Learning Business By (Trying To) Launch A Startup
In my last semester of business school, I decided to register for the pilot of an intensive leadership development course called, “Ross Leaders Academy.” This course integrated executive coaching, reflective learning, and a practicum in launching a business using the lean startup method. To learn the lean startup method, our team of 4 met every two weeks with a demanding pair of experienced coaches, who we were to treat as our company’s “Board of Directors.” Most of the time, it felt like we were swimming with sharks.
SKILLS AND AND INSIGHTS GAINED
Communicating Precisely – In the RLA pilot class, we had to give presentations every two weeks to our lean startup “board of directors.” For the first presentation, I represented my team as our “CEO.” Not knowing what to expect, I stepped up to the front of the room to share the progress we had made. After no more than 90 seconds, our coaches interrupted me and asked me piercing questions. I did my best, but our coaches rightly pointed out that I couldn’t answer specific questions simply or without using meaningless jargon. I was certainly rattled by the experience of presenting to them, the business equivalent of a firing squad, but in the end I now have a better understanding about what “communicating precisely” really means.
“I don’t know anything” – Our first exercise as a team was to interview 20 customers in two weeks and use the data we gathered to refine a business model canvas. In the first two weeks, I thought I had done good interviews and the day before our presentation we met as a team to develop our week’s presentation. When trying to articulate a value proposition, I had a stark realization that I thought I understood our customers’ most plaguing problems, but I really didn’t. In business school, however, you’re treated like you know everything so eventually you start believing it, at least a little. Talking to real people about real problems helped to remind me how much I can learn from others and that I shouldn’t become infatuated with my own cleverness, whether it’s substantiated or merely perceived.
Building Rapport Rapidly – When starting to interview potential customers, I knew that it would be difficult to get interviewees to trust me enough to tell me anything valuable in a 30 minute session. As a result, I experimented to build rapport quickly. As it turns out, it’s not so difficult. All I did was be honest, as simple questions, listen (and laugh) sincerely, and have accommodating body language, just like we learned in our first integrative learning session. If you are a friendly, respectful curious listener, people open right up.
IMPACT AND LESSONS LEARNED
To be honest, this experience of trying to launch a lean startup was very frustrating to me – in no small part because of our coaches’ high standards and brash demeanor. But I’m all the better for it because I now have a better idea of what excellence looks like. I now have a better idea of what it takes to persuade a hostile audience. I now respect the challenge and responsibility of truly solving someone else’s problem. And even though we “failed” to launch a company, I now feel more confident in my ability to do something as difficult as creating a new business.
It certainly wasn’t pleasant to swim with sharks, so to speak, but I’m now much better for it.