The Good, Bad and Ugly of the ExEC Fall Pilot

The Good, Bad and Ugly of the ExEC Fall Pilot

ExEC is an experiment to see if we can revolutionize how entrepreneurship is taught in college classrooms.

Halfway through our first pilot semester, we wanted to share the results so far – warts and all – so the entrepreneurship education community at large can learn along with us.

The Numbers

We’re grateful to have 10 schools across the United States and Canada piloting with us this Fall:

  • Rowan University
  • Brandon University
  • East Carolina University
  • Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT)
  • University of South Alabama
  • Gulf Coast State College
  • Xavier University
  • John Carroll University
  • Susquehanna University
  • Georgia State University

Across these institutions, we have nearly 500 undergraduate students using the curriculum.

Just as ExEC challenges those 500 students to do, we’re testing the curriculum’s assumptions and iterating its design. Here’s what we’ve found so far.

The Good

Our pilot professors and students have told us ExEC stands out with respect to other curricula in a couple areas:

Developing the Entrepreneurial Mindset

We want students engaging with their customers, discovering problems that can be solved instead of just thinking of new ideas to create.

One professor told us:

“More than anything, I’ve enjoyed that we have spent 4-5 weeks exploring the issue of problem solving. In previous classes, students have been convinced they had the right solution to a problem by week 2 and no matter what research they found, they wouldn’t pivot appropriately given the new evidence.”

Students are also sharing their excitement at better understanding how entrepreneurs think. One student said:

“This activity made me look at the creation of a product in a different aspect than I have before. It allowed me to think of solving a problem and not just creating a product to create one. It needs to be something that people will actually use. It made it easier for me to be creative and think more like an entrepreneur.”

Another student told us:

“The exercise was a very clear, somewhat concise explanation of the mindset needed for successful entrepreneurship. It shows the clear relationship between successful startups and outlines the key consistencies for success.”

And perhaps our favorite student feedback:

“[The Business Plans vs. Business Experiments exercise] made me think like a kindergartener again and that made me excited.”

Replacing Lectures with Experiences

ExEC provides professors with comprehensive lesson plans, and constant support, so you can create experiences like this that will excite students about experiencing entrepreneurship.

One of the exercises uses marshmallows to teach students about the danger of hidden assumptions, and why business plans lead to failure more often than not:

Pilot students have been sharing their excitement with the exercises as well. They are seeing how they can apply what they are experiencing in class:

This really showed me what it takes to develop an idea. Also helped me get more in touch with who I’m trying to target with my idea and how it can help [him/her].”

“I can use the [exercise] for all business ideas that come to mind and when analyzing other companies.”

Students have shared how the exercises have shifted their thinking:

“I feel I will perform better in the future when completing a project because now I know the value of prototyping, also, now I understand the importance of identifying the hidden assumptions which cause many times good ideas to fail.”

“Knowing how feelings play a part in buying and decision making is interesting and will help with my business model. I did not really think or relate the two before this class.”

“This provides a clear understanding of what it takes to solve a problem and come up with ideas to solve those problems. It showed me some key resources that I did not know before to help start a company through problem solving.”

Getting Students Interviewing Customers

We want students having real conversations with real customers about the customer’s problems. This is the essence of entrepreneurship, and a skill we heard most professors struggle teaching.

One professor told us:

“Given the previous exercises on identifying the early adopters and clarifying the problem statement, [The How To Ask for Interviews exercise] was a very positive exercise. Students were able to quickly identify the interview channels that their early adopters might use (social media, blogs, interviews) and plan how to initiate that conversation using the strategy outlined in this exercise. By the end of today, the students felt very confident about getting out and learning about the problem.” 

Our interviewing exercises push students to think about learning from actual customers, instead of industry or product “experts”, as shared by one professor:

“I LOVE [Who Are Early Adopters?] exercise!!!  So many times, I have had conversations with my students who are going to interview their dad, friend, someone who works in the industry and this exercise really takes the time to dispel this myth that these are important.”

The students are also realizing how powerful interviews are, especially in comparison to surveys, thanks to an ExEC exercise that makes them survey and interview customers, and compare the results:

“The [Student Challenges Survey exercise] is showing how surveys do not capture the full picture from a consumer whereas an interview lets the customer give more feedback.”

After half a semester, we are confident the pilot students are engaged in their class experience. Through that engagement, we see them developing an entrepreneurial mindset, and honing their customer interviewing skills.

The Bad

We preach iteration because there’s no way to get everything right the first time around – and that’s the case with ExEC. Here are a couple areas we need to focus on going forward.

Less is More

We created too much content. We originally wanted to arm our professors with more experiences and exercises than they could ever use, so they could build a customized syllabus specifically for their class.

That strategy has started to backfire as some professors have, understandably, began feeling pressured to cover a lot of material in a limited amount of time. One told us:

“I was extremely nervous . . . to teach a class that had so many new components that I was learning day by day.”

Another shared:

“I think there are too many lessons on interviewing, although I see its utility.”

ExEC has 30+ experiential exercises, which is simply too many for one semester, especially when life readjusts the class schedule, as it did with Hurricane Irma for a couple professors.

The Fix

Based on the exercises students find most impactful, we’re streamlining ExEC’s content to focus on a subset of activities.

Restricting Access

We were so excited to share ExEC with as many schools as possible, we initially weren’t as rigorous as we should have been in restricting access.

ExEC has a lot of moving parts, several of them untested before this semester. We should have started with a slightly smaller, more targeted, pilot cohort so we could iron out ExEC’s wrinkles (details below) more efficiently.

The Fix

Having been through trial by fire this semester, we think we have a handle on the major issues. That said, we’ll be limiting access to our upcoming Spring Pilot, just to err on the side of caution.

The Ugly

There is one area we really missed the mark this semester. Because of it, we’ve already started the redesign process.

Poor Design Choices

We made some incorrect assumptions about the technical comfort of some of our students and professors – which really means we made poor design choices on our end.

Our pilot professors and their students are less familiar with technology than we anticipated. We expected more feedback like this from one professor:

“I have taken one class at a time, one new element at a time and really enjoyed exploring the new materials.”

But one professor told us:

“I like to think I’m not stupid, but working through this to get it ready for my students makes me question that.”

And one student told us:

“I’m absolutely thrilled that [I] bought a program coded by a team of incompetents.”

While our professors certainly aren’t stupid, and we (hope we) aren’t incompetent, any experience that makes even a subset of customers feel that way needs to fixed immediately.

The Fix

We’ve already begun making to several exercises, but there’s more work to do.

We’ve started redesigning both the professor and student experiences from the ground-up; while the content will largely remain the same going forward, the way professors and students interact with it will be completely revamped.

Takeaways

So far, this has been a perfect pilot!

Not perfect in that we got everything right – we certainly haven’t – perfect in the sense that this is what pilots are for. With the help of our amazing pilot professors, we’ve been living the Build, Measure, Learn loop.

We’re really excited about ExEC’s and while we haven’t gotten everything right so far, we’ve made some great progress on some of the hardest parts:

  1. Developing the entrepreneurial mindset
  2. Replacing lectures with experiences
  3. Getting students interviewing customers

Next up, we’ll polish our rough design edges so everyone feels confident engaging with the content!

Want to Shape Entrepreneurship?

As mentioned above, we’ll be limiting access to the Spring Pilot, but if you’re a progressive entrepreneurship professor willing to get your hands dirty in the name of improving entrepreneurship education…

Check out ExEC and schedule a preview.

We’ll accept a handful of programs into the Spring Pilot, which will not only get you early access, as you can see, you’ll also play a significant role in reshaping how entrepreneurship is taught at colleges around the world.

Stay Tuned

For more updates on ExEC, and our continuing series of free classroom resources delivered to your inbox, subscribe below.

Join 4,000+ teachers. Get new lesson plans via email.
Idea Generation vs Problem Generation

Idea Generation vs Problem Generation

Click play above for the video version of this post.

Idea generation is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching entrepreneurship. At colleges around the world, you hear the same business ideas over and over again:

  • A dedicated driver service.
  • A way to not you lose your keys or wallet.
  • An alcohol delivery service.

entrepreneurship, ideas, teachingYou’re also hearing ideas that are low impact:

  • Put a logo on a t-shirt.
  • Put a logo on a koozie.

Or you hear ideas that are simply infeasible from a business or realistic perspective.

A Better Way

Below we’ll describe an alternative approach to helping students generate ideas, and provide an experiential lesson plan for you to use in your classes.

Your goal is to help your students identify better business ideas. The higher quality their ideas, the higher quality businesses they’ll build, and the higher quality skills they’ll acquire in your class.

Ideally, student ideas would be simultaneously:

  1. Creative
  2. Impactful and
  3. Feasible

To accomplish the above, we typically start with a variety of idea generation exercises.

The problem is, traditional idea generation isn’t the best way to come up with these ideas.

It is almost impossible for anyone to come up with creative, impactful, and feasible business ideas. The best entrepreneurs in the world struggle to come up with ideas that fulfill these requirements; it’s no surprise that we have a difficult time helping our students come up with them.

Why Idea Generation Doesn’t Work

Before you read past this next image, I want you visualize an entrepreneur coming up with a great business idea. What does that process of coming up with an idea look like to you?

entrepreneurship, idea, teaching

Most of us imagine an entrepreneur having a “light-bulb moment”, where she is inspired to create a genius new product that is impactful and financially successful. In other words,

We think “idea generation” is synonymous with “product idea generation.”

Customers reject products.

After coming up with an impactful, creative product idea, it’s easy to imagine our entrepreneurs introducing their products to customers, who immediately embrace them for their bold thinking and innovative approach.

As you already know, this never happens in reality. Almost universally, customers reject new products whether they’re developed inside, or outside, the classroom. Why?

Because customers don’t buy products. Customers buy solutions to problems.

entrepreneurship, teaching, problem, solution, ideaWhen we teach our students to think of business ideas in terms of products, it’s no wonder they struggle. Customers don’t want products!

If we can focus our students’ attention on what customers really care about – their problems – our students can use those problems as inspiration to generate creative, impactful and feasible solutions to those problems.

What if instead of focusing on idea generation we focused on problem generation?

Starting with Problems

If we know customers buy solutions to problems, it makes sense that any entrepreneurial journey should start from a problem, not a product.

When our students focus on solving problems instead of inventing products, the customers they approach will shift from being wary and rejecting to being curious and enthusiastic. Why? Because someone is finally listening to their problems and helping them do something about it.

That’s when this problem-focused approach begins to produce empowering results:

While customers reject products, they will prepay for solutions to their problem.

It’s not up to us as instructors to decide whether business ideas are good or bad. It’s up to our students’ customers and there’s no better metric for our students to know they’ve found a good business idea than if their customers prepay, or sign a Letter of Intent, for it.

Of course, there’s no better way for your students to collect prepayments and LOIs, than for them to convince their customers that they will solve their problems.

Teaching a Lifelong Skill

When we teach problem discovery skills, we teach our students how to make empathetic connections with their customers.

Knowing how to empathetically connect with others is a lifelong skill that will reap rewards throughout their personal and professional lives, like when they’re:

  • Interviewing for jobs
  • Collaborating with co-workers
  • Connecting with their family
  • And of course, when they start their own company.

How to Teach “Problem Generation”

The first step to teaching problem generation is to help students brainstorm problems they are uniquely suited to solve. To do that, you can use this exercise, which is fully documented in the downloadable Lesson Plan below.

Step 1

Invite your students to write down three customer segments they are members of. This can be just about any three groups of people they feel like they belong to.

Some great examples would be:

  • Skateboarders
  • Vegetarians
  • Only children

Step 2

Next, invite your students to write three “passion segments.” Their passion segments will be groups of people, whom are different than their previous three segments, who they are genuinely excited to serve; people for whom they would like to solve problems.

As with Step 1, there are no right/wrong answers. Some examples would be:

  • Members of a specific religion
  • Crossfitters
  • Under-resourced youth

(Note: it’s fine if they are members of their passion segments – in fact, that’s ideal – they just can’t duplicate any of their previous segments.)

Step 3

Of the six segments they’ve brainstormed, students should now pick their top three.

It doesn’t matter whether they pick all three of their passion segments, all three of the segments they are members of, or a combination of the two. As long as they are excited about helping people in those three segments solve their problems, they’re on the right track.

(Note: a nice consequence of this exercise is you’re demonstrating creative brainstorming techniques to your students. By ideating on a number of different potential segments to serve, and then filtering/prioritizing that list of segments, you’re modeling a creative thinking technique they can use in the future.)

Step 4

With their top 3 segments identified, invite your students to hypothesize three problems members of those segments might be trying to solve right now.

For example, if a student chooses skateboarders, the student might hypothesize their customers would express a problem like, “I am having trouble transporting my skateboard on public transit.”

For Crossfitters, maybe they’d hypothesize a problem like, “I don’t how do I make sure I’m getting the right mix of nutrients in my meals.”

It doesn’t matter if the problems the students hypothesize are realistic, the goal is simply to identify several problems the entrepreneurs are uniquely suited to validate. After completing this step, each student will have identified at least nine problems they are uniquely capable of validating, because they either:

  • Experience the problem themselves or
  • They are passionate about helping the people who are experiencing it.

Of these nine problems, they can pick the problem they are most excited to validate during your course. As a bonus, if that idea gets invalidated, you’ll have helped them proactively come up with eight alternative/backup ideas they are excited to validate!

No matter which problems your students choose, their business ideas will be:

  • More feasible than typical student ideas because they’re focusing on serving people they care about.
  • More impactful because they’re paying more attention to problems than they are products.
  • More creative because they’ll get to use those problems as inspiration (as opposed to relying on a “light-bulb moment”/devine intervention).

Get the Complete Problem Generation Lesson Plan

We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute, Entrepreneurship Problem Generation Lesson Plan that encapsulates everything we’ve talked about above.

Get the lesson plan

Use it as a basis to teach your students to identify problems they are uniquely suited to solve

 

It’s free for any/all entrepreneurship teachers. Please feel free to share it.

All we ask is that you leave us some feedback on it the comments below so we can improve it!


Problems, Not Ideas

You want students to develop creative, impactful and feasible business ideas. Don’t focus their attention on idea generation, because customers don’t buy ideas.

Customers buy solutions to problems.

Creativity plays a critical role in entrepreneurship, but it’s not in coming up with products. Creativity is best used in entrepreneurship to brainstorm solutions to problems.

If you want your students to generate ideas that are more likely to become successful businesses, try this Problem Generation technique in your next course.

If you’d like more lesson plans like this, subscribe here to get the next one, How to get your Students Bought-In to Customer Interviews, in your inbox.

Join 4,000+ teachers. Get new lesson plans via email.
Teaching Entrepreneurship Idea Generation

Teaching Entrepreneurship Idea Generation

When teaching entrepreneurship, how many times have you heard:

  • “I have an idea for an app that finds a parking space on campus.”
  • “It’s like Uber for . . . “
  • “I am going to design and sell t-shirts at . . . [homecoming, Greek Week, Spring Fling, etc.]”

Entrepreneurship students default to the first two ideas without thinking. The third idea is just…boring. These are all easy for students to conjure up, and offer little potential impact. As my good friend Alex Bruton says,

“Most of your ideas suck (but they don’t have to).”

You need to tell students that, so they spend less time floundering and more time flourishing.

What Is a Quality Entrepreneurship Idea?

You don’t want another coffee shop or restaurant plan. You don’t want to hear an idea about an electronic Pet Rock.

You want ideas that:

  • Solve a real problem for real people,
  • Serve a niche market accessible to the student,
  • (At least a prototype) can be pre-sold within a semester, and
  • Have the potential to scale.

You want to guide students through the struggle to identify a quality idea like:

  • A pop-up salon for female victims of domestic violence
  • An on-demand service driving food overflow from restaurants and grocery stores to families struggling to make ends meet
  • Fertility treatments that are 90% successful
  • Solar cells made exponentially more efficient through cryogenics.

Imagine an entrepreneurship classroom bustling with impactful ideas like these (BTW, current students are actively working on these ideas).

3 Ways to Generate Quality Entrepreneurship Ideas

Quality ideas are not easy to generate, especially for a typical 20-something college student with limited life experience.

Here are some easy steps to help your entrepreneurship students identify quality ideas:

  • Problem List: students list every problem they encounter or observe over the course of one Tuesday and one Saturday.
  • Observation: students identify the type of business they want to start. They spend 30 minutes observing that type of business – if retail, they wander around the store. If online, they get friends together to play with the website. Students jot down all the problems they observe customers experiencing.
  • 1-Question Interviews: students perform mini problem interviews by asking the same question of 5 different people:

    “What’s been the hardest part about work/school over the last week?”

    Require that your students speak with specific types of people so they can get used to interviewing customers (without the anxiety of approaching complete strangers):

    • A friend who attends the college
    • A friend who doesn’t attend the college
    • A friend of a friend they’ve never met before
    • A non-student who works off-campus
    • A family member

    During this exercise, your students will see that the best inspiration for high quality ideas actually comes from customers themselves.

For more details, check out our Idea Generation Lesson Plan below.

3 Questions to Assess the Quality of Entrepreneurship Ideas

How do you know, and help students test, the quality of an idea? That’s often a semester-long process (which we’ll detail in future posts), but for starters, entrepreneurship students should be able to concisely explain the following for any idea:

  • The problem it solves
  • The customer segment(s) who most painfully experiences the problem
  • Why they are the right team/person to solve this problem

Along the way, you can conduct a quick heuristic idea assessment using these questions:

  • Is it easy to understand the problem they are solving (when they explain the problem, do you furrow your brow or do you nod your head)?
  • Do the customers they identify logically experience this problem?
  • Does the student have any relevant experience, knowledge, network and/or passion for solving this problem?

For example, the founders behind Packback, while students at Illinois State University, could impress the most seasoned investors with their answers to these three questions. It is no coincidence they went on to secure a deal with Mark Cuban on Shark Tank.

As the Packback team says, we should all be helping:

“Awaken the fearless, relentless curiosity inside every student.”

Imagine if your students truly experienced butterflies, back sweat and breathlessness during their classroom experiences!

Imagine your students working on ideas they care about.

Imagine your students quickly testing demand through pre-orders.

Students will learn the mindset and skill set it takes to be a successful entrepreneur in this kind of high-impact learning environment.

Of course, just as entrepreneurship students need quality ideas to build impactful businesses…

We need quality ideas to build an engaging learning environment.

Download our Idea Generation Lesson Plan

We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute, Entrepreneurship Idea Generation Lesson Plan that encapsulates everything we’ve talked about above.

Get your lesson plan

Use it as a basis to teach your students:

  • What a quality business idea is
  • How they come up with lots of them
  • An intro to “customer interviews”

 

It’s free for any/all entrepreneurship teachers, so please feel free to share it.

All we ask is that you leave us some feedback on it in the comments below so we can improve it!


What’s Next?

In an upcoming post, we talk about how to help your students develop powerful solutions to the problems they identify!

Subscribe here to get our next lesson plan in your inbox.

Join 4,000+ teachers. Get new lesson plans via email.