Last Thursday I had the pleasure of dropping in on the Designer Entrepreneur class over at CCA. My longtime friend and colleague Christina Wodtke invited me to talk a bit about startup investing and help critique some of their recent pitch work.
As I watched the pitches and listened to the students present, I thought back to other classes I had helped in and realized that it might be useful to put down some thoughts on how to do well in a class that supposedly teaches you how to be an entrepreneur. Here are some tips to ace your next entrepreneurism class and some of them may not be what you might think:
TIP #1: Find out how to get an A in the class.
When you start the class, ask the teacher, "How does one get an A?" Hopefully your instructor is organized and thoughtful enough to be able to give you a clear answer (be very WARY of those who cannot articulate what the grading criteria are - and yes you may meet some of them at your university!).
Write these down, and pin them on a wall where you can see them every day. These are your points of focus. NOTHING ELSE.
If you go off this focus, you risk not satisfying what your instructor told you they wanted and that you don't satisfy the requirements of the class and therefore, won't get a good grade.
That's not to say that you couldn't get a good grade by going off path. It just means you may need to work A LOT harder to do so.
TIP #2: You should pick a project that you can complete in the time period of the class.
Be very aware of the duration of the class, whether it's a 3-4 month class or a year long project class. Figure out what it is you need to accomplish to get an A, and then find something to work on that enables you to complete the assignments by end of the class.
Creating a viable business requires that you find the right idea to work on in the first place. Discovery of the perfect or a viable idea can take a long time. You can spend some time in ideation of this idea but I would recommend doing that BEFORE you start the class rather than spending time in class coming up with something to work on.
Validation of the idea is also possible, but it could be time consuming and you could easily end up finding out that your idea was the wrong idea to work on.
In the CCA class, I gave them my Minimum Viable Product (MVP) vs. Minimum Viable Company (MVC) speech. It may be easy to crank out MVPs thinking that you can get somewhere, but entrepreneurism isn't the search for MVPs, it's the search for an MVP that can turn into MVC and hopefully one that is fundable.
Keep that also in mind as you pick the project you want to work on.
Don't pick an idea that requires a lot of development time. Working on something that requires a ton of new research? Bad idea. Working on something that has a long manufacturing time (ie. building a new car from scratch)? Bad idea. Quick software app? YES- Great idea!
No matter what, you should try to pick something that allows you to satisfy the class requirements by the end of the semester or year.
TIP #3: You don't actually have to build a real startup to get a good grade.
But wait, Dave, how can that be? Isn't this a class in entrepreneurism?
A mistake I see many students make is thinking that they actually have to build a business by the end of class. I think this is actually false. In fact, trying to do that within the time period of a class can be a big mistake.
Why? It's because building a business takes time. Figuring out what business to build takes time. You may not have time to build a traditional fundable startup by the end of the class period.
Remember to keep your eye on the ball - what is the main purpose of this class? It is for you to LEARN/EXPERIENCE THE PRINCIPLES OF ENTREPRENEURISM. I would not sign up for a class that required you to build a real startup at the end of it. Why? Because you never know how much time you need to validate your path. You may need more time than the class can give you. You may actually end up with nothing at the end. Many entrepreneurs spend their life looking for ideas to work on and not get anywhere; others happen on one instantly, if not magically or by luck or chance. You really don't know which category you'll fall into.
Therefore, it may be that if you show that you've learned the principles of entrepreneurism properly, it might be on a fictional business idea that may never survive the real world, but can show your instructors that you’ve mastered the material.
TIP #4: You may consider building a smaller business.
You don't need to build the next Facebook to get a good grade. You just need to show that you learned the components of good entrepreneurism. It may be possible to do more complete-able projects in the areas of small business like building a new cafe or retail storefront. The principles are the same even if some of the dynamics are different than a typical internet/software based startup which are more popular today. But having more available data to work with makes things easier.
The more ambiguity/uncertainty/unknown there is, the more riskier it is to use this project in a class setting. The funny thing is, these traits are often those of a wildly successful startup outside of a class setting. The reality is that these projects often take a lot more preparation and thinking to bring to a fundable, pitch-able state.
TIP #5: Don’t fall into the product trap.
As a student, you're probably been entrenched in learning how to build stuff. Whether it's coding or design, you've probably spent the last few years learning everything you need to learn how to build anything. Despite being awesome as a builder, you may not be anywhere near prepared to be an entrepreneur. Startups are NOT all about product as you might think.
Touching on the MVP vs. MVC comment above - I re-quote Steve Blank again:
A Startup Is a Temporary Organization Designed to Search
for A Repeatable and Scalable Business Model
[source: Nail the Customer Development Manifesto to the Wall - Steve Blank]
I think a lot of people have fallen into what I call the product trap. It is this mistaken belief that if you build something, somebody will buy it. While this may be true for some things, for the most part it is not true.
This is why Steve Blank likes to say that startups are on the search for a business model. They are NOT on the search for a product.
A few years back I helped out in a Stanford d.school entrepreneur class called LaunchPad. I loved their criteria for an instant A - you had to get one person to pay for your product. I always felt that accelerators should force their companies to do that by demo day. It was a forcing function that made sure that teams weren’t just building things but that people actually would give up money for their products - or they actually have the beginnings of a real business model.
So be careful as you go through your entrepreneurism class that you don't get so enamored with building products that you forget that building a startup is about building a business, and not just a product.
TIP #6: If you are required to build an investor pitch, pitch the business and sell it. Toss anything that is extraneous out of the pitch.
In every pitch I heard, there was an emphasis on product process and what they discovered, and how they got to where they were.
It confused me, and I had to ask the context of their presentation - who was their intended audience? Was it an investor? Was it the instructor? Was it a thesis review board for your degree? Without knowing that I could not fairly judge whether they were presenting the right information or not.
But when they said they were pitching an investor, then I could respond with the appropriate comments. I told them that their pitches sounded like an end of year presentation to their instructors where they showcased what they learned. In fact none of the pitches had discussions about business models, and seemed to showcase their products only. Good for a project class maybe, bad for an investor pitch. Don't mix the two!
TIP: #7: Establish your assumptions or points of view and execute on them.
In the context of a class, it is sometimes possible to establish what design schools like to call "your point of view."
When I was at Stanford, they taught us to always establish our points of view whenever we do a design. This provided context and constraints in which our design was created, and allowed us to judge the final product within that context and constraints. If you were open ended or had a poorly defined point of view, then we could never know what you came up with satisfied design requirements or not. It usually ended up being yelled at by the teacher in front of your class, which you get used to pretty quickly in design school.
I believe you can do that with a startup project as well, and especially if you're in a design school where this is familiar. Remember again, the goal is not necessarily to create a fundable startup by the end of class. It's to show you learned the principles. And the more you bound your problem statement, the more able you are to complete a successful entrepreneur class project in the allotted class time.
As an example, one of the class projects at CCA I saw was related to doing a traditional business in a better and different way. That was a pretty strongly stated point of view - GOOD. However, when they finished their pitch, it was not clear they had executed on that point of view - BAD - it looked to me that their business strategy was pretty much the same as it always was.
If you follow the above tips, I am sure you will ace your entrepreneur class. Remember always that a class setting is a subset of the real world, a simulation at best. You play by its rules, and you'll win. You'll have learned some really important parts about being an entrepreneur and had the opportunity to experiment in a setting with guidance and mentorship. HOWEVER...
END NOTE # : Some of the most important parts of entrepreneurism can't be taught in a class.
It is not easy being an entrepreneur, but yet in what we read and what we have people tell us, anyone can be an entrepreneur. But that is simply not true. Most people just don't have the essential traits, or they are too risk averse, or their current lives just don't enable them to let go of their steady lifestyles to pursue the dream of starting a company and its accompanying chaos.
I have often said that Entrepreneurs are to the rest of the workforce as Navy Seals are to the rest of the Navy. Can you see the difference I mean? They don't put potential Navy Seals through their demanding training program for no reason - they are trying to weed out those who do not have the mental/emotional/physical traits that enable them to be real Navy Seals. It is the same with entrepreneurs.
This is something that can’t be taught in school. Somehow you just need to have had the right life experiences to become such a person.
Do some REAL DEEP soul searching when you leave your class. You have some good tools to try out in the real world, but don't be that guy who quits when the going gets tough - you should have never started in the first place... and by the way, that's OK.