I’m a recent convert to the lean startup movement. But after four years of operating a small startup incubator at a private liberal arts college I've learned a lot about creating business models that work and who might become a successful entrepreneur. It’s not about having access to capital or area of study. Rather, it’s about having the right skills, the right process and the right heart.
1. The right skills.
Marketing innovation. As Michael Ellsberg wrote in The Education of Millionaires, the prerequisite to selling is listening. It's important to understand people and their needs, build networks and relationships and create unique solutions to pitch effectively.
Managing risk. Entrepreneurs aren’t risk takers as much as they're risk minimizers. One way to minimize risk is to bootstrap: Provide the resources for a startup with customer revenues. Another way is to follow the advice of Eric Ries, pioneer of the lean startup movement, proponent of the “build-measure-learn” mantra.
Test all business model assumptions, ranging from the notion of the customer problem to the hypothosized revenue stream. Startup expert Ash Maurya wrote in Running Lean that the job of entrepreneurs is to find a business model that works before running out of money.
Leading oneself and others. Entrepreneurs keep going when others stop trying. They overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They build tribes. They transcend the status quo, form new relationships and patterns of behavior and bring change where it's sometimes unwanted.
Having experienced the process, entrepreneurs quickly adapt and confidently try new things. And things don’t always go as planned. Entrepreneurs, like leaders in the “fundamental state,” a term coined by Robert Quinn in Building the Bridge As You Walk Across It, have the “adaptive confidence,” “detached interdependence” and “grounded vision” to figure things out.
2. The right process.
Entrepreneurship is a discipline. Peter Drucker, sometimes called the "inventor of management," argued that entrepreneurship is a management discipline. It’s a process that can be learned and applied.
Discipline implies a process. Entrepreneur and educator, Steve Blank, outlined the customer development process in The Four Steps to the Epiphany, which was validated and further refined by Maurya and Ries for their own startups (Spark59 and IMVU, respectively). The process begins with customer discovery or understanding problems from consumers' perspective and testing whether the entrepreneur’s solution fits.
Then there's customer validation or determining how, when and where customers (the market) and the entrepreneur’s solution (the product) meet and value can be exchanged. And customer creation entails discovering how to entice the next wave of customers to move en masse toward the sales channel. Then and only then should resources be spent to build a company to support the business model.
That last step is called company creation. Before I became a lean startup convert, I used to ask students to do the company creation step first. They wrote long business plans outlining the structure of their company before any of them knew or had tested if they had a business model that worked. How wrong I was. And how much student time and resources I wasted!
3. The right heart.
Love of the game. It takes much trial and error to find a business model that works. If a businessperson doesn’t love the process, he’ll lose energy not only before running out of money but also before it's even the right time to ask for money.
Commitment. So what determines if entrepreneurs keep going? Love, like skill, involves both nature and nurture. It entails affection, passion and discipline. It requires both the heart and head. As is the case in a marriage, a commitment to putting others first is needed for getting through the tough times. The entrepreneur should find ways to complement others' skills and invite them to complement hers. Entrepreneurship is one of the ultimate team sports.
Skills, process and heart can be learned. They also flow from some natural endowments.
The most difficult challenge in operating an incubator at the college level is giving students enough time to discover and develop the skills, process and heart to become successful entrepreneurs. And if they do, the next challenge is giving them the opportunity to prove that they deserve additional support to find a business model that works.