Entrepeneurship…jumping on the bandwagon

Lean Startup bandwagon

Fat startup: Learn the lessons of my failed Lean Startup — Word Sting.by John Finneran, CFA principal of Word Sting

I wanted to comment on the post  linked above, because 1) I am working a bit with the “lean startup” model with student project groups, and 2) I am always a bit skeptical of “flavor of the day” business jargon. I found it interesting that this was posted online shortly after the Harvard Business Review published “Why the Lean Start-Up Changes Everything” by Steve Blank. This release, in the May 2013 HBR, heralds the alleged “entry” of the lean startup concept into “mainstream” business concepts. While the two posts aren’t directly relevant, John Finneran’s brief description of his own experience in attempting to “implement” lean startup seems instructive at one level–even if “lean” is the right way to go, it might not be easy to do it “right.” It isn’t clear how much of the story might be due to incorrect implementation of the concepts, or whether the concepts are not broadly applicable to all situations. In my own brief experience, I hesitated to fully embrace the full lean startup methodology due to my own concerns along those very lines.

On the other hand, I chose to use the concepts in exactly the same context that Steve Blank implemented them–working with university students who are engaged with “first time” startup efforts. These students are engaged in learning activities, and not primarily in the startup activity (regardless of the rhetoric around the subject). I found the business model canvas and the very slick exciting MOOC of Lean Launchpad to be useful tools for students with little or no experience in business research. In doing so, I hoped to leverage the fame and popularity of “startup party” mentality, hoping this would be motivating to students. I also found this to be an efficient direction, since I don’t have a burning desire to set up my own “school” of thought on the subject. However, I am nothing if not practical, and for me, this model is just one way to have a standard methodology for asking the right questions.

In our student team projects (exploring real-world application of ideas to develop new products or new businesses) there are fewer of the downsides expressed in the “Fat Startup” article. The “potential clients” who are contacted understand that the  “startup” is really part of a class project. The students, no matter how serious they are about moving forward with the new venture, still expect a ‘grade’ for their final efforts. For many of the projects, the effort is being made too early for real “customer” interactions. These students are doing research, and there is no doubt about it. In fact, my expectation is that the majority of the projects will result in “failed” experiments. I try to prepare the students for this by telling them so–but I also tell them they will learn very valuable and practical lessons that they can use when they later find the right path to a startup (or development of a new product).

These projects offer a form of “real world” experience, but maybe not so “real” as that. The reality is in the tasks, but not in the context. The so-called enterprise may be little more than a group composed of college friends and roommates. They generally fit this activity into their overcrowded calendars in the same way they might do for fraternity or sorority functions (whether service or social). I can suggest that they use the Lean Startup methodology for their projects since I find it has some solid elements of logic, but I’m not concerned they will rely on this effort to support themselves (or any dependents). And they aren’t in a position to make promises to customers, just take suggestions and see if they can find a path that looks promising…but they really are planning a future journey. Their project might involve “getting to the station” as their first “step” and they still have the option to take another train (or even consider an entirely different mode of travel, maybe a boat).

Don’t get me wrong–I wouldn’t suggest the model to my students if I didn’t find it valuable. I just want them to use their own judgement, and learn how to THINK before they make decisions. This includes the decision on whether, or not, to rely on something like the “lean startup” concept for taking that leap into the deep (and muddy) waters of entrepreneurship. University faculty are in much the same position as students, and they are being given direction to use the lean startup model in their own new ventures (for example, NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps)). I feel this might be useful with some faculty, those who can truly put themselves back into “student” mode for the purposes of learning a subject (business or entrepreneurship) of which they can comfortable admit ignorance. It might not be applicable to all new ventures or to all faculty entrepreneurs.

The moral of the story? Just be careful about jumping on passing bandwagons.