The Evolution of Entrepreneurial Education and Corporate Innovation

I was interviewed by Philip Bouchard, Executive Director of TrustedPeer Entrepreneurship Advisory, about how entrepreneurship education has changed, mission-driven entrepreneurship, and what we’ve learned about corporate innovation.

Worth a read.

Interview highlights:

  • How is the way that universities teach entrepreneurship evolving?
  • Lean LaunchPad class developed for Stanford
  • Innovation and entrepreneurship will become the liberal arts of the 21st century
  • Teaching basic entrepreneurial appreciation
  • Mission-Driven Entrepreneurship
  • Hacking for X classes
  • Ethics in entrepreneurship
  • How has innovation in large corporations evolved over the last 10 years?
  • Innovation theater in large corporations
  • “I want to see what you look like in a prison suit.”
  • What are companies doing beyond innovation theater?
  • How innovation can succeed inside of a large company
  • The easy part is, “Let’s have an incubator.” The hard part is, “How do we deliver something?”
  • “Heroic innovation” within large corporations
  • End-to-end “Innovation Pipeline” process
  • Innovators are not entrepreneurs
  • Building an entrepreneurship ecosystem
  • How can corporations work more closely with universities?

Philip Bouchard: You’ve started teaching at Berkeley since 2002, Columbia in 2003 and at Stanford since 2011. How is the way that universities teach entrepreneurship evolving? What changes have you seen in the last 15 years?

Steve Blank: When I first starting teaching, the capstone entrepreneurship class was how to write a business plan. Other classes were on how to prep for VC pitches or develop the five year income statements, balance sheets and cash flows or read case studies. Today, people laugh if somebody says that’s a capstone entrepreneurship class. But years ago, we had no alternative – how to write a business plan was it.

My contribution has been, “Why don’t we design classes more closely modeled to what innovators and entrepreneurs actually do.” Today the capstone class is most often experiential, team-based, hands on, focused around the search for a repeatable and scalable business model. And the Lean LaunchPad class I developed at Stanford was the first such class. It was adopted by the National Science Foundation for commercializing science in the United States. It’s called NSF I-Corps.

The other change is that universities, instead of being passive, have become active in building an entrepreneurial community. In addition to Stanford I also teach at Columbia, and at these research universities – Stanford, Columbia, Berkeley, and others – they all now have an internal incubator, they have maker spaces, they have their own venture funds, they connect to the community, they connect to venture capital. They’ve become outward-facing universities. It’s a big idea.

Years ago, entrepreneurship was taught like everything else, inward-facing, which was a mindset of, “I focus on what I know as an academic and I will teach you that,” which was mostly theory and/or consulting experience with large corporations. And the odds of learning from faculty who actually had experienced the chaos and uncertainty of building a startup was low. It wasn’t really part of the job as an educator. Today, if you’re building an entrepreneurship program, the teaching team most often includes adjuncts with entrepreneurial experience as complements to the tenured faculty, classes are experiential and the community you’re building is a set of additional components that never existed before.

PB: In addition to being more outward facing, how should universities be thinking about what to offer next? What do you see in the next 2-3 years?

SB: I think innovation and entrepreneurship will become the liberal arts of the 21st century. With the nature of work changing, the core skills entrepreneurs need to know to become practitioners are actually core skills that everybody will need to know to get a job: creativity, agility, resilience, tenacity, curiosity.

The analogy I like to use is that 500 years ago in the Renassiance we realized that the best way to teach artists, painters and sculptors, was by via hands-on apprenticeships and long-term commitment. You learned a modicum of theory and got a ton practice. (Today, if you’ve decided the arts are your career, your goal might be to get into Juilliard or CalArts.)

But about 100 years ago, in the art world, somebody had a lightbulb moment and said, “Wait a minute, in addition to the capstone classes, why don’t we teach art appreciation at the earliest possible age to everyone?” For example, finger-painting, making clay ashtrays and writing. The reason for that is two-fold. One is to have people self-identify at an early age that, “Oh, my gosh. Painting can be a career? I knew I was interested.” And second, so that the rest of us who are not going to be artists can appreciate how hard it is, and learn how to look at art and how to look at sculpture and how to appreciate good writing.

I believe the analogy is identical for entrepreneurship. The capstone entrepreneurship classes like NSF I-Corps or a Lean LaunchPad class, are for those who have already decided they want to be entrepreneurs. The part of the entrepreneurship curriculum that’s missing is offering entrepreneurial appreciation classes to everyone. We ought to be creating a set of classes on creativity, agility and resilience and being able to tell facts from “fake news” — components of innovation and entrepreneurship that I think are going to be required 21st century skills.

PB: The trend is to add majors, minors and certificates in entrepreneurship. Not just in the business schools. For example, you can minor in entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado College of Music. In terms of teaching basic entrepreneurial appreciation, how saturated should entrepreneurship become? Is it one or two courses? Where do you see this trend going?

SB: Teaching basic entrepreneurial appreciation in the 21st century is literally the equivalent to liberal arts of the 20th. Forward thinking schools will start offering a series of classes that are core curriculum like liberal arts were in schools in the ’50s through the ’80s that said “for a liberal arts education you need to understand literature and you need to understand art.” In the 21st century we’re going to add some additional core skills.

That said, entrepreneurship education needs to be a combination of theory and practice. It’s pretty easy to offer classroom entrepreneurship lectures and forget that it’s the hands-on application that makes the theory relevant. Think if medical schools just taught doctors the textbooks, but never had them touch a patient.

The other direction where teaching is going – and what we’ve been pioneering – is Mission-Driven Entrepreneurship. Instead of students or faculty coming in with their own ideas — we now have them working on societal problems, whether they’re problems for the State Department or the military or non-profits/NGOs, or for the City of Oakland or for energy or the environment, or for anything they’re passionate about. And the trick is we use the same Lean LaunchPad / I-Corps curriculum — and kept the same class structure – experiential, hands-on, driven this time by a mission-model not a business model.

Mission-driven entrepreneurship is the answer to students who say, “I want to give back. I want to make my community, country or world a better place, while solving some of the toughest problems.” These classes include Hacking for Defense, Hacking for Diplomacy, Hacking for Energy, Hacking for Impact, or Hacking for Oceans, etc., but the umbrella term is “mission-driven entrepreneurship.” The class syllabus uses exactly the same pedagogy as the Lean LaunchPad and I-Corps classes.

PB: How has your Lean LaunchPad course, ENGR 245, evolved?

SB: I’ve always believed that great classes continue to thrive after the original teachers have moved on. 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.

After eight years the class is still taught to students working on their own problems. It’s taught at Stanford, Berkeley, Columbia and probably another hundred universities and colleges because I open-sourced the class and trained educators on how to teach it. 98 universities teach it through the National Science Foundation.

As I mentioned, the Mission-Driven Entrepreneurship classes are a new variant that’s taught in ~30 universities. The nice part is that we have educators who are already trained on teaching Lean LaunchPad or I-Corps, so for the educators there’s nothing particularly new. The only hard part about it, is to get well-defined problems from sponsors in the local city or government agency that you offer to students.

PB: Everyone looks for a turnkey solution. “I want a low overhead, self-guided solution.” Can someone go through your Lean LaunchPad step-by-step course without a trainer? Can it be self-directed? How long does it take to train a trainer?

SB: All my class lectures are online at Udacity.com for free. Can you become a founder by watching videos? Perhaps, but founders are closer to artists than any other profession. So can you become an artist by reading about art? Can you learn entrepreneurship without taking an experiential hands-on class or better, actually be part of a startup? Well, you can read a lot about entrepreneurship and learn the theory, but it’s like reading about painting or sculpture or music. You need theory and practice – lots of practice.

PB: Is ethics in entrepreneurship going to be part of the broader entrepreneurship curriculum like a general liberal arts education? Is ethics something that you bring into your Lean LaunchPad course or your ENGR 245 course?

SB: I think ethics are a critical missing component of most business curriculums. At Stanford, Tom Byers, who runs the innovation and entrepreneurship program inside the engineering school, has made that a big deal and it’s now part of the curriculum. Tom has added a class on entrepreneurial ethics.

However, the problem with teaching entrepreneurial ethics is the same as with teaching corporate ethics: Everything is great in theory until the sxxt hits the fan. When you don’t have any checks and balances, that is, when the government isn’t really paying attention or there are no consequences, you tend to get people who game the system, whether they’re corporations or they’re entrepreneurs and innovators.

It’s exactly like if you’ve ever been driving on a highway and reach a merge and people are cutting into the line and you go, “What the heck am I’m doing waiting for the merge while people are cutting in?” Then everybody else starts doing it and you think “Why am I the only person who’s patiently waiting?” There’s a social component about what’s the norm for behavior.

It’s not like we need a nanny-state, but if there’s no enforcement at all, we can teach ethics all we want, but people tend to devolve to the least common denominator.

PB: How has innovation in large corporations evolved over the last 10 years? You talk about “innovation theater” in large corporations. What’s the trend in terms of corporations developing cultures of innovation and programs for intrapreneurs?

SB: If you’re a large corporation, the world has turned upside down. In hindsight the 20th century was the golden age for corporations. Today, companies face five challenges they never had to deal with:

Challenge one – As companies are discovering every day, the web has changed everything. Distribution channels, brand loyalty, etc.

Challenge two – Large companies are dealing with startups that are funded with unimaginable capital. In the past, the idea of a startup having more capital than an existing corporation was a fantasy. But today if I’m a startup and I’m raising a hundred million dollars or billions of dollars, like Uber, Airbnb or Tesla, I can take on an entire industry.

Challenge three – Today, investors willingly fund startups to do anything on day one. Anything. Including break the law. Tesla, Airbnb, Uber, all were predicated on, “Well, what if we said, ‘screw the law’. How big would that opportunity be?”

In the 20th century no venture capitalist would have funded that. In the 21st century they got out their little eyeshades and calculators and said, “Ha! If we actually succeed, there’s a $10 billion company here.”

In contrast, as much as a corporation wants to do that, the first thing that will happen is your general counsel’s in your office saying, “I want to see what you look like in a prison suit.” Because a company can’t do the things that a startup can.

Challenge four – In a startup, 100% of the company is focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. In a large corporation, 99% of the company is focused on execution of the current business model by building repeatable processes and procedures. And a very small percentage are focused on innovation. I could keep going on down the list.

Challenge five – In a startup, if you win, it’s a payout of billions of dollars. In a large company, for the individual, there is no such payout.

PB: However, there are some companies that do evolve, that do pivot and make the right changes. What you’re talking about, “A large corporation is not a startup,” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to go the way of the dodo. What are companies doing beyond innovation theater?

SB: I just wanted to give you the setup of why it’s harder for corporations. Not why they can’t do it. In spite of all the things that I just mentioned, there are large companies that have figured out how to build innovation ecosystems. My favorite is a private company called W.L.Gore & Associates. At their core they make products out of expanded PTFE like GORE-TEX fabrics. But they’ve taken that basic technology past fabrics into multiple markets – medical, filtration, fibers, cables, etc. They have a process of continual innovation – an innovation pipeline. But this type of innovation requires leadership who understands that is their goal. If you’re a large company’s CEO today, the problem is that you’re dealing with, well, lots of issues, not just innovation.

  • One – “How do I deal with activist investors who want to take my company apart and sell it for pieces?”
  • Two – “I’ve been hearing about this innovation stuff, but if I’m running a 10,000-person company, my skill-set is about execution, not innovation. I might give you some head nods about innovation, but I really don’t have that in my DNA.”
  • Three – Companies are driven by processes and procedure, those same processes and procedures strangle innovation in its crib. For innovation to succeed inside of a large company, you need a parallel set of processes, not to replace the existing ones, but to operate on a fast track.

Some companies have figured out how to do this, not just internally, but by just acquiring those that do. So, if you think about how a large company can innovate, they could build, they could buy, they could partner, they could license. All parts of their toolset where startups don’t have those opportunities. Basically, startups are just building.

PB: Large corporations have a number of tools they use for innovation. One area is innovation challenges and idea challenges to come up with a thousand new ideas. A second option is for corporations to provide accelerators where they invite startups to apply to be part of their accelerator program. A third is incubators and makers’ spaces. Do you see those as innovation programs that can work? They’re spending a lot of money on it.

SB: No. What you just described is innovation theater. These are innovation activities, not deliverables. The hard part in a company is not getting a demo or setting up an internal accelerator, it’s getting something delivered all the way through your existing sales channel. What does it take to get from that demo into your engineering group, to be delivered as a product into your existing sales channel? And that’s where the difficulties are. You run into, “Well, wait a minute, this isn’t on our budget or schedule.” “Wait a minute, this conflicts with our existing product line.” “This will put our most profitable product out of business,” or “We don’t even have a sales force that knows how to sell this thing.”

A good number of companies focus on the easy part, which is, “Let’s have an incubator/accelerator.” The hard part is, “How do we deliver something with speed and urgency?” For example, when I teach this for the government, our focus is on innovation that gets deployed and fielded, not demos. (Yes, you might need a demo to convince someone to fund your program, but the demo is not the goal – delivery is.) Companies have more demos than they’ll ever need. But really the goal of a successful innovation program is figuring out how do you deploy something by getting through the hard political wiring diagram of who owns what, and how does this differ from what we already have, and which budget is it going to come from, and “this is unscheduled” and “wait a minute, it doesn’t meet our quality standards” and “we’re going to screw up our brand”?

How do we solve those problems? And that doesn’t mean it’s not solvable. It just means the “Let’s throw a party” approach reminds me of the old Andy Hardy movies of “Let’s put on a show.” Ok, we’ve got a show, now what?

The “now what” is that we lack a corporate innovation doctrine.

PB: I’m going to read a quote from you, which is “We believe the next big step is to get teams of leaders to think about the innovation process from end to end. That is, to visualize the entire flow of how and from where an idea is generated – the source – all the way to deployment – how to get it into the user’s hands.” You also have talked about an innovation stack and operational innovation, which is absent and so difficult to implement. What prompted these insights?

SB: Here’s what I observed. Large companies and government agencies have always had innovation, but it’s what I call “heroic innovation.” That is, there was no process, no procedure, but you always hear stories about somebody who managed to get a new product or idea out the door. We tend to celebrate those without anybody ever thinking, “Well, wait a minute. Maybe the fact that there are no formal innovation processes is the problem, not that there was some heroic stuff happening.”

In the last couple years, my work, Eric Ries’s work, Alexander Osterwalder’s work, all were focused on building a body of professional knowledge – doctrine – around innovation. And as part of that we’ve developed a set of tools that could be used to search for business models. Companies have adopted this innovation doctrine and startup tools and have been running accelerators and whatever. The problem is that there still wasn’t an end-to-end innovation implementation process, inside a large company.

What we came up with last year is called the Innovation Pipeline, a process inside a company or a government agency that says, “Let’s start with innovation sourcing. And then build a process to take that all the way to delivery or deployment. What are the steps internally we need to take that are different than how engineering builds products today?”

This end-to-end pipeline has a couple of steps. The first step is where the ideas or technology come from. They can come from inside the company, outside as acquisitions, universities, etc. The second step is, “What problem are we solving?” which we call problem curation. “Is this a real problem or is this a neat piece of flashy technology? How do we prioritize all the things we’re now doing inside this pipeline. And then how do we test solutions and hypotheses?”

In the middle of this pipeline is the I-Corps Lean LaunchPad methodology for customer discovery and validation. Next, how do we incubate it, and then how do we transition and integrate it with our existing engineering and sales organizations to deliver this stuff That’s an end-to-end process.

By contrast, an incubator and accelerator is a point activity.

As we’ve been teaching organizations this end-to-end Innovation Pipeline process we realized that at each one of those steps the team evolves. At the beginning of that pipeline you might have an innovator, a technologist in R&D. That’s great, but we now know that either in startups or large companies innovators don’t make sxxt happen. They invent things.

Typically, to partner with the innovator on the first step, you need to find an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur inside of a company is somebody who knows how to get stuff across the finish line inside the bureaucracy. That’s very different than the innovator. The mistake that we tend to make is, “Oh, let’s teach the innovators how to do that.” But innovators are almost never entrepreneurs. You can make them appreciate entrepreneurs, but they’re not the same people.

PB: A trending challenge for directors of university entrepreneurship programs is to build an entrepreneurship ecosystem. These executive directors are struggling to decide, “What do I build out next? What program do I add next?” Is there some way to take your approach and to direct it to building university entrepreneurship ecosystems?

SB: An example of what you just talked about is the tech transfer and venture group at Columbia University, run by Orin Herskowitz. Orin has spun seven different programs out of the Lean LaunchPad and Hacking for Defense programs. In energy and biotech and devices and whatever. Basically, using this pedagogy and building an entire ecosystem around it. It’s really impressive. Columbia’s tech transfer organization is a model of how universities may want to think about entrepreneurship ecosystems.

The other leading thinkers you should talk to are Tom Byers and Tina Seelig at Stanford. Stanford and Tom and Tina and their STVP program are still ground zero for entrepreneurship programs in the world.

Also to watch is Stephen Spinelli who just took over as Babson’s president. Between Spinelli, Orin, and Tom and Tina I think you’ll get an idea of the bleeding edge university entrepreneurship programs. If you want to talk to people who are inventing the future rather than talking about it, I would start with these three universities.

PB: How can corporations work more closely with universities? How can they tap into student entrepreneurship talent for developing the kind of disruptive initiatives that corporations want? Instead of waiting until something happens. How can you create a pipeline with universities that are local or even virtually with universities?

SB: For decades companies have been the primary acquirer of university research via tech transfer. And companies were the magnet for universities best and brightest students. No longer. In the 21st century companies are no longer competing for this tech and talent with their corporate peers, but with startups. To tap into university talent corporate innovation programs need to be more than an afterthought. Corporate leadership needs to make their internal commitment to innovation a beacon to the talent they desire.

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

This 1 Piece of Advice Could Make Or Break Your Career

There’s no handbook on how to evaluate and process “suggestions” and “advice” from a boss or a mentor. But how you choose to act on these recommendations can speed up your learning and make or break your career. Here’s what to keep in mind:


I had a team of students working on an arcane customer problem. While they were quickly coming up to speed, I suggested that they talk to someone who I knew was an expert in the area and could help them learn much faster. In fact, starting in the second week of the class, I suggested the same person several times – one-on-one, in class and in writing. Each time the various team members smiled, nodded and said, “Yes, we’ll get right on it.”  Finally, eight weeks later when they were about to fly across the country to meet the customer, I reminded them again.

When they returned from the trip, I asked if the advisor I suggested was helpful.

I was a bit surprised when they replied, “Oh, we’ve been trying to connect with him for a while and he never responded.”  So, I asked:


Team,
As per our conversation about the lack of response from your advisor John Doe -please forward me copies of the emails you have sent to him.

Thanks

Steve


The reply I received was disappointing — but not totally surprising.


Dear Steve, 

Unfortunately, I believe our team has painted the wrong picture due to miscommunication on our part. It was our responsibility to reach out to John Doe, but we failed to do so.

We did not attempt to reach out to him up until Week 8 before our flight, but the email bounced. We got caught up in work on the trip and did not follow-up. What we should have done was to clarify the email address with our Teaching Assistant and attempt to contact him again.

Best regards,

Taylor


Extra credit for finally owning that they screwed up – but there was more to it.

Combine Outside Advice with Your Own Insights
Upon reflection I realized that this student team was missing a learning opportunity. They were soon heading for the real world, and they had no idea how to evaluate and process “suggestions” and “advice.”  Ironically, given they were really smart and in a world-class university, they were confusing “smart” with “I can figure it all out by myself.”

Throughout my entrepreneurial career I was constantly bombarded by advice – from bosses, mentors, friends, investors, et al. I was lucky enough to have mentors who took an interest in my career, and as a young entrepreneur, I tried to pay attention to what they were trying to tell me. (Coming into my first startup from four years in the military I didn’t have the advantage of thinking I knew it all.) It made me better – I learned faster than having to acquire every bit of knowledge from scratch and I could combine the data coming from others with the insights I had.

Have a Process to Evaluate Suggestions and Advice
Here was my response to my student team:

Dear Team:

Throughout your work career you’ll be getting tons of suggestions and advice; from mentors – people you don’t work for but who care about your career and from your direct boss and others up your reporting chain.

  1. Treat advice and suggestions as a gift, not a distraction
    • Assume someone has just given you a package wrapped in a bow with your name on it.
    • Then think of how they’ll feel when you ignore it and toss it aside.
  2. When you’re working at full speed just trying to get your job done, it’s pretty easy to assume that advice/suggestions from others are just diversions. That’s a mistake. At times following up on them may make or break a career and/or a relationship.
    • The first time your boss or mentor will assume you were too busy to follow up.
    • The second time your boss will begin to question your judgment. Your mentor is going to question your willingness to be coached.
    • The third time you ignore suggestions/advice from your boss is a career-limiting move. And if from a mentor, you’ve likely damaged or ended the relationship.
  3. Everyone likes to offer “suggestions” and “advice.” Think of these as falling into four categories:
    • Some bosses/mentors offer “suggestions” and “advice” because it makes them feel important.
    • Others have a set of contacts or insights they are willing to share with you because they believe these might be useful to you.
    • A few bosses/mentors have pattern-recognition skills. They’ve recognized the project you’re working on or problem you’re trying to solve could be helped by connecting with a specific person/group or by listening to how it was solved previously.
    • A very small subset of bosses/mentors has extracted some best practices and/or wisdom from those patterns. These can give you shortcuts to the insights they’ve taken years to learn.
  4. Early in your career it’s hard to know whether a suggestion/advice is valuable enough to spend time following up. Here’s what I suggest:
    • Start with “Thanks for the suggestion.”
    • Next, it’s OK to ask, “Help me understand why is this important? Why should I talk to them? What should I learn?” This will help you figure out which category of advice you’re getting.If it’s a direct boss and others up your reporting chain, ask, “How should I prioritize this? Does it require immediate action?” (And it most cases it doesn’t matter what category it’s in, just do it.)
    • Always report back to whoever offered you the advice/suggestion to share what you learned. Thank them.

If you open yourself to outside advice, you’ll find people interested in the long-term development of your career – these are your career mentors. Unlike coaching, there’s no specific agenda or goal but mentor relationships can result in a decades-long dialog of continual learning. What makes these relationships a mentorship is this: you have to give as good as you are getting. While you’ll be learning from them – and their years of experience and expertise – what you need to give back is equally important – offering fresh insights to their data.

If your goal is to be a founder, having a network of mentors/advisors means that not only will you be up to date on current technology, markets or trends, you’ll be able to recognize patterns and bring new perspectives that might be basis for your next startup.

Lessons Learned

  • Suggestions/advice at work are not distractions that can be ignored
    • Understand the type of suggestions/advice you’re getting (noise, contacts, patterns, insights)
    • Understand why the advice is being given
    • Agree on the priority in following it up
  • Not understanding how to respond to advice/suggestions can limit your career
  • Advice is a kickstarter for your own insights and a gateway for mentorship
  • Treat advice and suggestions as a gift, not a distraction

The Difference Between Innovators and Entrepreneurs

I just received a thank-you note from a student who attended a fireside chat I held at the ranch. Something I said seemed to inspire her:

“I always thought you needed to be innovative, original to be an entrepreneur. Now I have a different perception. Entrepreneurs are the ones that make things happen. (That) takes focus, diligence, discipline, flexibility and perseverance. They can take an innovative idea and make it impactful. … successful entrepreneurs are also ones who take challenges in stride, adapt and adjust plans to accommodate whatever problems do come up.”


Over the last decade I’ve watched hundreds of my engineering students as well as ~1,500 of the country’s best scientists in the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, cycle through the latest trends in startups: social media, new materials, big data, medical devices, diagnostics, digital health, therapeutics, drones, robotics, bitcoin, machine learning, etc.  Some of these world-class innovators get recruited by large companies like professional athletes, with paychecks to match. Others join startups to strike out on their own. But what I’ve noticed is that it’s rare that the smartest technical innovator is the most successful entrepreneur.

Being a domain expert in a technology field rarely makes you competent in commerce. Building a company takes very different skills than building a neural net in Python or decentralized blockchain apps in Ethereum.

Nothing makes me happier than to see my students getting great grades (and as they can tell you, I make them very work hard for them). But I remind them that customers don’t ask for your transcript. Until we start giving grades for resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition, tenacity and having a passion for products and customers, great grades and successful entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation (and anecdotal evidence suggests that the correlation may actually be negative.)

Most great technology startups – Oracle, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Tesla – were built by a team led by an entrepreneur.

It doesn’t mean that if you have technical skills you can’t build a successful company. It does mean that success in building a company that scales depends on finding product/market fit, enough customers, enough financing, enough great employees, distribution channels, etc. These are entrepreneurial skills you need to rapidly acquire or find a co-founder who already has them.

Lessons Learned

  • Entrepreneurship is a calling, not a job.
  • A calling is something you feel you need to follow, it gives you direction and purpose but no guarantee of a paycheck.
  • It’s what allows you to create a missionary zeal to recruit others, get customers to buy into a vision and gets VC’s to finance a set of slides.
  • It’s what makes you get up and do it again when customers say no, when investors laugh at your idea or when your rocket fails to make it to space.

The State of Entrepreneurship

Co-founder magazine just interviewed me about the current state of entrepreneurship – in startups and large companies – and how we got here. I thought they did a good job of capturing my thoughts.

Take a read here.

click here to read the rest of the article

CoinOut Gets Coin In

It’s always fun to see what happens to my students after they leave class. Jeff Witten started CoinOut four years ago in my Columbia University 5-day Lean LaunchPad class. CoinOut eliminates the hassle of getting a pocket full of loose change from merchants by allowing you to put it in a digital wallet.

Jeff just appeared on Shark Tank and the Sharks funded him. We just caught up and I got to do a bit of customer discovery on Jeff’s entrepreneurial journey to date.

What was the Shark Tank experience like?
It was surreal. We were not prepped or told what to expect, and really just thrown into the “tank” like a baby in the deep end. Given the stage and possibility of embarrassment, it was very intimidating. With that came a ton of adrenaline – it felt like a gallon of it was pumped into my veins – and it allowed me to focus and defend the business/myself as if there were no tomorrow. Looking back I can barely remember what went on in there, but just that I went in with a fighter’s mentality of not letting them speak over me, bully me or misrepresent what we are doing.

SHARK TANK – Coverage. (ABC/Michael Desmond)
JEFF WITTEN (COINOUT)

Anything about the Lean LaunchPad class or just being an entrepreneur in general prepare you for pitching on Shark Tank?
The class was almost a mini shark tank – I still remember the very first pitch we did in front of the class. Each time you speak publicly, or even privately for that matter, about your business I believe that you learn something and help improve / sharpen your pitch. Also, as an entrepreneur, you have to fight every single day. Nothing is easy and you need to convince people that your new way of doing something brings value that someone should pay for. That mentality certainly is one I needed to survive the “Tank.”

Coming into the Lean LaunchPad class, what did you know about starting a company?
I knew very little! I had lots of thoughts that turned out to be wildly incorrect and off target. I had a faint idea of how to interact with potential customers, but no real-life experience doing so. I also knew how to write up a great, theoretical proposal and presentation but that was about it!

What was the 5-day LaunchPad class experience like?
The 5 days were still one of the most intense stretches I’ve gone through (even more intense than some law school finals)! I was working with 4 other folks for the first time and we had to slam together as much as possible to come to some legitimate findings by the end of the course. We actually forced our way into a retail conference that was going on in the Javits Center and ran around berating a million different very large companies, half of whom told us to get lost. At the end of the day, we were able to re-focus and come up with half decent findings with the help of the business model canvas and mentoring from our professors. It was a real whirlwind, but when I look back, many of the discoveries still animate the product and company today.

Jeff’s original CoinOut presentation after five days is here

What did you learn in the LaunchPad class?
I learned how to build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), test it with real customers and ask the right questions to get unbiased feedback. I took those learnings and implemented that immediately in a pilot while still in school. I feel like I’ve done 30 different MVP’s and customer tests over the few years since the course and continue to use the lean methods in all things we look to do for our customers and merchants.

What were the biggest learnings in your first 3, 6, 12, 24 months as an entrepreneur?
The biggest learning was that it’s vital to get out of the building. After getting some data and feedback it’s easy to then say we have enough and know what we need to build. Still today, even after a couple years at this, I have to remind myself that we always have more we can learn from potential and existing customers.

I would say the first 3 months it was to keep asking questions and iterating based on what we were getting. After 6 months, it was learning how to tackle everything with grit and determination as if there were no other option. And in the 12 – 24 months it was to always keep an open mind and never assume a product is right until you truly have product-market-fit. We keep doing pivots to this day. We believe we will always be searching for a better version of product-market-fit!

What are the top three things you wished you knew when you started your company?

  1. I wish I knew how critical good distribution channels are, particularly in the early stages of a company. You can have the greatest product in the world but if it can’t get into customers’ hands efficiently and effectively it is meaningless.
  2. I wish I knew how difficult it is to change people’s perceptions in large companies. Sometimes when you are hot out of the gates with entrepreneurial fever you think you can do anything. I think that is always a valuable feeling to have, but when selling through to larger organizations I’ve learned you need to temper your expectations and do as much as you possibly can to mitigate the risks of partnership ahead of time. Show them why they need to do it rather than why it would be a nice thing to have.
  3. I wish I knew how much fun this was going to be because I would have gotten in sooner! Many people say how hard entrepreneurship is, and I 100% agree. It is incredibly hard. But it is also rewarding like nothing else and when things work out well it is really fun.

See the articles about CoinOut in Forbes and in Columbia entrepreneurship and on Shark Tank episode 23.

While we can’t guarantee an appearance on Shark Tank, the five-day Lean LaunchPad class at Columbia is offered every January and open to all Columbia students.

Hacking for Defense at Columbia University

Over the last year we’ve been rolling out the Hacking for X classes in universities across the U.S. – Hacking for Defense, Hacking for Diplomacy, Hacking for Energy, Hacking for Impact (non-profits), etc.

All are designed to allow students to work on some of the toughest problems the country has while connecting them to a parts of the government they aren’t familiar with. When they leave they have contributed to the country through national service and gained a deeper understanding of our country.

Here is the view from Columbia University.

If you can’t see the video click here.

Innovators podcast @ Stanford

A fun interview at Stanford about some old things and new ones.
Founders
7:18: Mentorship is a two-way street
14:03: Failure=experience
17:27: Rules for raising a family if you’re a founder
Startups
19:25: Startups are not smaller versions of large companies
22:03: How I-Corps and H4X were born
26:25: Your idea is not a company
31:19: Why the old way of building startups no longer works
32:53: Origin of the Lean Startup
34:24 Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything in the Harvard Business Review
35:28: How innovation happens
Company/Government Innovation
41:37: Innovation is different in companies and gov’t agencies
43:30  Deliverable products and services not activities
46:44: Startups disrupting things by breaking the law
Government Innovation
51:12: Fighting continuous disruption with continuous innovation
52:08: How governments innovate
57:54: Innovation from the battlefield to the boardroom

We Have A Moral Obligation

I was in Boston and was interviewed by The Growth Show about my current thinking about innovation in companies and government agencies.The interviewer was great and managed to get me to summarize several years of learning in one podcast.

It’s worth a listen.

At the end of the interview I got surprised by a great question – “What’s the Problem that Still Haunts You?”  I wasn’t really prepared for the question but gave the best answer I could on the fly.

Part of the answer is the title of this blog post.

Listen to the entire interview here:
Taking the Lean Startup From Silicon Valley to Corporations and the State and Defense Department

Or just parts of the interview:
1:20  Failure and Lessons Learned

Don’t let process distract you from finding the strategy

When you’re up to your neck in alligators, don’t forget the goal was to drain the swamp.

I love teaching because I learn something new every class.

This time it was, “Don’t let process distract you from finding the strategy.”


The latest “aha” moment for me when I was at Columbia University teaching an intensive 5-day version of the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps class.  The goal of the class is to expose students to the basics of the Lean MethodologyBusiness Model Design, Customer Development and Agile Engineering.

In this short version of the class, students (in teams of four) spend half their day out of the classroom testing their hypotheses by talking to customers and building minimum viable products.  The teams come back into the class and present what they found, and then they get out and talk to more customers.  Repeat for 5 days.  All teams talk to at least 50 customers/ partners/ stakeholders, and some manage to reach more than 100.

One of the teams wanted to create a new woman’s clothing brand. The good news is that they were passionate, smart and committed.  The not so good news is that other than having been customers, none of them had ever been in the fashion business. But hey, no problem.  They had the Lean Startup model to follow. They could figure it out by simply talking to customers and stores that carry unique fashion brands.  How hard can this be?!

2_8_maraBy the second day the team appeared to be making lots of progress –  they had talked to many women about their clothing line, and had marched up and down NY stores talking to buyers in clothing boutiques.  They built detailed value proposition canvases for each customer segment (young urban professional woman, students, etc.) –  trying to match customer pains, gains and jobs to be done with their value proposition (their new clothing line.) They were busily testing their hypotheses about customer segments and value proposition, seeing if they could find product/market fit.

In listening to them it dawned on me that I had fallen victim to teaching process rather than helping the teams gain insight. I asked them to remind the class what business they were in.  “We’re creating a clothing fashion brand,” was the reply.  I asked, “And how much fashion brand expertise do you have as a team?” “None, we’re using customer discovery to quickly acquire it.”  On the surface, it sounded like a good answer.

But then I asked, “Has anyone on your team asked if any of your 120 classmates are in the apparel/fashion business?”  After a moment of reflection they did just that, and eight of their classmates raised their hands. I asked, “Do you think you might want to do customer discovery first on the domain experts in your own class?”  A small lightbulb appeared over their heads.

A day later, after interviewing their classmates, the team discovered that when creating a woman’s clothing brand, the clothing itself has less to do with success than the brand does. And the one critical element in creating a brand is getting written about by a small group (less than 10) of “brand influencers” (reviewers, editors, etc.) in fashion magazines and blogs.

fashion-brandWhoah… the big insight was that how you initially “get” these key influencers – not customers or stores – is the critical part of creating a clothing fashion brand. This meant understanding these influencers was more important than anything else on the business model canvas. The team immediately added brand influencers to their business model canvas, created a separate value proposition canvas for them and started setting up customer discovery interviews.
The lessons?

  • This team was entering an existing market. (The team had already drawn the Petal Diagram mapping the competitive landscape.)petal-and-canvas
  • In an existing market there is a track record for how new entrants create a brand, get traction and scale. Many of the key insights about the business model and value proposition canvases are already known.
  • In an existing market, going through customer discovery (talking to customers, buyers, distribution channel, etc.) without first asking, “Are there any insights that can be gained by understanding the incumbent strategies, can be a trap for the unwary.”

Ironically, when I was entrepreneur I knew and practiced this. When I started a new venture in existing markets I would spend part of my initial customer discovery attending conferences, reading analysts’ reports and talking to domain experts to understand current market entry strategies. (None of this obligated me to follow the path of other companies. At times I took this information and created a different strategy to disrupt the incumbents.) But as an educator I was getting trapped in teaching the process not the strategy.

The fashion brand team’s experience was a great wake-up call.

From now on my first question to startups in an existing market is: “Tell me the critical success factors of the existing incumbents.”

Lessons Learned

  • In an existing market, draw a Petal Diagram with adjacent companies
  • Focus part of your initial customer discovery on learning competitive insights.
  • Describe how those companies entered the market. What was critical?

 

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