Steve Blank: The Class That Changed How Entrepreneurship Is Taught

Steve Blank at UC-Berkeley Haas File photo


While Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps/Hacking for X students are experiencing what appears to them to be a fully hands-on, experiential class, it’s a carefully designed illusion. In fact, it’s highly structured. The syllabus has been designed so that we are offering continual implicit guidance, structure, and repetition. This is a critical distinction between our class and an open-ended experiential class.

For example, students start the class with their own initial guidance: They believe they have an idea for a product or service (Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps) or have been given a clear real-world problem (Hacking for X). Coming into the class, students believe their goal is to validate their commercialization or deployment hypotheses. (The teaching team knows that over the course of the class, students will discover that most of their initial hypotheses are incorrect.)

Next, the business/mission model canvas offers students guidance, explicit direction, and structure. First, the canvas offers a complete, visual roadmap of all the hypotheses they will need to test over the entire class. Second, the canvas helps the students goal-seek, by visualizing what an optimal endpoint would look like in terms of product/market fit and mission success. Finally, the canvas provides students with a map of what they learn week-to-week through their customer discovery work.

(I can’t overemphasize the important role of the canvas. Unlike an incubator or accelerator with no frame, the canvas acts as the connective tissue — the frame — that students can fall back on when they get lost or confused. It allows us to teach the theory of how to turn an idea, need, or problem into commercial practice, week by week, a piece at a time.)

Third, the tools for customer discovery — videos, sample experiments, etc. — offer guidance and structure for students to work outside the classroom. The explicit goal of 10 to 15 customer interviews a week, along with the requirement for building a continual series of minimal viable products, provides metrics that track the team’s progress. Mandatory office hours with the instructors and support from mentors provide additional guidance and structure.


One of the challenges we wanted to avoid was overloading students’ short-term memory. If you give students minimal feedback and provide no structure or guidance, most of what they experience gets forgotten. To counter that, we built in three techniques to reduce the cognitive load: regular summing up, repetition, and reflection. These allow students to transfer their weekly experiences into long-term memory and knowledge.

By design, each week we make students stop, reflect, and summarize their learning: Here’s what we thought, here’s what we did, here’s what we found, and here’s what we’re going to do next week. The teams present these reflections along with required specific deliverables for each week. These weekly presentations also provide reinforcement — students need to remember their learning from each of the prior components in the business/mission model canvas to provide a context for the current week.

In addition to the week-to-week summaries, we give students a reflection week at the end of the class to synthesize, process, and integrate those week-to-week learnings. And we teach them how to turn that learning into a compelling story of their learning journey.


Ambiguity in a class means the subject can have multiple right answers. It can even mean there is no right answer. Searching for answers to the business and mission problems, i.e., product/market fit, involves maximum ambiguity — there isn’t always a correct answer, nor will the same path get you to the same answer in different circumstances.

Realism in a class means asking: How well does the class content match an actual problem in practice? Learning accounting in a classroom is likely similar to doing accounting in an office. However, reading case studies about startup problems in a classroom has little connection to the real world, and therefore has low realism.
Complexity refers to the number of things that can change that may affect the outcome of a decision. As the number of things that change goes up, so does the complexity of the learning process.

New ventures are ambiguous, real, and complex. Teaching “how to write a business plan” as a method to build a startup assumes low ambiguity, low realism, and low complexity, when the opposite is true. So we structured the class to model a startup: extremely ambiguous with multiple possible answers (or at times none); realism in the pressures, chaos, and uncertainty of a startup; and complexity in trying to understand all parts of a business model.

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