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Steve Blank on How to Teach Entrepreneurship

Steve Blank on How to Teach Entrepreneurship

Want to improve how you teach entrepreneurship? Steve has some ideas.

Steve Blank Talking about How to Teach Entrepreneurship

Before we get there though, with the fires raging along the West Coast of the US, one of which is stunningly close to Steve’s home, we wanted to send him, his family, and everyone affected by the fires, our best wishes.

Steve and I sat down, pre-pandemic, for an in-depth discussion on the state of entrepreneurship education and ways to improve it going forward.

Below I’ve written up a summary of half of our conversation: thoughts on how to teach entrepreneurship.

In an upcoming part two, I’ll summarize some of Steve’s ideas on creating a comprehensive entrepreneurship curriculum, including:

  • The skills professors should teach their students, and 
  • Four courses Steve thinks are core to a robust entrepreneurship program

First, for anyone unfamiliar: Who is Steve Blank?

Forefather of Lean Startup

Entrepreneur, author, professor, an originator of evidence-based entrepreneurship, Steve Blank has developed or made famous some of the most recognizable approaches to entrepreneurship including: 

In addition, Steve has reimagined the way entrepreneurship is taught throughout the world with his Lean LaunchPad, NSF I-Corps, and Hacking for X (e.g. Recovery, Defense, Diplomacy, Impact, Energy, etc.) programs. 

In short, Steve has dramatically improved the way we practice and teach entrepreneurship.

Why Teaching Entrepreneurship is Hard

One of the very first topics that came up during our conversation was how we all can become more effective instructors.

Roughly 75% of college faculty are adjunct or non-tenure-track professors. Steve shared that as a practitioner, one of the challenges he faced was not what to teach, but how to teach:

There is usually very little onboarding in place to train professors in the most effective way to teach entrepreneurial lessons.”

While most of us are successful entrepreneurs or successful professors, very few of us are equally great at both.

Compounding the problem, Steve mentioned that there are so many kinds of entrepreneurship – small business, high tech, corporate, social, family business, etc.

With these challenges in mind, I asked Steve for recommendations to overcome them.

Steve’s Teaching Tips

Tip #1: Accept You Don’t Know Everything

“I see my mentors and other adjuncts and coaches make this mistake, in thinking your domain expertise is the expertise of entrepreneurship rather than a very narrow slice.”

When Steve first began teaching at UC Berkeley, he was paired with professor John Freeman who recommended he sit in on other instructors’ entrepreneurship courses. Steve mentioned, “the shock to my system, the discovery…there are different types of entrepreneurship.” 

Steve was a successful entrepreneur, but he wasn’t a successful small business, high tech, corporate, social, and lifestyle entrepreneur.

Each type of entrepreneurship has different goals and to be taught most effectively, requires a different approach and expertise. To illustrate his point, Steve mentioned that in high tech entrepreneurship, the first goal is to have a seed round that raises millions of dollars. In small business entrepreneurship, however, the first goal may be to make enough to fund a lifestyle and family.

It’s this diversity in objectives that can make effectively teaching innovation difficult and it was his realization that he didn’t know everything about every type of entrepreneurship that led Steve to increase his breadth of knowledge. 

Tip #2: Get a Mentor

Luckily, Berkely had a semi-formal onboarding process in place which sped up the learning process for new faculty. For other educators who do not have access to that kind of program, Steve recommends:

  • Attending other entrepreneurship instructor’s classes
  • If you’re an entrepreneur first, get another educator to mentor you
  • If you’re an academic first, pair with an entrepreneur to teach

Like we teach our students, teams with aligned goals and diverse skills have better outcomes; the same applies to our teaching. To improve your classes, find people who have a different set of skills and experiences than you and collaborate with them.

When in Doubt: Experiences Teach Skills

“If you’ve never started a company and you’re teaching entrepreneurship, it’s like teaching a med school class and never having cracked a chest.”

Entrepreneurship is a combination of theory and practice and our students learn it best when they are offered by perspectives.

Steve Blank Talking about How to Teach Entrepreneurship

Steve further explained his point by saying, “Startups are essentially years of chaos, uncertainty, and terror. That’s not what a typical academic career is like. And so it’s kind of hard to teach tenacity, resilience, and agility and maybe curiosity, which are the key skills for early-stage entrepreneurs without having lived with that uncertainty.”

Students Learn Best By Doing

How do we teach customer empathy, customer development, and customer discovery effectively?

The answer is learning by doing. When Steve teaches his Lean LaunchPad classes, he insists his students talk to 10 customers each week. And he always follows up to ensure they actually made contact. 

For students who have difficulty performing customer interviews, he recommends students practice interviewing. Steve recommends the book, Talking to Humans: Success Starts with Understanding Your Customers.

For an engaging way to help your students understand exactly what questions they should and shouldn’t ask customers, you can also use our free experiential Customer Interviewing Cards lesson plan.

The same goes for every topic in entrepreneurship:

  • Idea generation
  • Solution ideation
  • Finance
  • Pitching

Every entrepreneurship skill must be practiced to be internalized.

The Future of Entrepreneurship Education

Key skills for early-stage entrepreneurs can be taught with the right combination of theory and experiential exercises.

In class, Steve looks to create a feeling that there is no “right” answer that can be found in a book. It is this approach that encourages students to figure things out for themselves and inspires outside-the-box thinking. The Lean LaunchPad methodology Steve created is great for stimulating the chaos of entrepreneurship. It is this chaos that identifies those students ready for the pursuit of entrepreneurship.

Steve conceptualizes his classes as the Juilliard of entrepreneurship; when the way to train artists was with an experiential, hands-on apprenticeship. With this in mind, Steve thinks successful entrepreneurship curricula should include entrepreneurial appreciation.

“These core [entrepreneurship] courses will be the new liberal arts courses of the 21st century.”


Here are my takeaways from the first part of our conversation:

  1. Get a mentor. If your background is in academia, find an entrepreneur to mentor you in real-world realities. If you’re an entrepreneur, find an academic mentor who can teach you about teaching. Teaching entrepreneurship requires both.
  2. Train entrepreneurs like artists. Just like are no “right” answers in art, there are no right answers in entrepreneurship. Instead of focusing on teaching answers, we should focus on teaching skills.
  3. Students learn skills by practicing them. Experiences, not textbooks, are the best way to teach skills.

Check Out Part 2

Click here for the second part of our conversation where we discuss:

  • The necessary skills professors should teach their students, and 
  • Four courses he thinks are essential to a robust entrepreneurship program

And subscribe here for more interviews with entrepreneurship education thought leaders:

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Want More Engaged Students?

Check out the Experiential Entrepreneurship Curriculum.

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Whether you’re teaching online, face-to-face, or a hybrid of the two, we built our Experiential Entrepreneurship Curriculum (ExEC) to provide award-winning engagement and excitement for your students

  • in any course structure
  • on all major learning management system

Preview ExEC Now

We’ve taken the guesswork out of creating an engaging approach that works both online or in-person. ExEC has a comprehensive entrepreneurship syllabus template complete with 15 weeks of award-winning lesson plans that can be easily adapted to your needs.

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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