Watching My Students Grow

“You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself.”
Galileo Galilei

One of the great things about teaching is that while some students pass by like mist in the night others remain connected forever. I get to watch them grow into their careers and cheer them on.

Its been three and a half years since I first designed and taught the Lean LaunchPad class and lots of water has gone under the bridge since then. I’ve taught hundreds of teams, the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps has taught close to 400 teams led by our nations top scientists, and the class is being taught around the world.

But I still remember a team from the first class, one which wanted to build a robotic lawnmower. It’s now been over 3 years since the team has left my classroom and I thought I’d share with you what the two founders, Jorge Heraud and Lee Redden, learned then and what they’re doing now.

The Autonomous Lawnmower
They called their company Autonomow. And they were absolutely convinced what the world needed was an auto-driving lawn mover for institutions with large green spaces.

You can see their first slide deck in class below (and here)

Like in all our Lean Launchpad classes we teach a combination of theory coupled with intense and immersive experiential learning outside the classroom. Students need to get out of the building and talk to 10-15 customers a week.

The next week they came back in class and presented this:

Each week we’d teach them about one more part of what makes up a business model. All teams struggle with finding product/market fit.

By week four their presentation looked like this:

Notice something different about the cover slide? Massive pivot. Like all great Silicon Valley companies they started with a technology and guessed who the customers will be. They’re almost always wrong. They could have never figured this out sitting inside a classroom writing a business plan.

At week five (see here) they were actually getting into farm fields wearing hip boots and overalls. Now they were figuring out how to create demand.

The Customer Development process, this relentless drive to turn hypotheses into facts is what makes this learning so rapid.

At week six they were trying to figure out their distribution channel (here) after another pivot. They got their minimal viable product (a machine vision platform) up and running in the lab.

At week seven (here) another pivot happened when farmers taught them about how to price their product. Instead of an of selling hardware they were selling a service.

BTW, notice that they were now dragging their machine vision platform through the farm fields!  If there was ever any question of whether a minimal viable product can work for hardware, see what they say in their video below.

By week eight they were learning who they needed to partner with (see here). Most importantly they found a customer who taught them while weeding carrots was nice, thinning lettuce was where the money was.

After 9 weeks their final presentation looked like this.

When I teach in universities I’m not running an incubator. What I’m trying to do is to get students to learn a way of thinking about new ventures that will stick with them for life. And I try to do by having them teach themselves, rather than us teaching at them. Whether they start a company or not, I don’t keep score.

But some teams remain connected forever. I get to watch them grow into their careers and cheer them on. This was one of those teams. After class they took this idea and formed a company – Blue River Technology.

Over the last three years they turned their vision and PowerPoint slides into real hardware that solves real customer problems. And with 3 rounds of funding, including a grant from the National Science Foundation, they’ve raised $13 million.

Take a look and see what they’ve done.

If you can’t see the video click here

“The customers had way more insights then we had. They had been thinking about their own problems for so long…If you just go out and try to sell maybe you’ll find some buyers, but you won’t be learning about what you should be doing.”

Lee Redden – Blue River Technology


I’m off next week on the next great adventure. We’re going to launch the I-Corps @ NIH and change how our country commercializes life sciences.

7 Responses

  1. This was so helpful. I run a statewide program that trains and coaches women who are starting and growing successful businesses. I’m often asked — “why are you changing the way startups are taught?” This provides the answer to that question.

  2. Hi Steve, I have recently reshifted my career back to helping established companies innovate and have really been inspired by your work on the lean start-up and in particular on the customer development process. In fact we are using the approach for my Wife’s business in the area of a true Preventive Health business model (not the illness one she was credentialed in). Do you make the Launch Pad Central tool available to people like me, who would use it in consultative arrangements or in my wife’s business scenario where it is used just for one entrepreneurial team? Thanks Dean

  3. Thanks for sharing! It was fascinating to watch the transitioning. From start to finish. Of what they started with, and comparing it with their final result.

    “The customers had way more insights then we had. They had been thinking about their own problems for so long…If you just go out and try to sell maybe you’ll find some buyers, but you won’t be learning about what you should be doing.”

    I found this quote pretty insightful.

  4. Steve this is great example. Can you show us the nine week power point. There is no link for that power point in your post

  5. This is motivation, you can actually see the growth that took place. I like how you are allowing your students to engage with the customers in the process to ensure they provide a sustainable product that meets their needs.

  6. I found the transition quite fascinating, to say the least. The fact that the original idea of what the entrepreneurs thought the consumer wanted was so different to what the consumer actually needs was quite an eye opener.
    I am interested in opening a business one day after I have completed my studies but I have not quite figured out what type of service/product I will offer to customers that is not yet available in the market. I see now that it would take more than research on the internet to discover the needs of consumers. I would have to literally go out to the public and integrate myself into their environment in order to specify what it is they need and would be willing to pay for.
    It is quite clear from your post that consumer sovereignty is the invisible hand that guides the products available in markets.

  7. […] He’s working to get his agency to adopt Lean and the Horizon 1, 2, and 3 innovation language (Horizon 1 executes current business models, Horizon 2 extends current business models and Horizon 3 searches for new business models) and was now building a Lean innovation pipeline created out of my I-Corps/Lean LaunchPad classes. […]

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