Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lessons Experienced

Last Thursday, I completed a three week stint teaching business to thirteen high school students at the Stanford University EPGY Summer Institute.  The course was entitled Evaluating Startup Ideas and was intended to be a survey course in marketing strategy and Silicon Valley startups.  As mentioned in an earlier post, in addition the the technical content, there were some other lessons I wanted to impart.

Based on both a formal and informal survey of the students, it appears that all of the students did indeed learn the marketing concepts taught and gained a good overview of the startup process.  And while different students took away different lessons, three in particular appear to have stuck with most of them:
  1. In business, the team is key.  This point was made clear in our visits to Picaboo and Tapulous, emphasized by our VC and legal guest speakers, and hammered home through the course project, where students had to come up with a startup idea, form teams, validate the ideas out in the field, and finally develop a presentation around it.   As expected, several students had to figure out how to deal with less than perfect team dynamics, including other team mates they felt weren't pulling their weight.  In my mind, the learning experience from this alone, made the project worth it!
  2. In a startup, the final idea will probably not be the one you started with.  The founders at both Picaboo and Tapulous talked about how the company evolved from their original ideas to current business model.  And our VC speaker made it clear that this need to change direction was one of the reasons having a good team was paramount in his investments.
  3. Anyone can start a company.  Passion for a product is important but being a specialist is not.  And while an entrepreneur needs to think things through, the idea does not need to be fully fleshed out to start, see (2) above.
As expected, the experiential aspects of the course - cases, field trips, and customer discovery project - proved to be the most effective way to convey these to the student (as well as the most fun).  If I ever teach this type of course again, I will definitely add more experiential exercises and cut back on the lectures.  But overall, I'm pleased to have the student's take away these three particular lessons experienced as a foundation from which to launch their business careers.

And to reemphasize that it is all about team, I'd like to thank the team that made this course happen.  Thanks to:
  • Rick Sommer, Christine Parker and their staff at EPGY for providing the opportunity to teach this course in the first place and making sure everything ran smoothly.
  • My teaching assistants Clare Bruzek and Steve Singleton who did a great job of running the study sessions and handling the logistics of the field trips.
  • Howard Field and Macy McGuiness at Picaboo for sharing their time and experience with the students.
  • Andrew Lacy, Jessica Kahn, Tim O'Brien, Ed Williams, and Susan Steele at Tapulous for sharing their time and experience and a bit of post-visit excitement with the class. We had no idea at the time that a deal with "the Mouse" was in discussion down the hall.  Congratulations on the Disney deal!
  • Ernie Schmidt at Tesla for giving a fascinating tour and several highly prized test rides in the Roadster!
  • Perry Ha from DFJ Athena for teaching the class about venture capital and introducing the class to the "MSU" concept.
  • John Horn from Infrastructure Group for teaching the class the ins and outs of business law.
Most of all, thanks to Alex, Diana, Emily, Greg, Ivan, Jackie, Jeff, Jessica, Kavita, Krissy, Matt, Michelle, and Nick for being a great class (last names withheld to protect the innocent).  I hope you enjoyed taking the course as much as I enjoyed teaching it.  I expect to see great things from all of you in the future.

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