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.

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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.