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How to teach high school students about lean startups
While the Lean LaunchPad class has been adopted by Universities and the National Science Foundation, the question we get is, “Can students in K-12 handle an experiential entrepreneurship class?” Hawken School has now given us an answer. Their seniors just completed the school’s first-ever 3-credit semester program in evidence-based entrepreneurship. Students are fully immersed in real-world learning during the 12-week Entrepreneurial Studies course.
Here’s what Doris Korda Associate Head of School and Tim Desmond, Assistant Director of Entrepreneurial Studies did, and how they did it.
Teaching students to think like entrepreneurs not accountants
We realized that past K-12 Entrepreneurial classes taught students “the lemonade stand” version of how to start a company: 1) come up with an idea, 2) execute the idea, 3) do the accounting (revenue, costs, etc.).
We wanted to teach our students how to think like entrepreneurs not accountants. Therefore we needed them to think and learn about two parts of a startup; 1) ideation - how to create new ideas and 2) customer development – how do they test the validity of their idea (is it the right product, customer, channel, pricing, etc.)
Our first insight was that if broke the class in half, and separated ideation from customer development, our students would understand 1) that an idea is not the company, 2) almost all initial ideas are wrong.
So rather than starting with their own business ideas, we decided to first give our students experience doing customer discovery on someone else’s idea. Then in the second half of our semester let our students come up with their own ideas and then run the customer discovery process on their own product.
Customer Discovery in the Real World
Our students first worked with two local startups who agreed to be their clients, on real-problems. These two startups had problems they could not solve on their own due to lack of resources—time, people, money. The startups and the teaching team crafted a challenge for the kids to tackle using the Customer Development methodology, Lean Launchpad tools and the business model canvas.
For their first startup, we chose a 3-year old funded company that was working to refine its customer segment and channel for its physical product. For the second startup, we chose a year-old web/mobile startup whose market is college bound teens, with a founder who had skipped the initial customer validation process. These two startups served as the students’ introduction to customer development methodology. Each student team conducted over 100 detailed interviews in an effort to develop results for each client.
Because these were high school kids with, for the first time, a real business relying on them, this portion of the class shook them so badly they couldn’t move from their seats–literally. All their hard-wired school habits turned to dust as the kids realized their school tools were useless: there were no solution keys, no rubrics, no answers in the back of the book. Feeling the pressure, after 3 wasted days, one student on one team finally convinced her team they needed to get out of the building, like in Steve’s video. That’s when everything changed.
Knowing they had 3 weeks before presenting to the company co-founders, the kids felt intensity like no traditional classroom could generate. The pace and uncertainty of the class picked up and never let up from that point.
The second startup, because it was in an earlier stage and more complicated than the first, had the kids going even deeper into the 9 blocks of the business model canvas. Because the students’ customer development narratives revealed the client’s user interface was problematic, students with no programming experience began redesigning the user interface using Lean UX principles, tools and strategies.
Yet students were still afraid to rethink the client’s product: “if we tell [her] how to unclutter the interface, it will cost her a ton of money and she’ll be mad at us.” One of their mentors, a professional UX designer, encouraged the kids, “You have the facts. You’ve developed archetype and narratives from a ton of real customer interviews. You need to propose disruptive solutions. What can you propose that will solve the customers’ problems and set this product apart in a meaningful way?” This was a huge learning moment. Their final presentations were substantive and evidence-based.
Starting Your Own Company
For the last three weeks of class, the 16 students came up with their own business ideas that they pitched to their peers; 4 of these ideas moved forward in the quest for viable business models. Interestingly the four founders of teams whose ideas “won” argued over which team would get the students with the most advanced technical skills. By the end of the half hour, students were suggesting that our school should offer more programming earlier in school and throughout this course.
We assigned one mentor to each of the four teams and used LaunchPad Central to hold all the details together, including hundreds of customer interviews, narratives, days in the life, archetypes, storyboards, user interfaces, live presentations and tons of often painful feedback.
Teams spent 3 weeks getting out of the classroom and iterated and pivoted, put to use the visual and lean tools along with all they learned from Steve Blank’s Udacitylectures, then pulled together enough data and crafted compelling stories for their final Shark-Tank style presentations. They presented to local sharks from four local accelerators—Bizdom, JumpStart, FlashStarts and LaunchHouse (which runs the country’s first kid launched/kid run accelerator for kids, called LightHouse).
Having practiced negotiating terms, students calculated their companies’ valuations, ranging from 50k- 300k, and wrestled with the sharks over equity. Sharks, in turn, argued with one another and even attempted to form syndication in one instance. At the close of the presentations, two teams were invited to apply for funding through local accelerators. The semester concluded with pizza and ice cream.
Pioneers are the Ones With Arrows in Their Backs
Trying to fit an Entrepreneurial Studies course into a college prep high school outside of Silicon Valley is an interesting challenge.
Being a pioneer means that there’s nothing familiar about this for parents, students and our administration. Hawken is exactly the right school to do this, but still our high school students and parents and other teachers are steeped in more traditional classes and subjects, college placement-related pressures, graduation requirements, AP courses, grades, etc.
Creating it feels a lot like building something totally new inside an existing business. But the course was spectacular for its students in ways that no other course is, so we’re getting money and institutional support for growing it. We’re learning a lot as we go…we’re figuring it out.
The Entrepreneurial Studies course serves as a vehicle for the school to realize its mission — forward-focused preparation for the real world through development of character and intellect. The 16 seniors who just completed the first Entrepreneurial Studies course told us that it was different from anything they have ever done in school – all the learning was active and all the work was collaborative and team-oriented. In evaluations they explained the biggest lessons they learned were often about themselves and how they handled failure, their character and their own strengths and weaknesses.
From one senior: “For the first time I am working because I care. Not just for a grade.”
- Students work harder, better and deeper when the stakes are real
- Working for local startups gives them a great way to quickly gain business and life experience alongside customer development experience
- Working for local startups creates real world intensity and urgency in the course
- Kids freak out, get paralyzed and waste time doing so. It’s all part of the learning process
- The learning and growth of how to work well on a team is reason enough for students to enroll in Lean Launch Pad
- We never anticipated the amount of learning that happened here
- Even at a very progressive school, we are breaking new ground and challenging all the traditions and biases of regular school
This June, Hawken School is holding an Educator’s Workshop for middle and high school educators who want to build or grow their own LLP-based programs.
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