Q&A With the Father of the Lean Startup

Steve Blank teaches entrepreneurship at Berkeley, Stanford, and Columbia

Steve Blank teaches entrepreneurship at Berkeley, Stanford, and Columbia

Steve Blank is a legend in Silicon Valley circles. Bearded and bespectacled, the serial entrepreneur speaks in anecdotes and questions–which he then answers, his voice rising with incredulity as though he’s continually uncovering new epiphanies.

He’s had plenty of those and laid them out in what has become a holy book for the Silicon Valley set, The Four Steps to the Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Products that Win. Startup entrepreneurs, veteran venture capitalists and even government officials swear by Blank’s customer development methodology, which treats startups as hypotheses and tests them through consumer feedback. The approach is credited with spawning the Lean Startup movement, which calls for nimble, bare-bones businesses that can “pivot” (startup lingo for change directions) based on customers’ reactions.PoetsQuants-300x250-MagazineAd2

With eight startups under his belt, four of them public, Blank has experienced both the peaks and pitfalls of founding homeruns and complete craters. While not an MBA himself, Blank teaches at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and Columbia Business School. He also lectures on entrepreneurship at Stanford’s School of Engineering. But Blank has a particular beef with business schools. In a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants he explains what entrepreneurs should really be learning, where B-schools are failing their students, and why not everyone is cut out to be a company founder.

Is an MBA a worthwhile investment for an aspiring entrepreneur?

This is a conversation I have with all my students who want to go to business school. If the question is should I ever go to business school? Of course. But the next question is: Should I go to business school first? My advice is if you haven’t worked in a startup, don’t go to business school to work in one. I want you to get your hands dirty doing scut work. Try to be a founder or be a spear-carrier. After a year, you’re going to decide whether this is the career for you, or whether you’d really be more happy as an investment banker.

Business schools are still treating startups as small versions of large companies. Most of these principles are not only wrong, they’re toxic. They’re destructive to early stage ventures. So the value of business school is no longer what I’m learning in my classes, but the value of networking and some of the other things that I might need to know when my startup gets big. The value diminishes, but that doesn’t mean it’s zero. It just means that it will be awhile before business schools catch up to this idea that there’s a separate stack of skills and knowledge for founders than for people who execute existing companies.

Why do you think business schools are missing the mark?

The problem is the content of what we’ve been teaching. And here’s why it ended up like that from my point of view. If you ask business school professors, do you consult? I’d say you’d get an extraordinarily high percentage who do. Great. Where do you consult? They consult with people who pay them. Great. Where are those people? They’re at large companies.

The better the faculty are, the larger the company they’re consulting. They treat a 100,000-person company the same as two people in a garage. That was the mistake–not understanding we needed an entirely different language, architecture, and management stack. It was unfair to expect professors who’ve never had to take out the trash and unstop the toilet at three in the morning as part of their consulting jobs to figure this out. It wasn’t an intelligence problem. It’s not that business school professors are dumb. It’s just they haven’t been exposed to the profession.

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