At last week�s AlwaysOn Innovation

by francine Hardaway on August 2, 2006

At last week�s AlwaysOn Innovation Summit, I learned some things I didn�t expect to learn. For the past five years, I�ve thought I was �teaching� entrepreneurship.

Actually, now I know I�ve been teaching and counseling people who are already on the path. The people who seek Stealthmode Partners out for guidance are already beyond the first steps to becoming entrepreneurs. They just need to know how to make their ideas into businesses.

Tina Seelig, who teaches entrepreneurship in the Engineering College at Stanford, actually �teaches� entrepreneurship. According to her, an entrepreneur sees problems as opportunities, leverages the resources around him/her, and tries to create value. The entrepreneurs I meet have already spotted the problems that will create their opportunities, and are at the point of trying to leverage resources, including ours, to create value.

Unlike us, Tina starts with step one, which is not t easy to teach in a classroom setting, because entrepreneurship is a contact sport, and an extreme sport at that. So Stanford begins by throwing problems at students that have no right answers.

Here�s how she does it: At the beginning of the semester, she gives every team an envelope with seed funding of $5.00. The team has two hours to try to make as much money as possible, and give a three-minute pitch about what they have done. While the average return on the $5.00 was $200.00, the winning team brought in over $600.00. How did they do it?

The best of the students challenged the assumptions of the exercise, leveraged whatever resources were available to them, and got creative.

The big winner sold its 3-minute pitch time to a company that wanted to market to the students in the class for $600.00. Some of the other good ideas included reserving tables at some of the most crowded restaurants in Palo Alto and scalping the reservations for $20 a piece, and standing at a crowded corner and charging $1.00 to pump up student bicycle tires. This team sold the service for a while, and then changed its business model to ask for donations rather than charge a fixed sum. They found that people gave them more in donations than the dollar they were charging, proving the value of the service to the customers.

Seelig�s objective in this �lesson� is to teach her students that problems are everywhere and therefore opportunities were everywhere. All they had to do was look around and find the opportunities that were already there.

Another major outcome from this exercise is to show the students that entrepreneurship requires a team, and that sometimes the right team can find an opportunity where another team wouldn�t.

For this, she made the audience do a communal exercise, in which we were trained how to look at anything we had, and brainstorm for ten minutes what we liked and didn�t like about it. She chose the wallet as the object we had to look at, and its two main uses, purchasing and storage, as issues to evaluate.

Taking responses from the audience, two students mind-mapped all the issues and suggestions. After the mind mapping, which is a version of organized brainstorming, they rapidly prototyped two new and improved wallets, which included such items as GPS and security.

More takeaways: talk to customers first and find out their needs, organize those needs into sweet spots, and then rapidly prototype. Try lots of things and keep what works.

And here is the final lesson: don�t be afraid to fail, as long as you learn from your failure. Guest what else she makes the students do? All her students have to do �failure resumes,� in which they must list the things they have failed at and what they have learned.

You can be sure that going forward, I�ll be learning from my own failures and incorporating these lessons into my future activities. And I sure won�t look at my wallet in the same way ever again.

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