The Updated Experiential Entrepreneurship Curriculum (ExEC)

The Updated Experiential Entrepreneurship Curriculum (ExEC)

We’re building the entrepreneurship curriculum you dream of teaching.

At least that’s what we’re trying to do. The feedback from our pilot professors tells us we are doing pretty well. There have been hiccups, and learning moments, but our agile team and processes have allowed us to respond promptly and create an engaging user experience for both professors and students.

Now in Over 40 Universities

ExEC entrepreneurship curriculum at over 40 Universities including Penn State and the University of Nebraska

At this point last year, our the Experiential Entrepreneurship Curriculum (ExEC) was in roughly 20 schools. Strong demand for a structured, experiential, 15-week entrepreneurship curriculum has doubled the number of universities we’re in.

Of course, being a new venture determined to help students learn how to create new ventures, we’re adamant that we…

Practice what we preach!

We gather feedback from professors and students after each lesson. Through this, we focus on how they felt teaching the lesson (professors) or completing the lesson (students):

We interview professors multiple times during the semester. Our team invites students to talk with us so we can learn more about how they feel living the curriculum, what we are missing, and what we are doing well.

We work tremendously hard to gather, analyze, and constantly make updates for next semester, not “next revisions” like traditional textbooks. The ExEC you see today is a result of our vision and assumptions, continuously tested with students and professors around the world.

While we gather a ton of feedback from our professors, but perhaps the best way to sum up their perspective is what Dr. Chris Welter had to say:

“It’s the software I’ve been looking for for 3 or 4 years . . . I really appreciate the ability for students to get their hands dirty”

New Professor Platform

After practicing what we preach and talking extensively with our professors, it was clear we needed to make some changes to our Professor Portal. We practice what we preach in building our product.

Our original professor-facing version was Google Docs, Slides, and PDFs:

It worked as an MVP and allowed us to test a variety of our assumptions, but ultimately our professors told us Google Docs was too cumbersome to use, and to print from.

So we built a brand new professor platform for our entrepreneurship curriculum! We are currently beta-testing this platform and will roll it out in Fall 2019:

We deliver each of our 31 lessons in a standard format, that includes six core elements for easy navigation and execution for our professors:

1. The Goals and objectives of that lesson. We frame each lesson in practical terms for our professors so they quickly understand why the lesson is important, and what their students will learn.

2. An overview showing where that lesson fits into the scheme and flow of the overall curriculum. We understand it is useful to always understand the big picture – where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going. We also map our entrepreneurship curriculum flow onto the Business Model Canvas to highlight what lessons are applicable for particular boxes on the Canvas.

3. An overview video explaining the lesson, and Google Slides for classroom use. Our goal is for our professors to succeed, and that means providing information and tools. Some use slides and some do not, but we offer them just in case. We know some prefer videos to long text, so we offer both, just in case.

4. Instructions for how to prepare before class, including all the necessary resources. Experiential education is really difficult to execute. We provide our professors with a ton of direction to prepare for each lesson. We want them to succeed, and we want their students to remember each and every learning experience throughout the entrepreneurship curriculum.

5. A minute-by-minute exhaustive outline for delivering the lesson during class. What can we say, we are a but obsessive at times. But we figured more detail was better than less detail.

6. Instructions for what students could and should be doing after class. Let’s be honest – what happens after the class is just as important to a student’s learning experience as what happens within the confines of the particular class period.

Assessment Guide

While testing our first version, one need we heard consistently from professors was guidance on how to assess their students. They loved the experiential nature of the exercises, but they were not always clear on how they could help students understand their progression through the understanding and application of that content. So we built an Assessment Guide into our updated entrepreneurship curriculum to help our professors provide quality feedback to students throughout the process.

During the semester, students progress through 5 Validation Check-Ins. These are basically progressive pitches that act as the main opportunity for assessment. We give our professors rubrics and detailed guidance on how to assess the students’ documents and pitches.

Our goal with assessment is not just to help professors provide a grade, but to help professors provide meaningful and timely feedback to students.

For more on our approach to assessment, read our post 4 Steps to Assessing an Experiential Class.

More Background Reading Material

One of the other pieces of feedback we got early on was that professors wanted to use us as the sole resource for their class. To do that though, we needed to add some breadth, in addition to our depth.

We feel confident we cover idea generation, customer interviewing, business modeling, and prototyping comprehensively, but what about finance, legal issues, branding, etc.?

So we conducted an extensive analysis of entrepreneurship curriculum, textbooks and syllabi, and interviewed dozens of the most respected entrepreneurship professors and entrepreneurs. Our goal was to understand what information would be most useful for students beyond our core offering. From that research, we developed an extensive Resource Guide that currently includes 17 modules.

These modules are by no means an complete exploration of the particular topic. Instead we offer an overview of the topic, a deep dive into some of the basics and the critical components of the topic, and then recommend an extensive list of curated resources and readings of that particular topic.

We want our professors to feel comfortable knowing if they recommend their students go through one of our Resource Guides, they will emerge with a solid understanding of the topic and how to apply that content to their context.

We are not the experts all of these topics, but have done considerable research to better inform our professors around these topics of interest. What we offer within each resource guide is an evolving list of additional resources (articles, books, videos, etc.) for students to continue their learning of a particular topic, or for professors to use as additional resources.

This Resource Guide is an evolving offering. As we hear from professors using our ExEC curriculum, or the community of 3,200+ professors reading our blog, that a certain topic is critical in entrepreneurship education, we will build a Resource Guide ourselves, or invite subject-matter experts to help us build one.

LMS integration

Our last major update is integrating with Canvas, D2L, Moodle and Blackboard. In our first version, students and professors had to download and upload documents, assignments, slides, and other materials. We heard loud and clear that this was not a great user experience.

We now offer the capability of uploading all our content neatly into the four learning management systems mentioned above. This will greatly reduce the setup time for our professors, and will provide a more comfortable learning process for the students.

As you can see, we have been hard at work learning what works and what doesn’t with ExEC. We constantly gather feedback from students and from professors. With this feedback, we strive to provide the ultimate experiential learning opportunity to entrepreneurship educators.

Now’s Your Chance!

We’ve been updating our curriculum and platform based on feedback from hundreds of professors and thousands of students. If you are looking for a fully structured, experiential entrepreneurship curriculum, with 15 weeks of lesson plans that students love, an in-depth complementary Resource Guide, and a comprehensive Assessment Guide, you should check out ExEC.

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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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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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Intro to Problem Validation

Intro to Problem Validation

If you’re like most of us entrepreneurship professors, after you help your students come up with great startup ideas, you ask them to fill a business model canvas or a lean canvas with their assumptions. Now you want them to validate those assumptions. 

The canvas is great at illuminating all the assumptions students have about their business, but it won’t help them actually test those assumptions.

Imagine if students could take a few quick steps to know if they were on the right track. How can we get them there? Ideally, we teach them an entrepreneur’s version of the “scientific method” so they can:

  • Identify their business model hypotheses,
  • Develop experiments to test those hypotheses,
  • Analyze the experiment results to (in)validate their hypothesis.

5 Steps to Problem Validation Expertise

Many entrepreneurship students struggle to validate the problem they are solving for their customers. While they often understand why validation is important, they don’t know how to test their assumptions, especially when it comes to the critical problem hypothesis.

Here are some quick ways to help them practice hypothesizing their customers’ problems, and validating those hypotheses.

  1. Make a hypothesis: Students hypothesize about the most intense problem the other students’ in their entrepreneurship class are experiencing. They write down what they think other students in your class would say when asked, “What is the hardest part about this class?” (e.g. “The homework is too time-consuming”).
  2. Define a success metric: Before asking their peers the question above, each student writes down the number of interviewees they think will report the problem they’ve written down (e.g. “If 3 out of the 5 students I interview say the homework is too time-consuming, I will have validated my hypothesis.”).
  3. 1-Question individual interviews: Students ask 5 other students in their class,

    “What is the hardest part about this class?”

    For each interview, they write down the name of each student they interviewed, and their biggest challenge.

  4. Analyze their results: Students analyze the answers they’ve written down and tally up how many of their peers reported the problem they hypothesized. Any students who invalidated his/her hypothesis, should highlight the most common problem they heard.
  5. Discuss as a class: Students share their experiences interviewing and being interviewed, the most common problems they heard, how many people validated/invalidated their hypotheses, and what surprised them most about the responses they heard.

Problem Validation Teaching Points

No matter the outcomes of the experiments, you can highlight several teaching points.

  • If a student’s hypothesis is validated: Talk about why it’s a great idea to start a company that “scratches your own itch.” When they are a member of their customer segment, they know the problems and can empathize with their customers.
  • If a student’s hypothesis is validated: Highlight the power of interviewing. If that student built a company to solve their hypothesized problem, that company would have failed. Since they took the time to test their hypothesis, they are much more likely to succeed in building a company.
  • If they find no pattern in the problems they heard? You can talk about what happens when interviewing customers across customer segments. Students learn that “problem noise” creates confusion and you can discuss how developing niche customer based on some criteria (gender, major, age), and re-interviewing those niches can help to find a consistent pattern.

The 1-Question individual interviews exercise above is powerful for a number of reasons.

  • It helps students ease their way into customer interviewing, by talking with a group of people they are comfortable with.
  • It facilitates a discussion about talking to other people about their problems, and what it’s like to have someone asking the students about their problems. The typically enjoyable experience of being interviewed (i.e. having someone ask about, and listen to, your problems), gives your students a sense of what it will feel like for their eventual interviewees. Students typically assume their interviews are inconveniencing their interviewees, but you can use this exercise to highlight that more often than not, customers enjoy being interviewed because someone is genuinely interested in help them solve a problem.
  • By asking about your students’ biggest challenges, you’re modeling the behavior you want to see in your students – you’re collecting data about your customers’ problems!
  • You have the opportunity to talk about why it’s far less important to be “right” than it is to run the experiment. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whose assumptions were validated, and whose were invalidated; what matters is the real-world data collected about customer problems. In this way, invalidated assumptions aren’t “failures.”

Invalidated assumptions provide as much valuable information about the market as validated assumptions.

For more details, check out our complete Intro to Problem Validation lesson plan below.

What Entrepreneurship Students Learn

To summarize, through the six steps outlined above, students learn:

  • How to develop a problem hypothesis.
  • How to develop success metrics for that hypothesis to ensure it’s testable.
  • Why it can be helpful to “scratch your own itch”.
  • Why talking to customers before they start a company is so important.
  • How to not lead or bias their interviewees (by asking about problems, not products).
  • It is not pleasant to be interviewed.
  • It is more important that their hypotheses be tested, than they be right.

Imagine your students leaping from an idea and the basic assumptions underlying their business model to (in)validating assumptions through real time engagement with potential customers. They are now able to describe the problem in the customer’s own words. What if your students understood how to use the information they gather from customer interviews?

Just as entrepreneurship students need to validate problems to create solutions people will buy… 

We as entrepreneurship educators need to validate student problems to build an engaging learning environment.

Download our Problem Validation Lesson Plan

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

Get your lesson plan

Use it as a basis to teach your students to:

  • Develop a testable hypothesis
  • Practice defining success metrics for their experiments
  • Validate their assumptions by talking to potential customers
  • Analyze their experiment results

 

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 teaching your students to conduct high quality, real-world customer interviews in an engaging and approachable way!

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