathy and teamwork so central to entrepreneurial studies,

  4. Thank you!! It works well on every level. I as an entrepreneur have an intern from UC Fullerton and I cannot express the learning necessary to these kids getting out of a school model and into a Real World model. Well executed and respected info. Thank you!!

  5. Excellent idea to use existing entrepreneur’s companies to learn the process. Thanks for sharing – and for your hard work in changing entrepreneurship from art & accident to a more structured activity 😉

  6. I really enjoyed reading this. This actually reminded me of “Rich Dad Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki in that some of the greatest lessons in money, business, and even life cannot be learned in school. In fact, many successful companies have actually been started by high school or college drop outs. Society often programs us at an early age that in order to be successful, you need to go to school, get good grades, graduate from college, and get a good paying job with benefits. Rarely do you hear anyone tell you to go to school to become an entrepreneur. I think more schools should have experiential learning programs like this!

  7. I agree. We have students taking this who are the more traditional honors or AP students, as well as those who’ve tended to underperform in the more traditional classes. And we’re finding this is transformational for all types of students, actually.

  8. Seems like it’s all about proper motivation. Do that and you can develop young people the right way.

    • This is true, however…it can be hard to find motivation for younger people. That statement is increasingly true, these days. Sad as that may be.

      • I learned that when I first started teaching – once a student is motivated, everything is possible. And I think students are intrinsically interested – we just have to find ways to engage their interest. And turns out our industrial model of mostly lectures followed by memorization and multiple choice tests doesn’t do that so well…

  9. Why I hate the term “entrepreneur” so much

    Besides that it’s difficult to spell and a foreign word (not English) I hate what it connotes – unbridled capitalism. To me the idea behind entrepreneurism is: What can I start, build as fast as I can, and sell-off to make as much money as possible? It is about making the quick buck. It is about making huge amounts of money for those who would invest in your business idea and those who would broker the deal to their rich buddies. It’s about being a swashbuckling capitalistic pirate who sails the seas of commerce looking to score “the prize”. It is not really about building a business of lasting value.

    Being a business owner should be about building a company that is centered on bringing value to your customer, your family, your employees and their families and your community. I don’t hear any of this in the conversation about being an “entrepreneur”.

    The interesting thing is that it’s primarily the media that focuses on and popularizes the idea of “entrepreneurism”, not the 560,000 people who start up new businesses all across this county every month. These folks who are looking to join the approximately 22 million individual business owners (78% of all the companies in operation in the US) who are looking to make a living by owning a business. By the way, these are all one person businesses.

    So, let’s stop being ashamed of being business owners. Let’s stop trying to teach entrepreneurism in our colleges and now our high schools. Instead, let’s teach people how to create businesses of value, that last. In a world where factory jobs are disappearing as fast as they can install a robot and that figuring out how to get rid of employees to boost the bottom-line is a coveted strategy, the only thing left for people will be micro-enterprise ( 1- 9 people businesses) or state supported welfare. Which the corporate supported Republican party wants to eliminate – but that’s another story.

  10. What a great idea. Get kids out of the building. Sitting kids in rows of desks to do what is essentially low level clerical work will not prepare them for the real world. Education is in serious need of disruption. It sounds like these folks at Hawken School are leading the charge.

  11. […] With entrepreneurial mavericks like Steve Blank and Alexander Osterwalder creating strategies and methodologies that are readily available to the masses, valuable curriculum is being created and applied to entrepreneurs at every age. A local Cleveland high school, Hawken, is proving this each school year with their evidence based entrepreneurial program. […]

  12. This is fantastic — good work. We should be moving towards a world where this experience is the standard, not the exception.

    I agree with Steve Chapman about the tone of this kind of training – even using the word “shark” is indicative of a cutthroat, greed, profit over everything model compared to value. I’ve been building businesses online for 4 years and the question is always “how can I help someone to the point where they will want to pay me for my solution?”

    It’s actually a simpler model. For all the complexity that grows up around people like Steve Jobs, it’s their initial creativity and vision and a desire to contribute that sparks the business in the first place. Companies like Fedex, even Kinkos started because they wanted to do things better, not just make a quick buck.

    However, in my mind just teaching these kids ANYTHING that isn’t completely irrelevant theoretical nonsense is a win.

    • The biggest problem is understanding the difference between a microbusiness and an organizational sized company. Microbusinesses which are made up of solopreneures (78% of all operating companies in the US) and Micro-enterprises of from one to ten employees (17% of all operating companies) ARE NOT little big businesses. Academics, government departments and corporations all understand business from the paradigm they are working in – the large organizational perspective.When they try and force microbusiness to act like or use the structural paradigm of a large corporation it overwelms them and they often fail. This is the primary contributing factor to the 90+% failure rate of microbusinesses. I’ve been studing this for 35 years. There has been NO shift in the % of failures over the years because the they refuse to understand the difference between these two distict business types. It’s akin to thinking a seedling should be treated the same as a tree! Always open to a dialog on this subject.

  13. I came across this post during a web search about teaching entrepreneurship, and I absolutely love what you’re doing. I work at Koru, which helps recent college grads gain the skills, experience, network and mentorship to get a great job at a high growth company. The fact that you’re aware of this need earlier on is just terrific.

  14. Steve – excellent article. All – looking to help fund startups that are providing this kind of training to high school and college students, ON or OFF CAMPUS. Please contact me ASAP via

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