An Interview About Empathy: Meet Our Founder

An Interview About Empathy: Meet Our Founder

Many of you know me (Doan) from USASBE or my blog, or my research, but you may not know Justin Wilcox, the passionate entrepreneur driving With this post, we pull back the curtain and introduce our wizard!

Who Is Justin Wilcox? A Snapshot:

  • 2003: Degree in Computer Science from Cal Poly
  • 2003: Engineer/Lead at Microsoft
  • 2007: Left Microsoft to start a healthcare company
  • 2009: Realized no one wanted what the startup was building
  • 2009: Found out why after learning about Customer Development
  • 2010: Used Customer Development to turn healthcare startup around
  • 2010: Started Customer Development Labs blog about how that happened
  • 2012: Blog turned into talks at Lean Startup conferences
  • 2014: Talks turned into workshops with accelerator programs (e.g. Google for Entrepreneurs, Techstars, Startup Weekend, etc.), and Fortune 500s
  • 2015: Workshops turned into the FOCUS Framework and the “How to Find Product-Market Fit” workbook series
  • 2017: The FOCUS Framework inspired our ExEC curriculum

Let’s Dive Deeper . . .

Justin and I did a one-on-one interview so you could hear his perspective in depth.

Or if you prefer, here’s a summary of our conversation:

How did Justin come to build curriculum for university professors?

As mentioned above, Justin started a healthcare software company, but realized that he built a product nobody wanted to use. He studied what went wrong in his entrepreneurial journey, eventually finding Steve Blank’s Customer Development model, one of the precursors to The Lean Startup.

It was then that Justin realized,

He hadn’t learned how to empathize.

While he learned how to write code in school, and build innovative products at Microsoft, innovation was meaningless if it didn’t lead to impact. To create impact, he had to learn how to see the world from his customer’s perspective – to feel what they felt. To become a better innovator, he had to become a better empathizer.

At the time Justin discovered Customer Development and Lean Startup, they were largely theoretical concepts with little practical guidance on how to apply them. So Justin started developing, documenting, and teaching, ways to practice integrating empathy into the entrepreneurial process.

After helping thousands of individual entrepreneurs do just that, university professors began reaching out asking Justin for help teaching these methodologies in the classroom. That’s when it became clear:

Professors faced the same challenges turning Lean Startup theory into action that he had.

Having discovered effective ways to teach the techniques, Justin reached out to me and we began collaborating on ways to teach them to entrepreneurship professors – which is when was born. 🙂

Why work with academics instead of entrepreneurs?

The big draw for working with academics is the impact multiplier we enable. By collaborating with professors, Justin learned he could have a larger impact because we as professors work with hundreds of thousands of students every year.

By helping us teach our students how to understand other people’s perspectives (empathy) and how to sustainably solve their problems (via business model validation), our combined impact can be much larger than if Justin worked solely with entrepreneurs.

Our whole is greater than the sum of our parts.

Where would he like to see entrepreneurship education go?

Justin practices what he preaches, and he’s heartened by professors who act the same way.

He wants to support teachers who apply the lean principles they teach, so they can optimize their impact. To that end, Justin is most excited by professors who treat their class like a startup:

  • Creating hypotheses about their course,
  • Running experiments to optimize the course,
  • Measuring their impact with metrics.

Justin wants to see more professors treat students like their customers and engage with them to build better courses.

These principles work. The more we apply them, the better we can teach them.

What most exciting about ExEC’s Fall Pilot?

We’ve implemented a system for students to give us emotionally-driven feedback on every exercise.

Students tell us, and their professors, how they feel about each exercise.

The insight from this is super exciting for both of us. The aggregated feedback helps us know how students feel about their course, so together we can iterate and improve them.

Student feedback from ExEC’s Business Model Canvas intro exercise

Looking forward, what is most exciting is our ability to turn that data into engagement analytics so professors know in real time exactly how their students are feeling, and how exactly they are engaging with the material.

What’s the next step with ExEC?

Justin is busy updating much of the underlying technology for a streamlined experience for professors and students.

We are keeping our Spring cohort fairly small; there are only about five spots still available.

If you’re eager to use an experiential approach, can provide us feedback on a regular basis, and can ask your students to provide us feedback on a regular basis…

Then you’re a perfect candidate to be an ExEC Pilot, and you can shape the way entrepreneurship is taught.

Bonus Question

If you’ve read this far – thank you – you deserve a little extra. What’s one thing that very few people know about Justin?

He holds a Guiness World Record.

Want to know for what? Shoot him an email or ask him at the upcoming USASBE conference!

Want to work with Justin and I to change Entrepreneurship?

If you’re a progressive entrepreneurship professor interested in getting your hands dirty in the name of improving entrepreneurship education join us and you can play a significant role in reshaping how entrepreneurship is taught at colleges around the world.

Stay Tuned

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