01/22/2013 12:24 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Don't Underestimate the Undergraduates

Jim Hornthal splits his time between venture capital, entrepreneurship and education. Jim has founded six companies, including Preview Travel, one of the first online travel agencies, which went public in 1997 and subsequently merged to create as an independent company. Today he is the co-founder and Chairman of Triporati, LaunchPad Central. And Zignal Labs.

Jim co-taught classes with me at U.C. Berkeley, joined me in launching the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps class and now has been teaching his own Lean LaunchPad class at Princeton. I asked Jim to share what he learned in teaching the Lean LaunchPad class to undergraduates. Here's what Jim had to say...
Don't Underestimate the Undergraduates
Last fall, I began teaching the Lean LaunchPad course at Princeton (EGR 495: Special Topics in Entrepreneurship) with four teams of undergraduates (ok, there were a few engineering grad students in the mix), a brave first-time LLP co-teacher (Cal Simmons), and a talented and dedicated teaching assistant (Ismaiel Yakub).

This would be my fourth voyage in the captain's cabin of the SS LaunchPad. My prior journeys were spearheaded by the founder of this school of teaching, Steve Blank. Our teams were from Berkeley/Columbia EMBA, the Haas/Berkeley Engineering graduate student ranks, and as a co-teacher at Stanford for the National Science Foundation I-Corps program.

This would be the first time the course was taught in an undergraduate environment, and the first time we would use Steve's Udacity lectures to "flip" the classroom. This approach helped in several ways. First, it allowed us to use the classroom time to dive deep into each team's discovery narrative as it related to that week's section of the business model canvas. Second, it allowed the teams mentors to "follow along", since they were all first timers to the Lean LaunchPad approach. I believe this ability to synchronize the teams with their mentors added a lot to the successful outcomes of each team's process. Mentors also got a weekly email of things to look out for from their teams. These notes were derived (read: stolen) from the Lean LaunchPad Educator's guide. Sharing the week-by-week highlights was a great way to focus the mentor's attention on what we were trying to accomplish at the team level.

As a fall course being taught for the first time, there were additional challenges. The first was selecting the students who could take the class. Last spring, the course was listed for students, requiring an application AND an in-person interview. I wanted to make sure that students understood the significant amount of work outside the classroom that this would entail, and did not want to have a significant drop/add turnover once the teams had begun their work in the fall.

We had over 55 students apply, and based on a careful read of their applications, all were eager and capable. I flew out to Princeton to conduct 5 minute "speed dating" interviews with all of them. I wanted to assess their flexibility, willingness to accept direct, sometimes harsh input and criticism, and to get a sense of their resiliency in the face of almost certain failure. That 'cut' still left me with over 40 potential thick-skinned budding entrepreneurs.

I next cut out any students for whom this would be one of five courses. I also eliminated rising all rising sophomores, and got a list of 20 that were invited to the class.

In the fall, 18 showed up, and we then had to address another flaw with a first-time course offered in the fall to undergraduates. We had no pre-formed teams to work with. Fortunately, the Princeton academic calendar affords 13 weeks, and the Lean LaunchPad process takes 10, so we had a few weeks in the beginning to run a modified "Startup Weekend" process where students could pitch their ideas to their peers, and the class would rank vote their top 3 choices from the 15 options (some students had more than one idea, and a few chose to work on the ideas of others, so they did not 'pitch' on their own).

When the dust settled, we had 4 teams ready to start, and in the context of the overview lecture and discussion from week one, each team was connected to their mentor (most interactions were via Skype), and we were ready to take off for parts unknown.

A huge concern of mine going in was wondering at what level could these students absorb the material? There was little-to-no practical work experience (one or two summer jobs seems potentially useful, but in the whole, this was virgin territory for nearly every student in the class).
Can you teach the Lean LaunchPad to Undergraduates? Heck Yes!

What did we experience? Compared to all of the other teams I have taught in my three other "performances", I can say categorically that these students were the most fearless, adaptable, and relentless of any of the other cohorts, taken as a whole. One inadvertent mistake that we made (and were able to correct mid-course), was that the students took the "get out of the classroom" mandate too literally. The first month of customer discovery for most of their initiatives relied too much on conversations within the Princeton University community itself (fellow students, faculty and admin). This inadvertent filter created the risk of generating false positive (and false negative) results to a lot of the preliminary hypothesis testing that is a key part of an early Lean LaunchPad experience -- searching to find a solid product-market fit.

Maybe it is because they are all "professional students", or that they were particularly motivated to have a "real world" class experience for a change, they all devoured the work, their peer-to-peer interactions were exceptional, every week they raised the bar for themselves and each other, and by the end of the class, the teams averaged nearly 200 "customer discovery" engagements (this metric refers to customer interviews + business model canvas entries (and deletions), mentor engagements and faculty engagements. We were able to track their progress with the LaunchPad Central platform (disclosure: Steve and I are investors), which made keeping up with all of the chaos a more manageable task for faculty, mentors and teams alike.

Rather than try and tell you more about their amazing journeys, I invite you to explore the teams final videos and slides for yourselves. I think you will see the work of some talented and determined entrepreneurs who have honed their customer discovery and customer development skills to an impressive level. Don't underestimate the undergraduates; in fact, the potential dividends of their academic prowess, augmented by their hard fought real-world experience makes them all formidable opponents. Hopefully none of you will have to face off against any of them in the marketplace. If you do, my bet is on these talented, motivated and well-prepared undergraduates. Let the games begin ...

Class goals:

"Acquire real-world experience outside the classroom, working as a team to learn the skills of customer discovery and customer development; understand the business model canvas as a tool and learn how to create fast, cost-effective tests for each of their hypothesis along the way, and in the process acquire "x-ray" vision to see through business pitches and be able to ask the questions that matter."

Lessons Learned
  • The student interview process and selection is critical
  • Undergraduates can handle the class
  • Clarify that "get out of the classroom" means "get off the campus"
  • Students bounce back from the direct and sometimes tough live feedback
  • Align and train mentors to embrace customer development

Go for it!

Team Final Videos and Presentations


Cookies to Crumbs

Dream Figures


Steve Blank's blog:

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