Steve Blank: The Class That Changed How Entrepreneurship Is Taught

Business school professor and lean startup evangelist Steve Blank addresses a workshop. File photo


At the start of the 21st century, after two decades and eight startups, I retired and had time to think about how VCs directed their startups using business plans. I began formulating the key ideas around what became the Lean Startup — that startups and existing companies were distinctly different. Companies execute business models, while startups search for them. Consequently, the methodologies for launching products in startups were different than for existing companies.

A decade later, I began to teach the foundations of Lean, first at UC-Berkeley (Customer Development) and then at Stanford using cases and business plans. After a few years of trial and error in front of a lot of students, I realized that the replacement for the case method was not better cases written for startups, and that the replacement for business plans was not how to write better business plans and pitch decks. (I did both!) Instead, we needed a new management stack for company creation.

I posited that teaching “how to write a business plan” might be obsolete.

With Lean LaunchPad, we were going to toss teaching the business plan aside and try to teach students a completely new, hands-on approach to starting companies — one which combines customer development, agile development, business models and pivots.


First I searched the academic literature trying to learn what methods would best convey information that entrepreneurship students could understand, retain, and put to practical use. There were five parts to consider:

  • What’s the level of ambiguity, realism and complexity of the course content?
  • How structured are the tasks within the class?
  • What were the experiential techniques used to deliver the content?
  • What were the pedagogical components of the class?
  • How will we deliver feedback to the students?

For each of these parts of the course design, we needed to consider where on the spectrum of directed versus experiential each of the five parts of the class would fall. I concluded that best way to teach entrepreneurs (versus managers) was to create an experiential and inquiry-based class that would develop the mindset, reflexes, agility, and resilience needed to search for a business model certainty in a chaotic world.


Experiential learning (also called “active learning” or “learning by doing”) is designed to have a high degree of complexity and realism. It’s not about read and remember, but rather problem exploration, design, and inventing and iterating solutions. This differs from a traditional class with directed learning, where students are taught to remember facts, understand concepts, and perhaps apply procedures — but not to discover these by themselves.

In contrast, experiential classes are designed with the theory that people learn best in an unguided or minimally guided environment, where the students, rather than being presented with all of the essential information, must discover or construct that information rapidly for themselves.

This seemed to me to be the best way to teach entrepreneurship. Experiential learning is the core of how we teach the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps/Hacking for X classes. Launched in 2011, the Lean LaunchPad capstone entrepreneurship class was unique in that it was 1) team-based, 2) experiential, 3) Lean-driven (hypothesis testing/business model/customer development/agile engineering). The class aimed to mimic the uncertainty all startups face as they search for a business model while imparting an understanding of all the components of a business model, not just how to give a pitch or a demo.

We were going to teach entrepreneurship like you teach artists — combining theory with intensive hands-on practice. The figure below illustrates the spectrum of teaching techniques and shows where our class fits on the right.


The Lean LaunchPad is built around the business model/customer development/agile development solution stack. Students start by mapping their initial assumptions (their business model). Each week they test these hypotheses with customers and partners outside the classroom (using customer development), then use iterative and incremental development (agile development) to build the Minimal Viable Products.

The goal is to get students out of the building to test each of the nine parts of their business model (or mission model for Hacking for X students), understand which of their assumptions were wrong, and figure out what they need to do to find product/market fit and then a validated business model.

Their objective is to get users, orders, customers, etc. and a web minimum feature set, all in 10 weeks. Our objective is to get them using the tools that help startups test their hypotheses and adjust when they learn that their original assumptions are wrong. We want them to experience faulty assumptions not as a crisis, but as a learning event called a pivot — an opportunity to change the model. (More than just for use in startups, these problem-solving skills are increasingly crucial in today’s increasingly complex world.)

Each week, every team presents to the teaching team — “Here’s what we thought, here’s what we did, here’s what we learned, here’s what we’re going to do next week.”

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