Teach your Students Why Business Plans Fail

Teach your Students Why Business Plans Fail

What if you kicked off your next semester with a flurry of activity that showed your students how to avoid the biggest mistake in entrepreneurship – by letting them experience it?

The perfect failure 🙂
Xavier University an ExEC Pilot

This exercise will turn your students’ love for competition into an active learning opportunity about entrepreneurship that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.

The Marshmallow Challenge is an 18-minute chaotic construction competition that teaches entrepreneurship students why

Invalidated assumptions hinder all new initiatives.

and are ultimately the downfall of most new companies. They learn a bias towards action, and the power of resilience in the face of a challenge.

Many professors use the Marshmallow Challenge as an ice-breaker, or as a team-building exercise, with great results. But very few use it to teach its most valuable lesson . . .

Hidden Assumptions

Several of your students will fail this challenge – and it will be glorious!

George State University an ExEC Pilot

The objective of the Marshmallow Challenge is for student teams to build the tallest free-standing structure they can out of uncooked spaghetti, string, tape and a single large marshmallow.

Inevitably, your students will assume the marshmallow they need to place on top of their structure is lighter than it is, and they’ll assume uncooked spaghetti is strong than it is, leading to a pile of broken, edible, dreams.

In this way, your students will get to learn first-hand:

Just like in entrepreneurship, invalidated assumptions lead to failure.

In traditional classes, business students get trained to write comprehensive business plans – not realizing hidden assumptions will ultimately hinder their success.

On the other hand, kindergartners excel at the Marshmallow Challenge because they don’t make plans based on hidden assumptions. The first thing they do is run an experiment, putting a marshmallow on a piece of spaghetti to see what happens. From there they iterate, building the tallest structure possible.

Courtesy of Tom Wujec

This experimental mindset is what you want your students to embody throughout the rest of your course.

With this exercise, they’ll experience the dangers of hidden assumptions first hand so they’ll be primed to validate their business model assumptions in future lessons:

  • Do customers have the problem your students want to solve?
  • Will customers pay to solve it?
  • Can your students actually solve the problem?

Students Love It

400+ pilot students have done the ExEC version of the Marshmallow Challenge. So far, they’re loving it:

“This activity was not what i was expecting and i took away a lot from it. It taught me to look at a project with no previous assumptions and it make me think like a kindergartener again which made me excited.”- Hannah

“The Marshmallow experiment gave me a real life example of why experimenting is much more beneficial than planning things out.“– Morgan

“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.” – Andreina

“After the activity, I understood the importance of adapting to problems and the dangers of assumptions.”– Eric

Powerful Learning

The fast pace, excitement, and ultimate failure many teams experience during this exercise replicate the typical entrepreneurial experience, and demonstrate many of the pitfalls of traditional business plans:

  • Insufficient identification of hidden assumptions (e.g. the marshmallow is much heavier than they realize, the spaghetti is less rigid than they expect, etc.)
  • Developing plans based on those hidden/incorrect assumptions
  • Investing all their resources (e.g. time, tape, etc.) in a single, large, “launch” attempt vs. iterating on many simpler versions

After the exercise, your students can write up a reflection, incorporating essential principles of entrepreneurship:

  • Assumption identification, and assumption validation, are critical to creating successful companies
  • Iterations and experimentations are the key to validating their business assumptions

Try it Next Semester

You can easily incorporate the Marshmallow Challenge into your class, just:

Check out ExEC and request a free preview.

If you decide to use ExEC, we’ll provide you with:

  • A step-by-step lesson plan with details on how to prep, execute and discuss the exercise
  • Music to play during the challenge to get your students excited and engaged
  • A learning objective-solidifying reflection assignment
  • Free Marshmallow Challenge Kits, including all of the supplies you’ll need (e.g. spaghetti, string, marshmallows, tape measure, etc.) for each of your students!

Full Class Engagement

If you want to start your class with a bang of energy and active learning, give the Marshmallow Challenge a shot.

So far the 10 ExEC Pilot professors and their students love it. We think you, and your students,  will too 🙂

Rowan University an ExEC Pilot

For more information on the Marshmallow Challenge, be sure to check out Tom Wujec’s incredible website. He’s got a ton of great resources available there.


What’s Next?

We’ll share a fully-transparent update into the Fall Pilot Cohort of our Experiential Entrepreneurship Curriculum.

Through faculty and student testimonials, we’ll share with you what’s going well and what we need to improve for next semester, as we practice what we preach, iterating our way to a more engaging and impactful entrepreneurship curriculum.

Subscribe here to get our next classroom resource in your inbox.

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Modeling Customer Interviewing w/ a Demo

Modeling Customer Interviewing w/ a Demo

Click play above for the customer interviewing tutorial outlined in this post.

You want your students to “get out of the building” and talk to customers, but that idea can be anxiety producing, for both you, and your students.

They’re anxious because they have to talk to strangers in a way they’ve never had to before, and you’re anxious because you know customer interviewing is the point in the course when students are most likely to check out.

How do you keep your students engaged?

You’re hearing every excuse imaginable from your students about why they haven’t interviewed customers:

  • They don’t want to ask the wrong questions.
  • They aren’t sure who the “right” people are to interview.
  • They just broke up with their girlfriend. Or they have the swine flu. Or both.

Bottom line is your students are terrified about this critical step in the entrepreneurship process. They are afraid of the unknown. When the time comes for them to step outside the classroom and validate their assumptions with actual customers, they are likely to check out.

How do you keep your students engaged?

How do you turn their fear into excitement?

You show them what customer interviewing looks and feels like. You do a live customer interview in class.

Making yourself vulnerable in front of your students will give them the confidence they need to succeed! Click To Tweet

Below, and in our lesson plan, we lead you through the 5 simple steps to conduct a real customer interview call during your class.

Live Customer Interviewing

mTurk is short for Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which is a marketplace for work that requires human intelligence. What you need for live customer interviewing is a human being who has a problem. The mTurk marketplace is the perfect place to find a stranger who experiences a particular problem.

mTurk Customer Interviewing

Note: Do not stage this interview by having a colleague or friend or business partner call in. It is imperative you create the situation your students are so nervous about – interviewing a stranger about a real problem they experience.

You need to feel a little nervous about this process, and share those feelings with  your students so they know it is normal to feel that way. You are the role model;

If you want your students to engage, you need to show them how Click To Tweet

Class 1: Create a HIT on mTurk

A HIT is short for a human intelligence task. Create a new HIT here. In this example, we want to talk to parents who have children in day care.

Customer interviewing through mTurk

Step 1: Describe the HIT

Here you want to provide enough details so the people looking for tasks on mTurk can decide if they fit the criteria.

Keywords are an important way for people to find your HIT.

Describe the HIT

Super Important:

You must turn off “Master Turkers.” Master Turkers are a pre-screened, and very small, subset of the MTurk population. You want any folks on MTurk to be able to contact you, as long as they meet your qualifications. Here’s how to do that:

Step 2: Pick a Price

We recommend you offer between $.50 and $2.00 so it is attractive (but not too attractive!) to workers.

Pick a price

Step 3: Write up the HIT

Provide quick, clear criteria and instructions for the workers looking for tasks to connect with you for an interview. Include the date and time when you would like them to call you during your next class session.

Write up the HIT

Feel free to copy and paste (and customize) this HTML for writing up the HIT:

<p><span style=”font-family: Arial;”>If you are a parent who picks your kids at day care at least once/week, please call us for a 5-10 minute phone survey.</span></p>
<p><span style=”font-family: Arial;”>Please dial the following number:</span></p>
<ul>
<li><span style=”font-family: Arial;”>*67&nbsp; [your google voice number]</span></li>
</ul>
<p><span style=”font-family: Arial;”>Note: dialing *67 before the actual phone number will protect the privacy of your phone number. &nbsp;</span><span style=”font-family: Arial;”>If you reach voicemail again, please wait 10 minutes.</span></p>
<p><span style=”font-family: Arial;”>&nbsp;<b>Required after Calling</b>&nbsp;- after we finish the survey, we will give you a password to confirm you successfully completed it. Please enter it below:</span></p>
<p><span style=”font-family: Arial;”><b>Password:</b>&nbsp;<textarea rows=”1″ cols=”80″ name=”answer”></textarea></span></p>
<p><span style=”font-family: Arial;”>Thank you very much! &nbsp;We really appreciate your help! &nbsp;</span></p>

Note: the “password” is a word you tell your interviewee to type in once the interview is complete.  You’ll see what they type in before you approve the HIT (i.e. pay them) so you can ensure only the people who successfully completed the interview get paid.

Step 4: Create a New Batch

Step 5: Publish the HITs


Class 2: The Call

Remind your students of the context of your call so they understand what problem you’re trying to solve, and who the customer is you’ll be talking to. After your call, debrief the call by asking your students to critique it.

What went right? What went wrong? Why did it go wrong?

How could you have kept the person on track?

What were some stronger questions to ask? What questions should you not have asked?

Customer Interviewing Homework

Give your students homework of critiquing another real customer interview. The more real interviews they see and hear, the more comfortable they are conducting them, the more engaged they are in your class. Here is a sample interview you can use for a homework assignment.

Get the Lesson Plan

We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute, Modeling Customer Interviewing Lesson Plan to help you excite your students about customer interviewing! It encapsulates everything we’ve talked about above.

Get the lesson plan

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!


What’s Next?

In a future article, we will provide a checklist for you to plan an experiential entrepreneurship class! Please subscribe here to get that post in your inbox.

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Teaching Failure Through Currency Testing

Teaching Failure Through Currency Testing

Learning from failure is one of the most important skills our entrepreneurial students need to learn. It’s also one of the most difficult to teach.

We can talk all day about running experiments and testing assumptions, but ultimately they’re a waste of time if our students can’t successfully extract learning from failed experiments and invalidated hypotheses.

The trick to teaching failure is that our students have grown up in an environment where they are taught to avoid failure at all costs. They are taught to fear failure.

In fact, many of your students’ previous teachers leveraged a fear of failure to compel your students to behave a certain way: do busy-work, memorize lists, etc.

In entrepreneurship education, we need to change the perception of failure. Click To Tweet

As entrepreneurship educators, we need to create safe places for our students to engage with failures, so they can practice extracting knowledge from them.

As our students develop their failure analysis skills, they will:

  • Fear failure less – they will realize on a personal level that they can learn more from failure than from success.
  • Increase their confidence – entrepreneurship is less scary when you know even if one experiment fails, you’ll succeed in creating the foundation for the next.
  • Take calculated risks – which are prerequisites to thriving in an innovation economy.

Failure Always Invite Learning

Fast Forward Their First Failure

The Currency Testing lesson plan below will guide you through creating a constructive experience for your students to learn from their first entrepreneurship failure.

In our last exercise, your students launched an MVP, without a line of code. (If you haven’t read that exercise, you’ll want to now. Not only is it a blast, you’ll need to know it for this Currency Testing exercise).

Once they’ve learned that they too can launch a product, you’re ready to show them…

Launching the product is easy. It’s selling the product that’s hard.

In fact, it’s so hard, your students will likely fail their first time around, just like most entrepreneurs, which is the point of this exercise.

By fast-forwarding their first failure, you’re going to turn your students from first-time founders, into “serial entrepreneurs” 🙂 After satiating their drive to “build something” your students will realize…

The only thing more fun than building something, is building something people want. Click To Tweet

As your students begin to focus less on what they want to build, and more on what other people want to buy, they’ll be eager for you to teach them problem validation.

The Currency Test

At the heart of this exercise is something called a “Currency Test.” A currency test is simply an experiment where entrepreneurs test if customers are willing to pay some form of currency (e.g. cash, attention, data, etc.) in exchange for a product.

A currency test is a much more powerful experiment than asking customers, “Would you use this?” or “How much would you pay for this?” because it’s forces them to put their money where their mouth is. Where it’s easy for a customer to say, “I’d definitely use that” to a hypothetical product, entrepreneurs will learn how customers really feel, when they’re asked to break out their wallets.

Best of all, the results of a currency test are always helpful.Either the test succeeds and the entrepreneur validates demand for their product, or it fails and the entrepreneur gets to ask what’s preventing their customers from buying, so they can improve their next iteration.

Your students will conduct their currency test using the MVPs they built.

When they struggle to get currency (which they will, because like most first-time entrepreneurs their MVPs were more product-focused than customer- and problem-focused), their experiment will fail. They’ll be wondering why they couldn’t find customers for a product they thought was such a good idea, and at this point they’re primed.

Having experienced their first entrepreneurial failure, they’re now ready to hear:

  1. Why being problem-focused is essential in entrepreneurship.
  2. Why talking to customers before building is the key to success.
  3. The value of identifying marketing channels.
  4. How important marketing copy is.

And most importantly, they’ll learn from personal experience…

We learn more from our failures than we do our successes. Click To Tweet

The Failure Postmortem

After their failures, the lesson plan will show you how to walk your students through the most powerful part of this exercise: “The Currency Test Postmortem.”

In the postmortem, students answer questions related to what they learned about their customers and problems, and about marketing and selling their product. They’ll also begin to see first-hand the value of problem validation and testing their business model assumptions.

The postmortem also will model an approach to analyzing failures they can use in your class, as well as throughout their careers to overcome failures they and their products, teams, and companies will encounter in the future.

Increase their Grit

If you want to change your students’ relationship toward failure, if you want to instill in them the skills they need to not just recover from failure, but thrive because of it, give the Currency Test Lesson Plan a shot.

And remember the entrepreneurship proverb…

Teach a student how to fish; she’ll eat for a lifetime. Teach a student how to fail; she’ll innovate global food distribution... providing sustainable food sources for half the world’s population at a fraction of the cost while employing thousands of previously unemployed and under-employed. You should do this one.

😉

Get the Lesson Plan

We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute, Teaching Failure Lesson Plan to help you prepare your students to learn from failure. It encapsulates everything we’ve talked about above plus a few surprises!

Get the lesson plan


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!


What’s Next?

In a future article, we will provide a checklist for you to plan an experiential entrepreneurship class! Please subscribe here to get that post in your inbox.

Join 4,000+ teachers. Get new lesson plans via email.
Exercise: 60 Minute MVP

Exercise: 60 Minute MVP

Imagine looking out at your classroom, and every student is talking and typing furiously. It’s noisy. Students are learning together and teaching each other.

There’s a buzz of nervousness and excitement!

Exercise: Students launch landing pages in < 60 Minutes

This is by far, one of Justin and my favorite in-class experiences because “60 Minute MVP” is engaging, fun, and fully-immersive, while teaching critical aspects of the entrepreneurial mindset.

Your students are going to build, and launch, an MVP in 60 minutes…with no technical expertise!

If fact, during this hour, your students will build…

A Landing Page

A simple website that describes the problem they’re solving to the customers they want to serve.

Your students will create landing pages like this

An Explainer Video

A quick video that hints how their solution will solve the problem.

And a Currency Test…

…to validate demand for their product!

Your students will learn how to use a service called Celery to take pre-orders for their products to demonstrate real demand, without them actually having to charge money/store credit card information/etc.

For example:

currency testing sample

And they’ll do it all, in an hour.

What are Landing Page MVPs?

Over the course of an hour, your students will create a landing page (a simple, single-page website) that:

  1. Tells their customers the problem their team is solving,
  2. Uses a video to demonstrate how, the team will solve the problem and
  3. Asks for some form of “currency” from their customers to validate demand.

You can incorporate this exercise into one class period in your syllabus; push your students to complete every step within an hour. They can tweak things later, the important thing is that they don’t spend a ton of time trying to get everything perfect the first time around. As they will find later on, doing that for every experiment wastes a lot of time.

It’s important to note, for this exercise:

They’ll Learn More in 60 Minutes

…than they will in 6 hours of lectures:

  1. The true meaning of MVP. They will learn exactly how “minimum” a minimum viable product should be. MVP doesn’t mean “beta” – it means making least amount of investment possible, to test a business model’s riskiest assumption.
  2. How much they can accomplish when they work as a team. By dividing and conquering, your students will be astounded at how much they can collectively accomplish in one hour.
  3. How many great, free tools exist for entrepreneurs. The internet is a crowded place, so we want to show them that there are free tools out there to help them develop skills they don’t yet possess.
  4. The upside of deadlines. Our students don’t usually work under tight deadlines, but they will soon! We want to show them how tight deadlines push them to get everything done, and give them a positive experience executing under tight deadlines.
  5. It is easier to launch a product than they thought. Most of our students are overwhelmed at the idea of launching a product, because their assumptions are wrong. We want to correct those assumptions so they believe in their ability to launch.
  6. That the easiest thing about building a business is launching the product. In a future post, we will explain that the most difficult part of launching is actually the testing and validation. Getting something into the world is quite easy, which your students will understand after this experience.

Most importantly, they will learn…

When it comes to MVPs, done is better than perfect.

Your Job in the Class

You have an important role during this exercise. While we’ve documented all of the instructions your students need to follow (see the lesson plan for details), you’ll need to be the chief cheerleader, time-keeper and discussion leader.

Here’s what that entails:

  1. Give your students the instructional videos. We’ve recorded step-by-step videos for your student teams to follow when creating their MVPs. Links to the videos and instructions are provided in the lesson plan below.
  2. Play music. Ask them what music gets them pumped, and then play that. Create an energetic, intense, exciting environment for the students.
  3. Keep shouting how little time they have left. Create a sense of urgency; don’t write time on the board. Don’t announce it in your normal tone. Shout it, wave your hands; stress how important it is that something get launched, even if it’s not the perfect something. It is likely your students will want to focus on minor technical or design details. Because the goal is to execute in 60 minutes, you need to refocus your students on that goal and steer them away from their inclination toward perfection. Remind them that:

“Done is better than perfect.”

  1. Celebrate the hell out of each MVP as it launches. Show each team’s MVP on the screen, and congratulate them on the incredible things they accomplished in 60 minutes.
  2. Host a discussion with your students about what it was like to build an MVP in 60 minutes. You’ll find your students reflect most, if not all, of the learning objectives listed above.

Note: when they step out of their comfort zone, they’ll get the most out of this exercise.

Full Class Engagement

If you’re looking for an immersive exercise that activates your class, complete with a chaotic, noisy, high pressure environment, that teaches real entrepreneurial principles, give “60 Minute MVP” a shot.

Justin and I both love it. We think you, and your students, will will too 🙂

Complete details, including all the instructions for you, and videos for your students are in the lesson plan below.

Get the “60 Minute MVP” Lesson Plan

We’ve created a detailed lesson plan for the “60 Minute MVP” exercise walk you, and your students through the process, step-by-step.

Get the Lesson Plan

 

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 in the comments below so we can improve it!


What’s Next?

In an upcoming post, we will share a companion exercise to the “60 Minute MVP” exercise. This will help students understand why it is critical to engage customers prior to launching!

Subscribe here to get our next classroom resource in your inbox.

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Build your Syllabus with your Students

Build your Syllabus with your Students

You want your students to be engaged. Your students want you to be engaging.

This exercise will show you how to do both.

Best of all, it will create engagement from the first day of class until the last.

The Syllabus Post-It Cloud

Creating problem Post-It cloudsIn our last post we described the basics of getting your students bought-into your course using the Problem Post-Its Cloud.

Now we’re going to show you the advanced version, where you’ll use the final Problem Post-It cloud to modify your course syllabus in real-time.

Note: if you’ve already read the last post on Problem Post-It clouds, you can skip to Step 4.

Step 1:

Give each student a pack of post-it notes. Ask each student to write down their top 5 problems or fears in each category below – remind them to only write one problem/fear per post-it note.

  • Entrepreneurship
  • Business
  • Career
  • Relationships
  • Money

Don’t give them too long for this step, you want instinctual thoughts here, 2-minutes per subject should be enough.

Step 2:

Ask your students to review their 25 post-it notes and pick out the 5 that are the scariest, most concerning, to them.

With their top 5 problems, ask them all to join you at a wall in your classroom. Tell your students that collectively you’re going to create problem clouds, so you can see the most common problems among your customers students.

When everyone is standing with you at the wall, ask for someone to volunteer one of their problems. They might say:

I don’t know how to build a network.

To which you can reply, “Okay, great, who else has a post-it that says something about building a network?”

Every student who has that problem will raise their hand. Collect all those notes and put them up on your wall together to make a cloud for the “Build a Network” problem.

Repeat Step 2 until you have everyone’s post-it notes on the wall, grouped into problem clouds.

Step 3: Connect the Dots

Look at the wall. You now know your students’ most common problems and fears. Most importantly, you know them in their own words.

Now is your chance to connect the dots for your students between their problems and fears and the skills you’re going to teach them.

If you can paint this picture, your students will engage!

Your opportunity here is to reflect your students’ problems and say, “During this class, we’re going to solve these problems” using your students’ actual words and problems.

You can tell them, “If you’re unsure how to find and talk to people to build a network, you can use the same techniques I’m going to teach you in this class to identify the people you want in your network!”

Encourage them further by saying, “The same techniques you’re going to use to interview customers, you can use to interview potential mentors and bosses – increasing the size and quality of your network. You can build your dream network using the skills you’ll learn in this course!”

Step 4: Beginning a New Syllabus

Now you can take your students’ engagement to a whole new level!

You can begin to update your syllabus on the fly in front of them to match the goals of the class with their problems and fears.

  1. Pull up your syllabus on the screen and scroll to the place where you list your schedule of topics and deliverables by date or class session.
  2. Add a column where you can add their problem / fear that corresponds with the topic.
  3. Pick the two problem clouds with the most post-it notes. Type in those two problems in the new column corresponding to the appropriate course topic.

    For instance, next to the Customer Interviewing topic, in the new column, type “Build a Network.” Reiterate to your students that the techniques they will learn to interview customers will help them build a strong network.
    Or if they’re low on cash, you can describe how the techniques you’ll show them when they generate pre-sales for their product can help them discover a profitable business during this semester.
    If they’re having relationship challenges, you can describe how empathetic interviewing techniques can help them connect with family, friends and significant others.

That’s the great thing about teaching entrepreneurial skills…

Entrepreneurial skills = life skills. Click To Tweet

Virtually any challenge your students face can be aided in some way via the lessons you teach in your experiential entrepreneurship class.

Step 5: Delivering a New Syllabus

engaging students through reflectionOvernight, finish adding the problems and fears from the post-it problem clouds into your syllabus where they match the course content. Take a few minutes at the beginning of the next class to introduce the new syllabus. Point out exactly how and when they will acquire the skills to address their biggest problems and fears during your course.

You have co-created a syllabus with your students!

Takeaways

There are five reasons we love this exercise:

  1. Students have never experienced anything like it…and they love it. They’re having fun, brainstorming, moving around the class, creating big messy Post-It clouds on the wall, making connections with classmates, and they’re getting to talk about their challenges with someone who genuinely cares (you).
  2. Your class will stand out. How many professors take the time to listen to their students, and adapt their course to ensure it’s relevant to the people sitting in the room? You’ll let your students know from the get-go, that this class is going to be special, impactful and helpful.
  3. Increasing engagement. Not on will they love this exercise, you’ll know exactly what to say to engage your students in future exercises. You’ll simply refer to the problems you outlined together and describe how they exercise you’re about to do will help them solve the problems you brainstormed together.
  4. It will change the way you relate to your students. By understanding their challenges, you’ll empathize and connect on a more substantive level than you would otherwise. That connection will magnify your impact.
  5. You’re modeling a problem-oriented approach with your students; the same kind of relationship you want them to have with their customers. They’ll see you practicing what you preach, and how empowering it is for both the “entrepreneur” (you) and the “customers” (them).
Engage entrepreneurship students by turning their problems into your syllabus. Click To Tweet

Co-Create your Syllabus Lesson Plan

We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute lesson plan to help you co-create your entrepreneurship syllabus with your syllabus. It encapsulates everything we’ve talked about above, in a handy editable document.

Get the lesson plan


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!


Free Workshop

We’re hosting free, online, workshops for entrepreneurship teachers. Please vote to help us pick our next topic:

What’s Next?

In an upcoming post, we will share an exercise that will give your students an opportunity to launch a product in 60 minutes!  Please subscribe here to get that post in your inbox.

Join 4,000+ teachers. Get new lesson plans via email.
Exercise: Post-It Note Problems

Exercise: Post-It Note Problems

Click play above for the video version of this post.

Engaging students is an uphill battle; one of the most demoralizing experiences as a teacher is to teach apathetic students. Students who are bored and disengaged.

In this article we’ll show you an easy exercise that gets students bought-in and motivated to participate in class.

Engaging Students Right Away

engaging students as customersThe secret to engaging students is to get them students bought in to what we’re teaching. To get them bought in,

It’s most effective to treat our students, like our customers.

At the end of the day, you want your students to leave your class with a new set of skills. To accomplish that you can either:

  1. Take an authoritarian approach where, “I-am-the-teacher-and-you-are-the-student-and-therefore-you-listen-to-me” power dynamic.
    This is where most of us start because a) it’s the way we were taught and b) its not obvious how to change this paradigm and still accomplish our goals.

    The authoritarian approach is great for generating compliance and obedience from students, but its abysmal at garnering the enthusiasm, energy and participation you need in an experiential entrepreneurship class.

  2. Alternatively, you and your students can collaborate in defining the nature of your class, just like companies and their customers collaborate to define mutually beneficial solutions.
    The key is to recognize…

    We teachers are selling a set of skills and ideas that we want our students to buy-into.

    The most effective way to get our students to buy what we’re selling, is to use the same techniques we teach them to get their customers to buy-in. Which leads us to the tried and true principle of entrepreneurship:

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

Practice What You Teach: Solve Their Problems

Customers don't buy products. Customers buy solutions to problems.If our goal is engaging students, we need to use the exact same principles we’re teaching to our students in class. If we follow these principles with our students to get their buy-in, we recognize that we can’t sell them “products.”

We can’t sell them “products” like:

  • What they’ll learn
  • Experiences they’ll have
  • Projects they’ll do
  • Grading structure of the class

They won’t buy it, because those are the products of teachers.

If we want our students’ buy-in, we need to solve their problems.

Exercise: Problem Post-Its

Exercise: Problem Post-ItsA fast, and fun, way to discover the problems of your students is called the Problem Post-Its.

This exercise is inspired by Laura Klein, the author of UX for Lean Startups and you’ll find that it’s a fantastic brainstorming exercise in general. We’ll use it for brainstorming problems here, but you can also teach it to your students as a way for them to brainstorm any kind of ideas. This technique balances the energy of extroverts on a team, with the great insights the introverts on a team, so all voices are heard.

DARE to Solve Their Problems

This exercise can be broken down into four steps. We use the acronym DARE to outline each step. DARE to ask students their problems

  • Discover – discover your students’ problems.
  • Analyze – analyze and categorize them.
  • Reflect – reflect their problems back to them to get their buy-in.
  • Emphasize – emphasize the solutions to their problems that you’re going to offer throughout the course.

We’ll take these one at a time starting with…

Step 1: Discover Their Problems

To discover your students’ problems you’re going to arm them with a set of post-it notes. Give each student roughly ten post-it notes and a Sharpie or some other kind of marker. Ask them to write down one problem they have per post-it note. 1 Problem Per Post It

It’s a good idea to emphasize this one-problem-per-note bit. If you don’t, you’ll find that at least one person in your class is going to end up writing down all their problems on a single post-it note.

So it’s one problem per post-it note. Then, give them two minutes to write down all of the problems they have related to:

  • Jobs that they want
  • Financial problems they have
  • Career problems
  • Business related problems

When you focus your students’ attention to problems in these categories, it will constrain the problem set to ones you can actually help them solve during your course.

During their two minute silent brainstorming, ask them to aim for at least ten problems – so at least ten post-it notes.

After the two minutes is over, move to…

Step 2: Analyze Their Problems

Have your students take their 10-ish Post-It notes and pick out their top three problems. Then ask your students to stand up and meet you at a wall in your class with their top 3 Post-It notes.

Creating problem Post-It cloudsNow that you have all of your students standing with you at a wall in your classroom, you’ll start grouping their problems into “problem clouds”, where similar problems are posted next to one another.

To do that, ask a student to volunteer a problem. They will say something like,

“I’m about to graduate and I don’t know what kind of job I want.”

To which you’ll reply, “Okay, great, who else has a Post-It that says ‘I don’t know what kind of job I want after school?’”

Everyone who has that problem will raise their hand and you’ll collect all those notes and put them up on your wall together to make a cloud for that problem. engaging students analyze problemsNow ask another student for a problem they have.

They might say something like,

“I’m broke.”

You say, “Okay, who else has a post-it note that says ‘I got no money?’”

Collect all those post-it notes and make another problem cloud on your wall. Ask for another problem and maybe someone will say,

“I know what job I want but I’m not sure how to get it.”

You’ll collect all those and create another problem cloud kind of close to the original “I don’t know what job I want” cloud because they’re both related.

Keep going until you’ve got everyone’s problem post-it notes on the wall, after which you’ll move on to…

Step 3: Reflect Their Problems

Now that you have all these problem clouds, you’ve analyzed your students’ (i.e. customers’) problems.

You can see what problems your students have, and what are the most common problems. You’ll now know the most prevalent, the most pressing problems of your customers, in their own words.

You’re now ready to reflect the problems you’ve heard back to them. Not only do you want to make sure you’ve heard them right, but when you reflect your students’ problems back to them in their own words, you will get their buy-in.

When you 1) reflect your student’s problems back to them and 2) help them take steps towards solving them, they will buy in.

You can say to your students, “I hear you that you’re broke. I totally get that. In fact, you can actually fund your next semester’s tuition with the techniques you learn in this class!”

You can tell them, “If you’re unsure what kind of job is right for you, you can use the same techniques I’m going to teach you in this class to identify the right kind of business for you, to identify the right kind of job for you!”

And you can encourage them by saying, “The same techniques you’re going to use to interview customers, you can use to interview potential bosses – increasing the likelihood that you’ll get the job you want. You can find your dream job using the skills you’ll learn in this course!”

When you connect the dots for your students between the problems they have and the skills you’re going to teach them, they will buy in. Reflect their problems and your students will engageIn fact, they’ll do more than that.

They will engage.

With a young or old, undergraduate or postgraduate, MBA or freshman, when you understand the problems of your customers, connect the dots, and show them how what you’re going to teach them is going to help them solve those problems, you will engage your students!

Step 4: Emphasize Their Problems

Now that you’ve reflected their problems back to your students, you want to emphasize that you’re going to solve those problems throughout their course.

What that looks like is simply reminding them for each exercise you do, or each day of your course, how this is going to help solve one the problems in their original problem clouds. engaging students emphasize solutions

For instance, when it’s time to reach out and interview customers, you can say, “the same skills you guys are going to use today to reach out to your customers are the skills you can use to reach out to potential employers.”

You are always emphasizing how elements of this course tie back to the problems they are actually experiencing.

That is how you DARE your students to tell you their problems:

  • Discover
  • Analyze
  • Reflect
  • Emphasize

Bonus: You’re Modeling a Problem-Centric Mindset

In addition to discovering the keys to engaging with your students, by running this exercise, you’re modeling the behavior you want your students to exhibit. Namely…

Focusing on their customers’s problems.

By genuinely engaging with your students’ problems, you’re showing them what it looks like to be empathetic. They will take the same sincerity you apply to this exercise with them when they conduct problem interviews with their customers.

Summary

That is the secret to engaging entrepreneurship students is:

  1. Getting our students to buy-in, by treating them like customers.
  2. Customers don’t want to buy products. engaging students by solving problemsThey don’t care about the organization of the class, the syllabus, or the textbook, or the lectures or anything like that.

They care about solving their problems.

  1. DARE to solve their problems.

When you show your students how your course will solve their problems, they will engage with your class like never before.

Problem Post-Its Lesson Plan

We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute, Problem Post-It Lesson Plan to help you engage your students in the DARE process. It encapsulates everything we’ve talked about above.

Get the lesson plan


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!


What’s Next?

In a future article, we will explore in more detail how to use the DARE exercise to co-create a syllabus with your students! Please subscribe here to get that post in your inbox.

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Which Customers Should Students Interview?

Which Customers Should Students Interview?

Click play above for the video version of this post.

Helping Your Students With Customer Interviews

In our last article, we used the business model canvas to describe why students should interview their customers. We also talked about how to motivate your students to actually conduct those interviews.

If you haven’t read that article yet, please do that now.

If you have, let’s talk about some of the common problems your students will experience when they get out of the building to talk to customers.

  • customer interviewingThey’ll have trouble getting people to agree to interviews
  • They won’t find a pattern among the problems they’re hearing from people they interview
  • They won’t hear anything about the problems they want to solve

All of these problems are common and are…

The consequence of simply interviewing the wrong customers.

Which Customers To Interview?

Effective entrepreneurs interview their early adopters, so we need to teach our students who early adopters are and how they can find theirs.

To define early adopters, we’ll leverage definitions by Rogers, Moore, and Steve Blank, but with a twist to make the definition more actionable. You can start by reminding your students that…

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

Your students shouldn’t think about early adopters in terms of their relationship to a product. We want them to think about Early Adopters in relationship to a problem.

early adopter problemsEarly adopters are people who have the problem that your students want to try and solve, know they have that problem, and. . .

Early Adopters are actively seeking a solution to their problem.

These customers, who are seeking a solution to their problem, are the ones you want your students to interviews.

Focus Customer Interviews on Early Adopters

If your students can find, and interview, their early adopters, they will have accomplished the single-most important aspect of finding Product-Market Fit.

Customer interviews validate almost half of a business model canvasThat’s because during their interviews with early adopters, your students are going to validate their:

  1. Customer segments
  2. Value proposition
  3. Customer relationships and
  4. Channels

All told, interviewing early adopters will validate almost half of your students’ business models.

Plus, these interviews will form the basis of their experiments for the rest of the business model canvas.

On the other hand, if your students can’t find early adopters, they won’t have anyone to provide social proof to the early majority. That means they’re not going to find anyone who’s going to bring on the late majority or the laggards.

If they can’t find early adopters, it is very unlikely your students are going to find Product-Market Fit.

Can't find Early Adopters? Can't find Product-Market Fit.If your students can’t find people seeking a solution to a problem, it doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t need solving. It doesn’t mean that the business idea is bad. It means the time isn’t right to solve the problem.

If your students can’t find anyone seeking a solution to this problem, now is not the opportune time to try solving that problem. Your students could be too early to solve this problem, or they could be too late. We know that now is not the right time.

Early Adopters are the Product-Market Fit litmus test

By trying to interview early adopters, your students can form the basis of their business model if they find them. If your students don’t find them, that’s helpful news as well, because they can pivot with confidence. If your students can’t find people seeking a solution to the problem, it’s better to know now than later, so they can another problem to solve that’s more likely to lead to their success.

Finding Early Adopters

When you teach your students how to find early adopters, you may find it easiest to contrast early adopters with the early majority, late majority, and laggards, especially if you can a case study to do it, like Airbnb.

Laggards don't have the problem you're trying to solveStart by describing the problem your case study company solves. In this case, the problem Airbnb was trying to solve when it got started was that it was too hard to find cheap hotel rooms during a conference.

Next, describe the concept of laggards, people who literally don’t have the problem the entrepreneurs are trying to solve. Because they don’t have the problem, they don’t know they have the problem, and they’re not seeking a solution for that problem.

An example laggard for Airbnb’s early days might be someone attending a conference but their company pays for their room. Or someone who can expense any hotel costs they have, so they don’t worry about the cost.

Late Majority don't know they have the problem you want to solveContrast that to the late majority. This is someone who has the problem the entrepreneurs want to solve, but doesn’t know it; they are not aware they have the problem. If your students are ever trying to convince someone they have a problem, they are likely talking to someone in the late majority. These are some of the worst people sell to, because they are not aware they have the problem. Someone who doesn’t know they have a problem is rarely willing to talk about solving that problem, and if someone won’t talk about solving a problem, they certainly won’t pay to solve it. It’s important that you educate your students about the late majority, otherwise they’ll try to “educate” all their customers to convince them they have a problem, and won’t make any traction.

In AirBnb’s example, a member of the late majority might be someone who charges the hotel room to a credit card, even though it’s too expensive for their budget. They may simply think this is the cost of doing business and not even realize they’re getting charged exorbitant fees for a room in high-demand.

Early Majority aren't actively seeking a solution to the problem you want to solveCompare the late majority to the early majority. These are customers who know they have the problem, but are not seeking a solution to it. Maybe they have experienced the problem, and acknowledged it’s an annoyance, but they haven’t been so disturbed by it that they sought a solution. Or maybe they did seek a solution, and either found one that was good enough, or they didn’t, and assumed the problem wasn’t solvable. No matter what, a member of the early majority isn’t actively seeking a solution now (but will jump on one if they hear about it from an early adopter).

In the Airbnb example, a member of the early majority might be someone who skips the conference because they can’t find a cheap hotel room. They know rooms are too expensive. They searched for cheaper rooms online, but they couldn’t find something to fit their budget. They had other problems to solve so maybe they gave up and simply decided not to attend the conference.

Early adopters are actively seeking a solution to the problem you want to solveThe last, and most important, group is our early adopters. These customers not only know they have the problem the entrepreneurs want to solve, but are seeking a solution to that problem.

In the Airbnb example, an early adopter might be someone posting on the conference discussion group asking to share a room to lower their costs. Or maybe they’re searching the hostels in the area to find an affordable room.

To find these all-important early adopters, your students should brainstorm behaviors that indicate someone is seeking a solution to the problem. In the Airbnb example, the behavior would be “posting on a forum for a room share”, so to find those early adopters, the founders would simply look on the design forum.

Only Interview Early Adopters

Interviewing non-early adopters is worse than a waste of timeYour students should avoid interviewing anyone who is not an early adopter for the problem they want to solve.

That’s because if your students interview non-early adopters, they will discover problems entirely unrelated to the problem they are trying to solve – and problems few people actively seeking solutions for.

Imagine your students asking a late majority, laggard, or early majority the hardest part about going to a conference in the Airbnb example. Because these non-early adopters customers are not aware of, or seeking a solution to the problem the founders want to solve, the customers will describe completely unrelated problems like…

  • The food isn’t very good
  • The presentations are boring
  • The tickets to the conference are too expensive

We don’t want your students getting distracted by these other problems – we want them to validate, or invalidate their current problem hypothesis.

To do that, your students’ best bet is to focus their attention on their early adopters. Your students can use their customers’ solution-seeking behavior to tell them where their early adopters are.

In the Class

finding early adopter customersAnother case study that’s fun to use is Uber. Have your students think about the early days of Uber. The problem they were solving was the difficulty finding a cab in a big city like San Francisco.

Ask your students to describe a laggard in the Uber example. Maybe it’s someone who doesn’t take cabs at all – maybe they ride their bike everywhere.

Next, ask your students to describe an member of Uber’s original late majority. An example example could be someone who takes cabs but is often late. This segment, the late majority, take it for granted and don’t think cabs could be faster. To them, it’s part of their daily routine and they don’t think it’s a problem.

Now ask your students to identify behaviors exhibited by an early majority customer. Remind them this is someone who knows they have the problem. Maybe they have a black cab service on speed dial. They don’t want to use regular cabs because they’re too slow, so they’ll pay the extra price for a black cab service. The early majority is someone who has a solution that’s good enough for now.

Finally ask your students to identify behaviors exhibited by an early adopter. Remind them that early adopters are seeking a solution. They could be reading reviews on Yelp to find the fastest cab service in San Francisco, or they could be leaving reviews complaining about the slow response time for certain cab companies.

Remember: students should use early adopters’ solution-seeking behavior to find them for interviews.

For more details, take a look at the complete lesson plan we’ve provided below.

Get the Who are Early Adopters Lesson Plan

We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute, Who are Early Adopters Lesson Plan to help you teach your students who to interview. It encapsulates everything we’ve talked about above.

Get the lesson plan


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!


Better Customer Interviews

better customer interviewsIn this article we described who early adopters are and how to find them. That will help your students conduct better interviews.

  • They will get more interviews.
  • Your students will find consistent problem patterns because they’re talking to people who are trying to solve that problem.
  • And Your students will find problems they want to solve because they’re not talking to late majority or laggards.

If they interview their early adopters, your students will form the basis of their business model. If they can’t find early adopters to interview, they’ll know isn’t the right time to solve the problem they hypothesized and they will have the confidence to pivot (to a backup idea they generated through their problem generation process).

What’s Next?

In future articles, we’ll talk about who your students should target for interviews, and what to ask during them. If you’d like those lesson plans, subscribe here to get them in your inbox.

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Teaching Creative Solution Generation

Teaching Creative Solution Generation

It’s disheartening when students don’t leave their creative comfort zones.  When brainstorming solutions to problems, we want your students to explore a huge range of ideas so they can identify the most innovative, and disruptive, business models possible.

In this post we’ll share two exercises that will push students beyond their comfort zone to generate solutions that hold tremendous potential for solving customer problems. The first is less structured. The second is more structured.

Exercise 1: Solution Overload

Using the lesson plan from our Idea Generation article, students generate a quick list of problem ideas with the Problem List and Observation techniques described.

Now ask them to review their list of ideas and choose the problem they are most excited about solving. This should be a problem that resonates with them.

  • Does serving the customer who experiences that problem excite them?
  • Does envisioning a solution make them smile?

Once they’ve choose the problem they’re most motivated to solve, your students should list 100 solutions to that problem (thank you to the amazing Tina Seelig for the 100-solutions-approach-to-brainstorming from her Crash Course in Creativity!).

Encourage your students to keep going, even when they think they are done, to come up with more interesting and surprising solutions. They should consider the worst ideas they can think of, the most expensive and least expensive solutions, as well as ideas that would have worked 100 years ago or 100 years in the future. Push them to suspend their judgement and find 100 solutions.

100 solutions seems unrealistic because students generally want to stay in their comfort zone. In terms of ideas, that means they want to stick with the safety of top-of-mind solutions that anyone could identify. You want your students to shed these easy solutions and dig deep to create more innovative solutions. You want them to sweat a bit, to push beyond their comfort zone, to be a bit scared thinking about the types of solutions they envision.

Most entrepreneurship students quickly formulate ideas around either shallow or impossible solutions. They ignore the problem customers experience, they ignore the feelings that problem stirs up in customers, and they look for something shiny. Completing this exercise will help students feel safe exploring their creative potential, pushing past their comfort zone.

Sometimes our students prefer having more structure, especially when it comes to brainstorming and accessing the more creative parts of their  minds. If that’s the case in your class, consider the following exercise instead…

Exercise 2: Solution Ideation

Exercise 2 is adapted from The FOCUS Framework, a workbook series that provides entrepreneurs an action-oriented approach to achieving product-market fit (and is authored by, Justin Wilcox, one of the contributors to this blog).

This brainstorming exercise provides a bit more structure to help students break out of their comfort zone. As with Exercise 1, the outcome is a large quantity of ideas that are not top-of-mind. This exercise has an additional purpose – to break the patterns and restrictions that hold people back from truly innovative thinking.

Before beginning, share these two rules for the exercise with your students:

solution idea generation

For Rule #1, remind them that brainstorming is most effective when they just focus on coming up with ideas…not coming up with good ideas. There will be plenty of time to winnow them down later so any idea that comes up, is a good idea.

Re Rule #2, encourage your students to embrace any issues they have with authority figures during this process. This will be their opportunity to discuss illegal ideas, physically impossible ideas, outlandishly expensive ideas. While other teachers force their students to color within the lies…

You want your students lighting the coloring book on fire, so they can melt the crayons into rainbow candles, and sell them at the farmer’s market.

Step 1:

Your students should create a question in the following format, customizing everything in brackets to align with their new business:

How can we help [customer] not feel [emotions] when they [encounter the problem]?

We want your students to develop solutions that eliminate the negative emotions customers feel, thereby solving a real problem. We consider a real problem to be one that causes customers to feel something uncomfortable. For example, receiving an F on a test is not a problem for a student. It becomes a problem when the student feels ashamed about repeating the class, or feels afraid of his parents’ reaction.

Great solutions don’t just solve problems. They replace the uncomfortable emotion created by the problem.

The question they write using the template above will serve as their motivation throughout their solution ideation process. They should return back to this question whenever they get stuck or need some inspiration.

Step 2:

Your students should quickly list the first 5 solutions they can think of to answer the question from step 1. We want them to clear their mind of the easy solutions that anyone can think of and allow themselves to dig deeper into innovative thinking.

Step 3:

Your students should now think of two solutions that are physically impossible. Put some image of science fiction on the screen to encourage them to think beyond what is known. Encourage them to let their mind go to the absurd:

  • Can they solve the problem with time travel?
  • How can teleportation help?
  • If humans and animals could all speak the same language…

Next, have them write down three more realistic ideas that were not part of their thinking in Step 2.

Now that they have let their mind go to the physically impossible, their subsequent set of realistic ideas should benefit having stretched their innovation neurons.

Step 4:

Your students should think of two solutions that are illegal. Encourage them to let their minds wander and have fun with this process:

  • Does kidnapping the smartest person in the world to help co-found this company help solve this problem help?
  • If they blatantly copied an existing product, could that inform a better solution?
  • If they stole a giant pile of money from a ruthless drug lord, how can that help solve this problem?

As in Step 3, follow up the absurd solutions with having them then write down three more new realistic ideas. Now that they have let their mind go to the physically impossible and the illegal, their disruptive muscles will be much stronger.

Step 5:

Your students should think of two solutions if money were no object:

  • They have infinite resources or
  • Their customers have infinite resources

Encourage them to let the absurdity flow. Then do the opposite, they have to come up with two solutions to the problem that require no money at all – for them, or their customers.

As before, after providing limitations on their ideas, lift the restrictions and ask them to use those as inspiration for three more realistic ideas.

Each student/team will now have 20 realistic ideas of how they can solve their customer’s’ problem.

Step 6:

If your students have conducted customer interviews prior to this exercise, which we highly recommend, they should write down the main deficiencies their customers are experiencing with their current solutions to their problems.

If they haven’t conducted customer interviews, ask them to hypothesize two or three deficiencies with their customers’ current solutions to the problem.

Step 7:

Ask your students to draw four solutions. This will engage a different part of their brain for their creative brainstorming than the one they’ve been using in the previous steps.

Tell your students that the quality of their drawing is not relevant. What’s important is that they are expanding the way they think about solutions.

Thinking about the deficiencies from Step 6, ask your students to review the 20 solution ideas they’ve come up with so far, and draw the four that are most:

  1. Logical – which makes the most logical sense to them?
  2. Delightful – which would make their customers ecstatic?
  3. Inexpensive – which would be least expensive for them to build (thinking about both time and money)?
  4. Disruptive – which would be the biggest game changer for their industry/the world?

In their drawings, they are not allowed to use words, numbers, letters, or characters. Only images. Drawing complements the writing they have been doing, to tap deeper into their creative potential.

Step 8:

Each student should now choose two of the fours solutions they’ve drawn to test via experimentation.

Once they’ve chosen their ideas, they should explain them to another student or team.

Teaching Brainstorming Techniques

Each exercise outlined above helps students feel safe exploring their creative potential and pushing past their comfort zone. They also provide your students with a large list of potential solutions. If you work with groups in your course, we encourage you to have your students complete the exercise individually, then aggregate their lists. Instead of 100 or 20 solution ideas, a group of four could potentially have 400 or 80 solutions to have fun exploring!

Imagine your students able to quickly develop lists of creative, but impactful, solutions to problems they hear potential customers describe.

Just as entrepreneurship students need to stretch beyond their comfort zone to generate quality solutions …

We need to leave our comfort zone to create an engaging learning environment.

For more details, take a look at the complete lesson plan we’ve provided below.

Get the Teaching Creative Solution Generation Lesson Plan

We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute, Teaching Creative Solution Generation Lesson Plan to help your students generate more impactful solutions. It touches on everything we’ve talked about above.

Get the lesson plan

Use it as a basis to motivate your students to discover solutions beyond their comfort zone.

 

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!


What’s Next?

In an upcoming post, we talk about how to build a syllabus that engages students in a powerful conversation about their ideas, their fears, and their path toward entrepreneurship!

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Motivating Your Students to Interview Customers

Motivating Your Students to Interview Customers

Click play above for the video version of this post.

The Power of Customer Interviews

Most entrepreneurship teachers are familiar with how powerful customer interviews are in validating a business model. But how do we motivate our students to leverage that power?

So often our students resist conducting customer interviews.

motivating students to interview customer

Their push back makes sense:

  • They’re nervous about talking to strangers.
  • No one’s shown them how to do this interviewing thing.
  • They don’t learn this technique somewhere else.
  • They’ve never seen or heard sample interviews.
  • They are overwhelmed; it feels like too much work.
  • Students have to find people to interview, ask them for the interview, and conduct and analyze the interview.
  • All the while, they’re worried about looking and feeling stupid.

In the article below, we’re going to offer you a two-step approach to motivate your students to take advantage of…

The most powerful business model validation tool we have at our disposal: customer interviews.

The first step of this approach is to provide the underlying business model theory so they understand why customer interviews are a critical step in their validation journey. We’ll show you how to use the business model canvas to help you do that. But that’s not enough to get your students talking to customers.

You’ll also need the second step, which is to invite them to experience the transformative power of customer interviews by observing a real interview during an experiential exercise.

Be sure to download the Lesson Plan below for full-details.

Customer Interviews and the Canvas

Customer interviews validate almost half of a business model canvasHow do you communicate to your students that customer interviews are the critical component of business model validation? If you use the Business Model Canvas or the Lean Canvas, use them to illustrate this point.

Show a canvas to your students and pose this question:

“Which business model components will customer interviews help you validate?”

Most students point to the Customer Segments or Value Proposition components. Those are both correct, customer interviews will help them directly validate those components.

Customer interviews will also help them validate the Customer Relationships and Channels assumptions. It turns out, when done effectively…

Customer interviews will help your students validate assumptions for almost half of their business models.

The business model assumptions that interviews don’t validate directly will be validated indirectly because everything is derived from the top right corner of the business model canvas.

For this reason, customer interviews are not just a powerful tool,

Customer interviews are the most powerful tool we have for validating business models.

Well-executed customer interviews are far more useful than surveys, focus groups, market research or observations. Every hypothesis your students make can be validated with them, or as a direct result of what they learn during them.

Experiencing Customer Interviews

Once you’ve described why these interviews are so important, it’s time to let your students experience the power of customer interviews first hand. To do that, we invite you to run an exercise with them.

First, ask your students to create a product for parents of children with ADHD. You can do this individually or in teams, whatever fits your class best. The assignment is to design a product for this customer segment.

Note: many of of your students will have no clue how to serve this customer segment and will find this step of the exercise challenging…which is exactly what you want.

customer interview

Next, ask them to design a Facebook ad to market their new product. The Facebook ad should include several components, including:

  1. A compelling headline
  2. An image and
  3. A description that motivates their customer to take an action (e.g. Click here to learn more, Buy now, etc.).

Once your students have completed both steps, discuss how confident they are they’ve got a product customers will buy, and a compelling ad for that product. During this discussion, highlight the difficulties they encountered coming up with a product in a vacuum, and how difficult it is to come up with a compelling marketing strategy (or even one ad) without speaking to customers.

Make Customer Interviews Real

Next is the really fun part. In the lesson plan below, we’ve included a recording of a sample customer interview with the parent of a child who has ADHD. Play that interview for your students.

During the recording, your students will hear:

  1. Two very real problems this mother has encountered,
  2. The emotions the mother feels associated with those problems,
  3. The solutions the mother has tried to solve those problems.

These three things – the problems, the emotions invoked by those problems, and the attempted solutions to the problems – are customer interviewing gold. Those are aspects on which we build all the components of a business model going forward.

Have your students listen to the interview so they can hear how informative these conversations can be. The first seven minutes of the recording is the interview itself. It’s worth noting that although this was an interview with a real potential customer, it was conducted as a demonstration. Most interviews your students will conduct will be 30-60 minutes long.

The following ten minutes of the recording are a group of students and I discussing what they heard during the interview. Consider listening to this section of the recording if you think it will help prepare you to answer questions your students may have.

Iterate

After listening to the interview, invite your students to redesign their product.

This time they get to leverage the fact that at least one mother of a child with ADHD has a problem getting that child to sleep. They also know that mother is worried about what sort of coping mechanisms her child will need once she’s an adult.

Your students should use the problem they heard during the interview as inspiration for their new products.

Customer Interview Exercise

For any company they start, your students can leverage the conversations they have with their potential customers to design their company and the product.

Once they’ve designed their product, have them redesign their Facebook ad. During this phase, make sure your students leverage the guilt and frustration they heard from the mother.

Entrepreneurs use emotional language to connect with their customers and demonstrate they understand the customers’ problems. When a customer sees or hears language that resonates with them on an emotional level, they know “this person understands me.”

When your students create an ad that addresses the guilt of being a mother of a child with ADHD that has been undiagnosed, their potential customer perceives that ad more positively because “finally, someone understands my experience.”

Your students can also reference the competitive solutions the mother has tried to solve her problems. Using the problems, emotions, and solutions the mother evoked during the interview is a way for your students to tell customers like her,

“We understand your problem. And because we understand it, we are uniquely suited to solve your problem.”

After they’ve built their new ad, open a second discussion comparing and contrasting what it was like building a product in a vacuum without speaking to customers versus building a product and ad inspired by customer interviews.

Talk about the benefits of collaborating with customers to create a product, and how doing so can help them market that product as well. Talk about how willing the customer was to talk about her problems, and how she seemed to enjoy the experience (i.e. people enjoy being genuinely asked about their problems so they shouldn’t feel like they are imposing on their interviewees).

Also be sure to talk about how it may feel like extra, and sometimes uncomfortable, work to talk with customers before creating a product, but how…

Nothing accelerates the creation of a successful product more than talking to your customers about their problems.

Now that you know how to help your students feel what it’s like to use customer interviews as the inspiration for a new product, and can explain their relationship to the Business Model Canvas, you have the tools to motivate your students to do their own customer interviews.

For more details, take a look at the complete lesson plan we’ve provided below, including the link to the sample interview recording.

Get the Experiencing Customer Interviews Lesson Plan

We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute, Experiencing Customer Interviews Lesson Plan to help you motivate your students to talk to their customers. It encapsulates everything we’ve talked about above.

Get the lesson plan

Use it as a basis to motivate your students to interview customers.

 

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!


Interviews, Not Guesses

You want students to develop powerful solutions that solve real problems for real customers. To do that,

They need to become comfortable interviewing customers.

If you want your students to interview customers so their solutions are more powerful, try this technique in your next course.

In future articles, we’ll talk about who your students should target for interviews, and what to ask during them. If you’d like those lesson plans, subscribe here to get them in your inbox.

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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.

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