The Lean LaunchPad Class: It’s the same, but different

It’s the same, but different

We just finished the 8th annual Lean LaunchPad class at Stanford. The team presentations are at the end of this post.

It’s hard to imagine, but only a decade ago, the capstone entrepreneurship class in most universities was how to write – or pitch- a business plan. As a serial entrepreneur turned educator, this didn’t make sense to me. In my experience, I saw that most business plans don’t survive first contact with customers.

So in 2011, with support from the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (the entrepreneurship center in the Stanford Engineering School), we created a new capstone entrepreneurship class – the Lean LaunchPad. The class was unique in that it was 1) team-based, 2) experiential, 3) lean-driven (hypothesis testing/business model/customer development/agile engineering). This new class aimed to mimic the uncertainty all startups face as they search for a business model while imparting an understanding of all the components of a business model, not just how to give a pitch or a demo.

(It’s worth reading the blog post that became the manifesto of the class here as well as what we learned when we first taught it- here.)

Ninety days after we first offered this class at Stanford, the National Science Foundation adopted the class calling it the NSF I-Corps (the Innovation Corps) to train our country’s top scientists how to commercialize their inventions. I-Corps is now offered in 88 universities. The National Institute of Health teaches its version in the National Cancer Institute. (I-Corps @ NIH). (The NIST report on Unleashing Innovation recommended expanding I-Corps and the House just passed the Innovators to Entrepreneurs Act to do just that.) The Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps syllabus is the basis for a series of Mission-Driven Entrepreneurship classes; Hacking for Diplomacy, Defense, Energy, Oceans, non-profits and cities.

If you had dropped by in 2011, the first time I taught the class, and then stuck your head in today, you’d say it was the same class. The syllabus is almost identical, the teams still get out of the building to do customer discovery every week, then come back to class and present what they learned weekly, etc.

But while it’s the same, it’s different.

After thousands of students taking this class, here are a few ways the class has changed.

—-

A Great Class Endures Beyond Its Author
I’ve always believed that great classes continue to thrive after the original teachers have moved on. While I created the Lean LaunchPad methodology and pedagogy (how to teach the class) and the train-the-trainer course for the NSF I-Corps, the sheer scale and success of the class is due to the efforts of the 100’s of National Science Foundation instructors and the NSF. And while I created the original course, the Stanford class is now led by Jeff Epstein and Steve Weinstein.

To be honest, as I watch other instructors now run these classes, I feel a proud “passing of the torch” though touched by moments of King Lear and Kurosawa’s Ran. Way past my ad hoc activities, the Stanford teaching team has thoroughly professionalized the class.

Expanded Teaching Team
In addition to the lead instructors, the Stanford teaching team now includes George John, Mar Hershenson, and Tom Bedecarre, all generously volunteering their time. Each of them brings decades of industry experience to the class. This type of teaching firepower and headcount was necessary as the teaching team expanded the class size to meet student demand.

Class Size
For the first few National Science Foundation classes, we taught 24 teams at a time with three instructors. We did it by breaking the class into three separate sections, having all teams together for our lectures and separating into sections of eight teams each when the teams presented. (After painful trial and error, we had discovered that the teaching team could listen to 8 teams present before our brains melted down.)

At Stanford we limited the class to 8 teams – four students per team. However, this year, the class was so oversubscribed, and the quality of the teams applying was so high, the teaching team admitted 14 teams and reverted to the original NSF model of separating into sections. The additional teaching team members made it possible.

Class Velocity/Depth
When we started this class, the concept of Lean (business models, customer development, agile, pivots, mvp’s) was new to everyone. Now they’re common buzzwords, and most of the students come in with an understanding of Lean. This head start has allowed the teaching team to accelerate the velocity and depth of learnings past the basics.

Women
In past years, the student teams in the Stanford classes were weighted toward men, reflecting the makeup of the applicants. While Ann Miura-Ko was part of the original teaching team, having all male instructors for the last five years didn’t help. After Mar Hershenson joined the teaching team last year, she made an all-out effort to recruit women to apply. A role model as a successful CEO and VC, Mar successfully sparked interest in women students and sponsored women-only lunch sessions, mixers and meetings to introduce them to the class. As you’ll notice from the presentations below, the result was that this year 50% of the applicants and accepted teams were women.

The lessons for me were: 1) the class had been unintentionally signaling a “boys-only” environment, 2) these unconscious biases were easily dismissed by assuming that the class makeup simply reflected the applicant pipeline, and 3) when in fact it required active outreach by a woman to change that perception and bring more women into the pipeline and subsequent teams.

Product/Market Fit Versus The Business Model Canvas
My original vision for the class was to use the business model canvas as a framework to teach engineering students all the nine elements of the business model: customer, distribution channel, revenue, get/keep/grow, value proposition, activities, resources, partners and costs. And instead of the traditional income statement, balance sheet and cash flow, discover the key “metrics that matter” for their business model.

While students want to spend their time focusing on product/market fit (who’s the customer and what should we build for them) and building product-centric minimum viable products, I thought that Y-Combinator and other accelerators already did an excellent job of that. My goal was to use the canvas to expose engineering students to other essential aspects of a successful business they may be less familiar with (sales, marketing, finance, operations.)

Admittedly this was tough to do, because in one quarter teams haven’t yet found product/market fit and are loath to move off it until they do. But since my goal was to teach a methodology rather than to run an accelerator, I traded off time on product/market fit for exposure to the rest of the canvas.

If we were designing a curriculum rather than just a single class, we’d offer it as two semesters/quarters – the first searching for problem/solution and product/market fit, and the second half focusing on the rest of the canvas testing feasibility and viability.

As you look at this year’s presentations, you can see the presentations still tend to focus on product/market fit. Obviously, there is no right answer to what and how to teach, and the answer may change over time.

TAs/ Diagnostics/Mentors
Our Teaching Assistants keep all the moving parts of the class running. Each years TAs have continued to make the class better (although I must admit it was interesting to watch the TAs remove any uncertainty from what students need to do week-to-week, as I had designed a level of uncertainty into the class to mimic what a real-world startup would feel like.) The teaching team and TA’s have added an enormous number of useful diagnostics to measure student reactions to each part of the pedagogy and the overall value of the class. However, the real art of teaching is to remember that the class wasn’t designed by a focus group.

Finally, the mentors (unpaid industry advisors) who volunteer their time have been professionalized and managed by Tom Bedecarre. Each mentor’s contribution gets graded by the students in the team they coached.

Things That Needed Constant Reminders
Every time we slipped up and admitted an all engineering or all MBA team we were reminded by their struggles that successful teams need to be diverse – that they include both innovators and entrepreneurs (typically engineers and MBA’s.)

The same holds true for pushing the students. Every time we slacked off relentlessly direct feedback we saw a commensurate drop in the quality of the teams output.

The Teams
In the end, this class is not only about what the instructors try to teach the students but also about whether students processed what we intended for them to learn. Over time, two of our major insights were: 1) teams needed a week to process all they learned, and 2) we needed to teach them how to turn that learning into a story of their journey.

This year all our teams accomplished that and much, much more.

And after 9 years of classes, students still find that this class is the closest thing to being in a real startup.

Take a look at their presentations below.

AgAI

If you can’t see the presentation click here

If you can’t see the video click here

BeaconsAI

If you can’t see the presentation click here

If you can’t see the video click here

Equify

If you can’t see the presentation click here

If you can’t see the video click here

Equipped

If you can’t see the presentation click here

If you can’t see the video click here

HardHats

If you can’t see the presentation click here

If you can’t see the video click here

Lemnos

If you can’t see the presentation click here

If you can’t see the video click here

NanoSense

If you can’t see the presentation click here

If you can’t see the video click here

Neuro

If you can’t see the presentation click here

If you can’t see the video click here

NeuroDiversity Nerds

If you can’t see the presentation click here

If you can’t see the video click here

 

Praxis

If you can’t see the presentation click here

If you can’t see the video click here

Promote.It

If you can’t see the presentation click here

If you can’t see the video click here

RightFoot

If you can’t see the presentation click here

If you can’t see the video click here

Topt

If you can’t see the presentation click here

If you can’t see the video click here

Wanderwell

If you can’t see the presentation click here

If you can’t see the video click here

3 Responses

  1. Nice Steve. Congrats!

    Jerry Engel 415.710.7453

    Like

  2. Spectacular recap of the decade. STVP and I are darn lucky to be partners. Thank you!

    Tom Byers

    Like

  3. It is very impressive to see the core of the program is still valid a decade later.

    Yet, I still meet so many science startups — who can’t pivot on a dime — who didn’t do this work as they were not aware of the program, or based overseas where equivalents are scarce (I only know of EF in EU/Asia and DeepTechFounders in France).

    This should be implemented globally — and using government grants as a motivator for the program is an excellent approach that benefits all stakeholders.

    Finally, it was fun to see in the latest class another weeding robot after Blue River from the first class became the poster child of successful customer discovery!

    For reference on Blue River (‘Autonomow’ at the time, before it dropped both the mowing and the autonomy):
    https://steveblank.com/2014/10/03/my-students-grow-into-a-company/

    PS: as another epilogue, our fund, HAX, has invested in two AgTech weeding companies, one using spray (like Blue River) another using lasers (that Blue River had passed on). And since it’s 2019 autonomy is back in style 😉

    Like

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