Can you talk a little bit about your personal startup experience and how that has influenced your approach to teaching entrepreneurship and writing these two books?
My first company was an enormous, essential learning experience. There is a saying that you learn much more from failure than you do from success. I came out of MIT and had a very successful career at IBM and I thought, ‘Wow, the entrepreneurship world hasn’t seen anything yet. Here I am and I’m going to take this world by storm.’ I don’t want to say I got crushed, but I got beaten down and humbled. Because I didn’t know really about entrepreneurship. I treated it like it was a big company. And I worried about things I didn’t need to worry about. My discipline was more focused on what clothes do I wear versus how do I get the product out of the door. That was a really important lesson for me that was painful but it was extremely valuable.
As I mentioned, I had four kids, a wife that was taking care of the four kids, a mortgage, and I felt like I learned a tremendous about. But it raised the question, could this have been taught in school while I was still at MIT and there was less money being spent. And to me, the answer was yes, I could have learned that stuff if I had the right program. That influenced me to create a program to teach people what I learned in my first startup.
What are some of the biggest themes or lessons from this newest book?
The big theme is you can improve your odds by following a framework. It’s understanding what worked historically at other startups, what steps should you do first before other things, and not getting caught up in faddish things. Something like design thinking is very effective at the right time and place. I found there is a lot of things floating around, but you have to know when to use what technique or tool. And which tools are legitimate and which ones are buzzwords or clichés.
What type of person benefits most from this book? What stage are they at in their lives and their entrepreneurial journey?
It’s interesting because we use our own methodology when we develop educational programs here. And we look at our different personas to build our classes, extracurricular programs, special events, and even this book. And the persona that everybody thinks about is the ready-to-go entrepreneur. You know, I want to start a company, what do I do? And the book is very, very good for them.
We found that that is the dominate persona. But these other personas that take our class also find this very useful. They are curious entrepreneurs and want to understand what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. What kind of magic is there and that these entrepreneurs have that they are able to out-maneuver these bigger companies and organizations. So, that curious entrepreneur is also part of our customer base we think about.
The third one is the corporate entrepreneur — someone who wants to understand that magic of entrepreneurs but they want to use it in a bigger organization so they can bring products to market faster.
The last one we have in our persona portfolio is what we call entrepreneurship amplifier. The person who isn’t going to start a company, but wants to create entrepreneurial ecosystems. One of my current students is taking over his family business and he wants to take it to a whole new level. He is not himself going to start a new company, but he wants to be able to work with people who are starting new companies and decide if he should buy them or incorporate their products into his family’s business. Should he bring in corporate entrepreneurs?
Those are the four personas we wrote this book for and teach in our classes. And the last thing I would say is, we’ve seen a tremendous reception from existing entrepreneurs who go back and say, I started a business, but I want to make it better. And as they evaluate their business, this framework gives them a way to think about what are all the aspects of it? And then they will realize, oh, my cost of customer acquisition is too high. How do I bring that down? Or, I don’t have a strong enough core. That’s why it’s hard for me to expand to the United States or a new market.
What are some tips you have for readers to get the most out of the book? What are some subtleties that you think could be easily overlooked?
To get the most use out of the book, I would say, you go through it once really quickly and then go back and start with the process at the beginning. Move through it systematically and don’t let yourself get bogged down at any one step. Just keep things moving along. But that once-through at the beginning gives you an assessment of the big picture. And then you start knocking things off one at a time. But you’re going to constantly be updating, so you can’t wait for just the right answer. A Ph.D. student said this to me the just the last week. They said, this was so liberating, because we’re taught in academia and in our labs to get everything just perfectly right. And, yet, what you’re telling us is to get it as right as we can, keep moving, and come back and update it later. That’s the best way to use this.
The answer to the second question about what can be overlooked is, sometimes people think this is the only book you need for entrepreneurship. And they miss the most important thing of all. And that is having a strong them. I talk about how this process helps you realize whether you have the right team or not. And how you refine that team over time is a necessary condition for successful entrepreneurship. Everyone talks about version one, version two, version three, version four of their product. But how many people miss the fact that you need version one, version two, version three, version four of your team? And that organic process and evolution is incredibly important. It’s actually more important that the product. So, you should think about that proactively in a manner that you’re not just accepting that everybody from the last version moves forward to the next team.
I’m not saying that just because I want to make it uncomfortable for people. I’m saying it because it’s in the best interest of the company, new organization, and all the people in it. Because, some people will be good at the beginning but they may not be good later on. And some people may be good all the way through, but they may not realize they need to grow. The composition and development of the team can easily be overlooked through the process as people just try to fill out the worksheets and get the right numbers. Building the team over the process of going through the steps is at least as important as getting all the answers. Because, you need a team at the end that’s strong, coherent, and has a common vision of where they’re going.