06/16/2014 06:55 pm ET Updated Aug 16, 2014

Lean Education: What College Students Can Learn From Lean Startups

It's a quintessential startup story: An entrepreneur spends months, if not years, and more money than they can afford to lose building and launching a product, only to find out that no one actually wanted it! The time and money is gone forever and the hopes and dreams are (at least temporarily) crushed.

Entrepreneurs practice Lean Startup methodology and customer development to avoid such outcomes and students could benefit from similar practices.

College students often face similar realities after graduating. One of the biggest problems college graduates have is that they enter the workforce after four years of studying only to realize that they just spent a whole bunch of time and money learning something that no one wanted.

When I graduated from college and began applying for jobs I learned very quickly that I had just spent a whole lot of time and and money obtaining knowledge and skills that employers didn't actually need me to have. It turned out there was a significant supply of people with my skillsets relative to the demand by employers, and that employers did not see the offering (credentials) I had been developing (non-Ivy League) over the past four years as a viable solution to their needs.

Eventually I managed to hustle my way into a job, but it was not easy. Knowing what I know now about customer development, I would have never spent four years and about a quarter million dollars on something without validating a need for it.

Lean Startup

At it's core, Lean Startup is about gaining customer insights to develop products that people actually want and mitigating the risk of building something no one wants. One crucial strategy Lean Startup teaches entrepreneurs is that they need to be continually getting feedback from customers in order to develop a product that meets their needs. Entrepreneurs practice customer development to validate or invalidate that they are building something that people actually want and to shape and improve the product so that the entrepreneur can deliver as much value as possible to customers. It's a continuous "build, measure, learn" feedback loop.

Following Lean Startup and practicing customer development, entrepreneurs will often get feedback from a potential customers before even writing a line of code or spending a dime. Getting feedback from customers is usually the first thing an entrepreneur will do after getting an idea.

Lean Student

A student's customer is an employer. Most people go to college so they can eventually sell their services, based on the skills and knowledge they obtained in college, in exchange for a salary from an employer. Or, in laymans terms, "get a job."

Most students do not have a build, measure, learn feedback loop. They have a build it and see if they will come approach. They often go to college for four years without ever spending time validating that they're learning something that actually has value to their customers.

Without getting feedback from an employer, a student has no idea whether or not he/she is spending time and money learning something that is actually of value to employers. They don't know if the skills they're learning will actually get them a job, let alone one with a salary sufficient enough to pay of the loans the obtained to learn those skills in the first place.

The result of this lack of feedback is a lot of students graduating with a lot of knowledge that has little or no market value, four years of foregone opportunities, and a massive amount of student loan debt on top of it.

Prospective college students can learn from Lean Startup methodology and the practices of entrepreneurs who apply it. If I was considering going to college today, I would test and validate that I was learning something and paying for something that was of actually of value to employers. Note: I wouldn't go to college, this is just for the purpose of illustration.

This is a Problem for Employers Too

It's not just the students who are hurt by not practicing customer development, or all the taxpayers who are funding them. Companies spend billions of dollars every year training and educating their employees. Employers cite lack of proper knowledge or skills as the number one reason why they're not hiring entry-level employees.

The customers of an entrepreneur who practices customer development benefit from it because they get better products and services. Employers would benefit from students practicing customer development because they would get better applicants.

Validation Experiments

One tactic some entrepreneurs use in validating their startup ideas is to actually pre sell their product before they build it in order to validate that they are truly building something that is of value to their customers, before spending a bunch of time and money on it. If the price of the product is high enough, pre selling can also be a great way to finance the development. An entrepreneur might run an experiment like driving traffic to a fake check out page just to see if people will actually check out.

A prospective student could try applying for a job with a fake name and with a resume that might look similar to what it would look like when graduating...Just to see if they can even get job interviews. Or they might get a potential employer to right a letter intent that they will hire them if they meet certain learning objectives. Or they might even tell the employer that if they want someone with the given skillset so badly that they should pay to have them learn it!

Lean Education and Hiring

While the above examples might be a bit impractical, there are some ways Lean can be applied by students to education and employment. The bottom line is that there needs to be a more efficient "build, measure, learn" feedback loop between students and employers. It would be beneficial to both parties to work more closely. Below are a few potential solutions.

Apprenticeships and Internships

Apprenticeships and internships where "students" work directly under employers and get taught the skills and knowledge that they need to be successful in that job can be massively beneficial to the student because they can be sure that they're learning skills that are marketable and in demand by their customer the employer. Such programs are great for employers because they can develop more productive employees.

Prepayments or Training as Financing

Another solution could be for potential student to pre sell their services to an employer. "If I learn computer science, will you hire me? I will learn computer science if you pay for me to learn computer science. I want to make sure I'm spending time and money on something that's actually of value to you, so please prove to me that it is." If an employer had a real need for a skillset, it would be in their best interest to finance it. Hence the billions of dollars companies spend on training each year. Or "what should I learn? What skills do you need that you can't find."

Of course there are all sorts of details and logistical issues that would need to be sorted out by the market. Maybe the employee takes a lesser salary in exchange for the education. Or maybe the company would ask test the potential hire's IQ before committing to fund their education.

Shorter Iteration Cycles

Market needs change. A lot can change in the four years between a student deciding on a given major or school and looking for a job after graduating.

Marketing used to be about advertising on TV and billboards, now it's SEO, split testing, and YouTube. The publishing industry has existed, but soon it might not. Jobs that used to exist have been automated and outsourced. Companies that used to exist have gone bankrupt.

Trying to predict what the market will need in four years is a risky game in today's economy with technology accelerating as fast as it is. Applying a "build, measure, learn" feedback loop in education would mean periodically taking breaks from studying to work. This would enable students to test whether or not they are becoming marketable, and to get a better idea of what employers actually need so they can iterate on their studying accordingly.

Transparency and Two Way Communication

At the very least, students need to be more connected to employers. Higher Education adds a bureaucratic communication layer between job seekers and employers that leads to a disconnected and inefficient labor market. Like whisper down the lane, the added communication layer can lead to misinterpretations.

It would great if people had better data about their job prospects were they to graduate with a given degree or from a given school, or data one what they should be learning in the first place. Some of this information is out there, but most of it is not great, and I suspect many prospective students aren't seeking it out. Perhaps trusting the fact that if the President, the public schools they've attended, and everyone around them thinks they should go to college that they should.


No entrepreneur in their right mind would go 4 years and spend a quarter of a million dollars without talking to their customers! Why should job seekers?

If I was thinking of going to college today, I would first validate that I'm spending my time and money learning something that there is a real need for and that my credentials after I graduate would have market value.

Employers would never go for some of what I've described above because taxpayer funded education costs them nothing. Some of this would either require some form collective bargaining on behalf of students, or reduced market interference by government.

In the end however, the result could be more efficient labor markets and education systems. Students could have less debt, higher wages, and/or lower unemployment. Employers could have more productive employees, lower wages as a result of increased supply of qualified labor, and/or reduce spending on training.

"But college isn't just about getting a job..."

Yes college has value propositions outside of getting a job after graduating. But most people can't afford to spend a quarter of a million dollars and four years on a party, or on "finding themselves." And it's (in my opinion) immoral to stick taxpayers with such a bill.