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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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