I-Corp: A Taste Of The Startup Life

Regardless of whether teams abort their ideas or plow ahead, everyone walks away with the framework to rapidly evaluate startup ideas and a deeper understanding of innovation, according to Andre Marquis, the executive director at Haas’ Lester Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. “We are trying to make this like a startup experience. The teams come in with an idea that they think is going to change the world, and then they have to go out over the course of these seven weeks, do Steve Blank’s customer development, go meet with 100 customers, work on their business model, succeed and fail,” he explains. ” You have to really be like a startup and search for a scalable business opportunity under the tutelage of our faculty.”

Ryan Jung, Haas MBA ’14, took Blank’s Lean Launchpad course at Berkeley last year and served as its TA this year. The 34-year-old joined the I-Corp selection panel that picked the teams for this round. As both a participant and a panelist, Jung finds value in the course. “People read Steve’s books, and you can understand the methodology, but in the class your idea is constantly under the microscope. You’re doing a lot of the probing and examination of your own idea–that’s the key to the value, and it helps you to grow as a person,” he says.


For Berkeley, the program provides an ideal opportunity to scale up their entrepreneurship program. “The Lean Launchpad curriculum is one of the most powerful training programs we have for people who want to be entrepreneurs, ” Marquis explains. Steve Blank teaches it in his popular course at Berkeley, but the class is limited to 10 teams, and only half of the spots are open to MBAs. With I-Corp, more teams and more MBAs can pass through the program. Marquis estimates that there are now 50 team spots MBAs can apply for, including an I-Corp UC SF program focused on healthcare startups. However, MBAs must compete against engineers, scientists, and computer programmers among others—and the competition is stiff.

But for those who make it into the program, that competition can also be an important asset. “Successful teams have business expertise and technical expertise. If you’ve got a team that’s all business students, often they don’t understand what you can build with the technology; they don’t have product. Marquis says. “If you have all engineers or scientists, they don’t appreciate the business issues: Who buys it, how are you going to sell it. So the key is these cross-functional teams.” In fact, I-Corp requires that each team have a technical lead, an entrepreneurial lead, and a mentor.

As for Cabot, her company pivoted (startup speak for changed directions) from a marketing platform to a sales tool. After interviewing some 100 potential customers, her team discovered that their real sweet spot was not marketers, but sales teams who needed a tool to promote their products. Brandizi also switched focus from single-user clients to customers with dozens of users. By Demo Day, they had already secured five large customers under their new direction–in revenue terms, one of their new clients equates to roughly 20 of their former clients. So far, the model seems to be working. But for Cabot, the experience goes much further than that. “The purpose of this program is to teach entrepreneurs to fail less in general,” she points out. “What I learned was you can’t eliminate that variable [customer feedback], you can ignore it, but it’s not going away. If you listen to what customers are telling you, inside that there’s a story to improve their lives, and I find that very inspiring.”

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