Venture Launch Course Reflections II

I have just returned from my travels and have begun the process of re-factoring and improving the ENTR 4332 Venture Launch course that I have now taught twice at Mount Royal University . We had recently re-designed our entrepreneurship program from a small business management focus to developing an entrepreneurial mindset with the goal of helping students create innovative, scalable business models for new and existing for-profit and not-for-profit ventures.

Students entered the course with their venture opportunity identified and developed in Prof. Laurie Jensen’s ENTR 4331 course;
 out of the proverbial coffee shop and into the basement to develop their ventures. We incorporated Eric Ries’ Lean Start-up and Steve Blank’s Customer Development methodology by having the student teams iterate through build-measure-learn cycles designed to test hypotheses and refine their business models (documented on Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas). We found these methodologies challenging to apply in an experiential way to essentially pre-revenue, low to no capital undergraduate student start-ups. As a result, we targeted to have their ventures by the end of the semester in state of preparedness to continue-on in a bootstrapped mode or ready to successfully court first round love money or angel investors.

The composition of this second cohort was quite different from the first semester’s inaugural cohort. While the first semester was exclusively second and third year undergraduates, this cohort had several continuing education students with varying academic backgrounds who were already in the workforce and in some cases are already been involved with new ventures. The wide-spread of individual capabilities, relevant business experience and personal drive made creating an impactful learning experience more than a bit of a challenge. But this diversity of the students backgrounds was also a blessing; there was a refreshingly candid exchanges of ideas and opinions in class and in their blogs, and clearly having a class composed of diverse, multi-disciplinary individuals enhanced the overall learning experience.

This time around, I was able to incorporate Eric Reis’ “Lean Start-up” as the core textbook. While I had used the Lean Start-up process in the first running of the course, the book was published too late to be used as the core textbook. Hard-cover books, with its long-form content in a collection of printed pages, curiously still impart a sense of authority and permanence that is lacking with all things on the internet … even with millennial’s !

What is Working Well:

  • General models and tools seem to be suitable and appropriate in practice with the students, in particular Business Model Canvas and Lean Startup.
  • Students “get” the “Pivot”, “get out of the building” (most of the time) and “lean thinking”.
  • Student journaling thought blogging has been effective for sharing observations, feedback and reflection between team members, teams and advisors.
  • The continuous education students add a lot to classroom experience; sharing of different perspectives and experiences.

Challenges:

  • There is a lot that has to come together in a short period of time for the students. Many have only limited employment experience to draw on.  A full undergraduate course load is challenging for most; the addition work load of venture development is a struggle for some. Several had part-time jobs or athletic commitments which made off-campus activity scheduling a challenge.
  • The students have difficulty creating reasonably realistic financial models for their venture and are very reluctant to “aggressively” scale their ventures.
  • Recruiting members that can contribute in a meaningful and timely way to the  advisory boards that students form for their venture teams continues to be a challenge.
  • Grading was time consuming  due to the volume of material to review in the blogs.

Re-work/Refinements:

  • Less “sage on the stage” … there is a plethora of material available on the net e.g. blog postings, readings and videos that could be incorporated into out of class readings and assignments.
  • Need to re-think the venture opportunity and team selection process that initiates the course to create more robust and creative teams. Actively encourage cross-disciplinary teams – e.g. recuit and include students from the computer science programs
  • Need to be more actively encouraging the possibility of a social ventures and intrapreneurial new ventures within an existing organization.
  • Need to find some simple and Lean Start-up “friendly” financial modelling tools that are appropriate for undergraduate students with a limited exposure to accounting and general finance.
  • Will continue the further refinement of integration with ENTR 4331 Idea to Opportunity course; moving forward the use of the BMC and a slimmed down experience of the Customer Development Model
  • Incorporate a formal requirement for two MVP cycles and a midpoint presentation to “force” the pivot or persist experience for all teams.
  • Look at some alternative methodologies that have been evolving; Ash Maurya’s work is very interesting and his Lean Stack is going to get a closer look this summer.
There has been an incredible explosion of entrepreneurship as a management science. The Stanford Udemy experience has stopped me in my tracks and made me reconsider my approach;  I need to continue even faster and further on the “less sage on the stage”, more to active discussions and creating experiential opportunities for the students. We need to continue to focus on the development of the entrepreneurial mindset ; more on growing individuals that are confident and aware rather than the actual launch of sustainable and scalable ventures. Steve Blank’s recent posting “Entrepreneurship for the 99%” has also given me cause to further ponder. The majority of our graduates are unlikely to start new ventures or join early stage ventures straight after their graduation. They almost all will likely be contributing members to operating organizations, large and small, commercial, charitable, political or otherwise in nature. Consider what impact can be brought to our community by these graduates with a developed entrepreneurial mindset!
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Tokyo

Travelling is a change that can be more than a rest; new places, new people and different perspective is a fresh breeze on one’s creative soul.

I’ve been traveling in Asia; Taichung and Taipei and now I’m in Tokyo with my sons. Japan has exhibited incredible poise and strength in the aftermath of earthquake, tsunami and a subsequent nuclear crisis. It jolted the average Japanese citizens’ faith in the business men and politicians that run their country but there seems to be real changes in motion to solve the problems of an ageing population, high public debt and deflation that were plaguing Japan long before the disaster. It is fascinating to observe and to reflect on the changes that are unfolding in Tokyo, the centre of this crucible of change. It is is an incredible, vibrant city of contrasts. Creative and repressed at the same time, it is a hyper-kinetic chaos that seems to merge with the traditional Japanese aesthetic and philosophical approaches drawn from a rich cultural heritage into a whole; a whole that is magnitudes greater than the sum of it’s collective parts.

Geoffrey West, a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute who has looked into the maths of cities and the creator of the meme that “cities are powerful networks” postulates that there is an urban constant that holds good the world over: “that every doubling in the size of a city brings a 15-20% increase in wages, patent output, the employment of “supercreative” people, the efficiency of transport systems and many other good things associated with cities. There is a similar increase in crime and pollution, but the benefits of higher wages and greater opportunities evidently outweigh those disadvantages.” Tokyo is the poster city (paradoxically with out the increase in crime and pollution). While it is impossible to predict the what and when of the next “new thing”, Tokyo is going there so watch this great city, it is the future in the making.

Your Telescope and Your Magnifying Glass

Telescope out to see what is on your horizon; real or imagined. Where are your going, where could you be going? What new opportunities may presenting themselves, what icebergs to avoid?

Then pull back and pull out your magnifying glass to focus and execute the details at hand. Telescope out and magnify in close; a constant cycle of exploration, adjustment and execution in your journey.

Be a Great Communicator

It does not matter how beautifully crafted your code is nor how detailed and carefully thought out your plan is. If you cannot communicate in a way that your listener or reader understands and embraces then none of it really matters.

A great communicator makes the complicated simple, the mountain a molehill, a threat an opportunity, the difficult do-able.  What needs to said and what needs to omitted. Who needs to know and who does not. When is the right time or when nothing needs to be said.

Choose wisely how you communicate. Orally in person, by phone or video. Written by twitter, texting or email. One-on-one in private or from one-to-many in a group. Synchronous (an open, sharing conversation) or asynchronous (a memo to all, an announcement). Permanent (remember everything written is preserved by someone, somewhere in this brave new world) or ephemeral (subject to our malleable, less than precise memories which is often a good thing). Each is suitable and appropriate for a certain circumstance; clearly consider which is right for your circumstance.

Communication is craft and art that is honed through observation, education, experimentation and experience. Communicating is the last mile. It is not the message sent but the message received. Be a great communicator.

Believing is not an Option

In 1970, the ill-fated American Apollo 13 lunar landing mission suffered an oxygen tank explosion that crippled the critical service module and stranded the crew in orbit around the moon with no way home back to Earth. Through the ingenuity and determination of the astronauts and Mission Control back on the ground in Houston and with only the material, tools and skills available on their the severely damaged Apollo 13 space craft, repairs were successfully  made. A creative, alternative approach back to earth was plotted and the crew were returned with out further incident.

The Apollo 13 incident, with it’s life and death consequences, is an extreme outlier but starkly illustrates the ideal that “failure is not an option”. While those words were a Hollywood creation and were never actually uttered, Flight Dynamics Officer Jerry Bostick responded when asked in an interview by the script writers, Al Reinart and Bill Broyles, “Weren’t there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?” :

  “No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution”.

They believed that the goal of returning the crew safely was possible despite extremely limited resources and options. What would have the outcome been had they felt that the goal was impossible because of those staggering odds against their success? When you are the leader and bad things happen, all eyes are on you. How will you react? If you believe the goal is impossible, then you will absolutely fail. If you believe that the goal is possible, then you have a chance of success. Both sides of the same coin are infectious; optimism on one side and pessimism one the other. Pessimism is self-fulfilling. Optimism opens the door to possible success.

132. What We Teach

“When we teach a child to make good decisions, we benefit from a lifetime of good decisions.

When we teach a child to love to learn, the amount of learning will become limitless.

When we teach a child to deal with a changing world, she will never become obsolete.

When we are brave enough to teach a child to question authority, even ours, we insulate ourselves from those who would use their authority to work against each of us.

And when we give students the desire to make things, even choices, we create a world filled with makers.”

Seth Godin, “Stop Stealing Dreams

Ninety-eight thought-provoking, insightful pages. Go … download, read, discuss, act.

Beyond Project Management to Project Leadership

We are only in the second month of the new year and I have already had three conversations on a topic that I sadly continue to discuss year in and year out; why is it so many IT projects fail?

Most recent studies show that only about one in three projects are considered successful and even many of those have the quality of “declaring victory” and moving on in spite of evidence to the contrary. The generally reported reasons are:

  • weak executive sponsorship and involvement,
  • vague or incorrect requirements,
  • unrealistic schedule,
  • poor scope management,
  • team break-down,
  • lack of user participation,
  • inadequate or incomplete testing.

All these reasons are widely known and accepted. Anecdotally and interestingly, the majority of IT projects in recent years have required that the project manager is Project Management Institute (PMI) PMP certified with the implicit assurance that projects lead by certified managers are aware of and able to avoid these pitfalls. Project mangers with a PMP  are educated and certified in the PMI’s PMBOK guide which cover their principles of project management and project management processes. In my opinion, the PMBOK is a solid body of work that focuses completely on the process of managing a project but falls completely short on the subject of project leadership. It is telling that leadership was only explicitly acknowledged as an important project management skill in the 4th and latest edition of the PMBOK for the first time and only in a brief paragraph buried in an appendix.

The PMBOK exemplifies what Donald Schon in the “The Reflective Practitioner” touches on;  “the inadequacy of established management theory and technique to deal with the increasingly critical task of managing complexity” where “professional knowledge is mismatched to the changing situations of professional practice – the complexity, uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value conflicts which are increasingly perceived as central to the world of professional practice”.  PMP certification, while demonstrating that the holder is acquainted with the PMI’s “body of knowledge” regarding project management, does not imply that said individual can effectively apply this particular body of knowledge in the real world nor does it ensure that this project manager is capable and willing to deal with the uncertainties, complexities, vulgarities of a project at the human level.

By definition projects are unique. By nature, they are very human endeavours. Projects are often foggy, untidy affairs staffed with less than a perfect team. This is lost on many who plan and staff projects. They believe that projects are deterministic, predictable, cookie cutter affairs and as such require managers of process and not leaders of people. We all have encountered the clip-board toting project manager with low to zero emotional intelligence, checking and measuring against “The Plan”. They hold meetings straight out of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” where all is fine and nothing is amiss, hole up it their office fiddling with software tools that “manage” the project, and carefully craft meaningless status reports right up until the project hits the wall (to none’s surprise except perhaps to the few that actually read the status reports and took them  at face value).

Reliance only on process and certification will most likely result in a failed project. A successful project is the result of an effective and efficient team effort. The success of that effort is more assured with a true leader at it’s helm; an individual that is a communicator and motivator, a person that instills confidence and enthusiasm, and by their integrity and credibility has the mutual respect of all involved. As an industry, we need to make the requirement of these qualities in our project managers the first and foremost visible priority and place process knowledge in the back seat as a given core competency.

All I Really Need to Know About UX I Learned in Kindergarten

“All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten” is a collection of fifty essays by Robert Fulghum which premises that we all learned about “how to live and what to do and  how to be”, we learned as children in kindergarten e.g. “share everything, play fair, don’t hit people …”. It is a sublime, modern classic that offers some “uncommon thoughts” on everyday occurrences.
A few years ago I observed with wonderment as my then 3-year-old son played with my new iPhone. By trial, error and luck he navigated the UX and was soon able to watch his choice of videos and play some simple games. The extension of  Fulghum’s credo as the basis of a common sense UX test was a revelation; can a child figure out how to use your application, device, product just by playing with it ? No manuals, video tutorials, off-shore help desk support; no pestering of more knowledgeable friends or attending of classes. Maybe just a show and tell, then let them loose with it. A simple test that is very telling.

Venture Launch Course Reflections

The inaugural offering of ENTR 4432 Venture Launch course offered to undergraduates at Mount Royal University that I developed and instructed just wrapped up with the student team presentations completed before their final exams. After a brief holiday break, I have a had a chance to reflect on the successes, challenges, failures and to develop enhancements that will be incorporated in this up coming semester’s offering of the course.

The Venture Launch course is the fourth of a six course Minor in Entrepreneurship at the Bissett School of Business. In embrace of lean start-up principles, the course itself was a Minimum Value Product offering. It follows the ENTR 4331 Opportunity Development course created and taught by Laurie Jensen. ENTR 4331 incorporates Steven Johnson’s research from “Where Good Ideas Come From“,  Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Generation and Steve Blank‘s customer discovery and validation approaches. Over a full semester, students in this hands-on course that engages them deeply in
the idea-to-opportunity process, identified, selected and developed an opportunity for the creation of a new venture.

This cohort of students continued on to the Venture Launch course with their opportunity;
out of the proverbial coffee shop and into the basement to develop their ventures (Canadian start-ups work in basements of the founder’s homes as the garage is way too cold and inhospitable in winter!). We incorporated Eric Ries’ Lean Start Up and Steve Blank’s Customer Development methodology by having the student teams iterate through two build-measure-learn cycles designed to test hypotheses and refine their business models (documented on Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvases). But in the class,  I found these methodologies challenging to apply in an experiential way to essentially pre-revenue, low to no capital student start-ups. So we targeted instead to have their ventures by the end of the semester in state of preparedness to continue-on in a bootstrapped mode or ready to successfully court first round love or angel investors.

All through the semester, I was (and continue to be) amazed by the sheer volume, diversity and convergence of the information and innovative thinking regarding start-ups. It was enlightening and energizing to follow the shared trials and lessons learned of the mass of practitioners, much of which we reflected and fed back into our course on the fly. But several factors also challenged us and separated our experiences from this body of work. First is that our work is centered around educating and developing the entrepreneurial mindset of undergraduates which has it own set of unique challenges different from those of graduate students and in-the-field practitioners. Second, we are not focused on tech start-ups exclusively but more broadly on all ventures ranging from “bits to atoms” in nature. Thirdly, our Calgary-Edmonton economic corridor is dominated by primary resource extraction and the tertiary sector of related financial services (we arguably have a global tier energy industry cluster forming) with abundant capital that unfortunately has very limited investment attention for non-energy related ventures. Fourth, while we have a vibrant and active entrepreneurial and academic community, we are an order of magnitude smaller in scale and energy of the leaders and thus do not have depth of experience and talent to draw advise, mentorship and support from. These factors, while daunting, are being addressed in build 2 of the Venture Launch course; the second cohort will begin their journey this week.

Pitching

Jasmine Antonick recently dropped by the Venture Launch class that I teach at Mount Royal University. Jasmine is in the swirl of her own startup Beakerhead, after having spent the last few years with Dealmaker Media. She was involved with a multitude of activities inclulding Under the Radar, GROW conferences and pitch coaching over 200 new ventures. She shared her pitching wisdoms with the class and I have added to them in the following:

The Introduction

  • Tell a story of your “a-ha” moment.
  • Research and understand who you are pitching to; know your audience e.g. Tech Savvy vs. Non-Tech, Canadians vs. Americans.
  • Share you idea … don’t worry about being scoped.
  • Describe what do you in a few repeatable sentences e.g. we created X that does y which solves Z for who …

Problem Solver

  • What problem are you solving?
  • For whom is it making lives easier?
  • Make it human.

Target Customer

  • Who are your customers and how are you going after them?
  • The paradox of information; too much information and the listeners start interpolate and make their own conclusions. Give them enough details to interest them in a follow up.
  • Be credible e.g. we talked to over 100 customers and industry players before we took the leap.

Business Model

  • Create memorable sound bites.
  • The hockey stick is cliche; explain key value events, your trajectory of growth.
  • Explain why your customers will change their behavior; why they are willing to pay for your product or service.

Differentiator

  • Why (and how) will you win over the others.
  • What is your sustainable competitive edge e.g. we do X, Y and Z better than anyone else.
  • What agreements do you have in place with partners, vendors, customers etc.
  • Walk through your product.

Traction and Growth

  • The proof is in the pudding; what growth have you experienced thus far?
  • What is the projected growth?

The Winning Team

  • Why is your team is THE team to make it happen?

The Ask

  • What advice, partnership, money do you need to get to A, B and C?

General Advice

  • Know your material inside and out; present without reading from notes or the slides.
  • Your dress and deportment should make you and your audience comfortable.
  • Everyone on your team should know and have rehearsed the presentation for reasons of redundancy e.g. illness, travel delays etc.
  • Non-presenting team members should exhibit positive body language e.g. be engaged and alert.
  • Live product demos are risky; used a canned set of screen shots and offer to give hands-on demo session later.
  • Have your segue statements prepared and rehearsed e.g. That’s an excellent question, Jerry our product architect can answer that …
  • Advisors should be demonstratively active and even better, have invested.
  • Keep your presentation simple; fewer slides, less words and more pictures that reinforce is a good thing.
  • All your effort is distilled into 6 minutes and 10 slides … your brand, credibility and integrity.
  • People give advice before they give money.
  • People invest in people.