Get Out ... of the Building

Haas Lecturer Steve Blank pioneers a new model for teaching entrepreneurship

By Ronna Kelly

When Jon Sebastiani, BCEMBA 11, came to Haas Lecturer Steve Blank’s entrepreneurship class with only one customer interview, he knew he would be sent to the penalty box. Blank requires his students to talk to a dozen potential customers every week, or else they can’t participate in class discussions. But Sebastiani convinced Blank to let him show the class a slide about his one customer interview. The slide: A $500,000 check from Safeway--upfront payment to sell Sebastiani’s gourmet, all-natural beef jerky, called Krave, in Safeway stores. Nationwide.

“There was a standing ovation in the entire class,” Sebastiani says. “It was a very cool moment.”

It was also a powerful proof point for Blank’s new approach to teaching entrepreneurship, which he pioneered at Haas. Almost a decade after Blank began teaching here, his entrepreneurship class--called Lean LaunchPad--has attracted the attention of the National Science Foundation, which hired Blank to train teams of research scientists each year. Blank also has taught the class at Princeton, Columbia, Caltech, and Stanford and trained faculty from the University of Michigan and Georgia Tech to teach it as well. Now, Lean LaunchPad is going viral--with 55,000 students around the world signing up for a free online version last September.

“We now think we know how to teach entrepreneurs how to ultimately fail less. That’s huge,” says Blank, who has founded or worked at eight startups, four of which have gone public.

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Lean LaunchPad traces its origins to the Customer Development course that Blank began teaching at Haas in 2003. In the course, Blank taught a formal methodology for searching for a business model, which he developed after observing that few business plans survived first contact with customers. “It dawned on me that the plans were a symptom of a larger problem: We were executing business plans when we should first be searching for business models,” Blank explains in his prolific blog. “We were putting the plan before the planning.”

The course evolved to include customer development (the technique startups use to quickly iterate and test each part of their business model) and agile development (the way startups quickly iterate and test their products as they learn).

Finally, Blank’s aha moment came when he realized that instead of just lecturing, he should create an experiential class for students to apply these methodologies to a real startup. Blank credits Haas with being at the forefront of this new approach to entrepreneurship by embracing adjunct faculty like him to share their own hands-on startup experience with students. “It all started at Haas,” says Blank, who is teaching Lean LaunchPad to full-time and part-time Berkeley MBA students this semester.

Curing Cancer

Brian Feth, MBA 13, took Lean LaunchPad last year after teaming up with a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to explore the commercial potential of a new platform to grow cancer cells and test treatments.

“Our desire was to sit down and write a business plan before validating what we were doing,” admits Feth. “The class really opened our eyes. It’s pretty elementary, but getting out and talking to customers is really the only way you can figure out what your customer needs are and how a product meets them.”

Each session of Lean LaunchPad begins with teams presenting findings from the week in 10-minute updates, followed by a lecture. Blank and a rotating group of VCs and entrepreneurs provide guidance and commentary.

“They’ve seen a lot of technology and can see pitfalls before you would,” explains Feth, whose startup is now based at a San Francisco biosciences incubator.

Customer Taste Tests

Blank calls this crucial process of talking with customers “getting out of the building.”

It’s a mantra that Sebastiani took to heart as he was refining his jerky startup, speaking to hundreds, if not thousands, of potential customers while taking Blank’s class. He surveyed shoppers at Whole Foods. He set up a samples booth at wine and food events, asking people who said jerky was “horrible to eat” if his would change their minds.

“We had so many different pivots during the class,” says Sebastiani, noting that was despite his experience working in his family’s wine business.

Blank also continues to pivot with Lean LaunchPad. A nonprofit called Startup Weekend is now working on combining the online version of Lean LaunchPad with with local mentors and facilitators to teach the course around the world.

“We’ll be teaching in 109 countries next year,” says Blank. “This is a pretty good beginning.”


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