Ready for Takeoff: Launching High-Growth Ventures at UC Berkeley

Intensive program with international cohort of graduate students yields impressive results on Kickstarter, Y Combinator, funding, and more

We’re still in the dog days of summer, but my colleagues and I at UC Berkeley are hard at work getting ready for our intensive entrepreneurship program this fall.  We call the program Learn2Launch, and that is exactly what we do. We attract the top tier of entrepreneurial grad students from outside the US, and provide these smart and driven students with the environment, instruction, resources, and hands-on training to take their business ideas and concepts and turn them into high-growth startup ventures.

This is our third offering of this program. From our first two programs student teams have already gone on to raise millions of dollars on kickstarter, receive substantial government funding,  and be accepted into Y Combinator.  See: – the next generation of Polaroid cameras, – smart footbeds to address diabetic neuropathy, and – mobile parking solutions respectively.

These are only a few of the many excellent businesses led by students from our program.

3 Core Questions

As we developed our approach and curriculum for this intensive program, we knew that we needed to address three essential  questions:

  1. What is entrepreneurship, and what is an entrepreneurial mindset?
  2. How do entrepreneurs conduct real-time experiments to attain product/market fit?
  3. Once you have a product or solution that customers tell you they want, what comes next to accelerate your venture, bring it to market, and acquire the team and resources needed to succeed?

The “Learn2Launch” Framework

We then took these questions and created a program framework that that enabled our entrepreneurs to address the core issues inherent in those questions. While not explicitly linear in nature – after all, entrepreneurship is not a linear endeavor – our curriculum and approach are comprised of four major stages:

  • Define – where the opportunity and concept, vision, values, and founding team are developed
  • Learn – where basic prototypes are created and early customer discovery activities take place
  • Launch – where the startup takes on more structure, products are defined, and initial customers/clients are created and revenues generated
  • Accelerate – where the team undertakes activities needed to scale the company from a small startup to a growth stage venture to a major enterprise

At the start of our program, participants all form teams ranging in size from 3 to 6 members, with each team focused on their own venture. That in and of itself can be an interesting, Darwinian process. Teams start with defining the basic problem or need they are addressing and for whom (their target customer). These are the core hypotheses that each venture starts with, and which they then need to test.

Every week, each team goes out and speaks with potential customers, partners, team members, competitors, and more – bringing those insights back to the team and then sharing them in a weekly program-wide session where each team shares their key findings. This is the learning stage where extensive prototyping and customer discovery takes place, and also where initial business models start to get sorted out. There are many real-time experiments that happen, and teams learn from their failures as well as their successes. The optimal outcome from this stage is a better understanding of effective product/market fit and workable business models.

Once the team has a better understanding of product/market fit, they begin to build out the resources and capabilities to effectively launch their venture. This includes developing a better understanding of the legal and structural elements necessary to form a venture and support the addition of team members and financing, go to market strategy, partnerships, and funding pitch, among others.

Finally, for those that successfully launch, we spend time focusing on how to fundamentally accelerate and scale your venture. How do you cross Geoffrey Moore’s chasm, and how do you accelerate from there once you have completed that crucial crossing?

Throughout all of these stages, one of the most consistent encounters that entrepreneurs have is with failure. Of course, it’s how you deal with failure, how you turn it from a regret to a strategic resource, that often spells the difference between long-term success and startup failure.  

Three Excellent Books

There are three books that we assign as required reading, and many others that we provide as part of our innovation and entrepreneurship library. In this post I’ll provide a brief overview of our three core books, each of which I think should be on the bookshelf of every serious entrepreneur and innovator (and not just those of the startup variety).

The Art of the Start 2.0

Guy Kawasaki, 2015

When it comes to providing a comprehensive overview of the entrepreneurial mindset and the process that an entrepreneur goes through in moving from idea to startup to real company, I highly recommend the classic startup manual by Guy Kawasaki:  The Art of the Start 2.0.  Guy did a major rewrite and updating of this excellent guide earlier this year; and just in time, as he first published this book more than 10 years ago. There have been major changes over the past decade in the way we think about, launch and grow startup ventures, and those changes and updates are well reflected in this new edition.   This is a practical, easy to read guide with topics that include launching, bootstrapping, fundraising, pitching, and even “being a mensch.”  Be sure to check out the several “bonus sections” at the back of the book, which are easy to miss. They are a bit like those outtake clips that you find at the end of some movies after the credits roll.  

Full disclosure: Guy is a longtime friend and was an investor and board member in one of my early startups (fortunately we had a nice exit!). I had the pleasure of reviewing some of the early drafts, and you’ll find some insights from me in Chapter 1 of the new edition.

The Lean Startup

Eric Ries, 2011

This book, along with the work and writings of Steve Blank (The Startup Owner’s Manual, 2012), helped codify and define the concept and process of customer discovery, transforming the way the new products are built and launched. The book is particularly useful as a resource to understand early prototyping and the development of a minimum viable product, attaining product/market fit, and developing effective business models.  This is the book that really popularized the lean startup movement, and the presentation and examples are straightforward.

The back story is interesting.  As told by my UC Berkeley colleague Steve Blank, Steve was in investor in one of Eric’s companies and insisted that Eric attend one of Steve’s entrepreneurship courses at Berkeley-Haas.  In this course, Steve required his student teams to work through an early version of the customer discovery process. That process turned out to be quite successful, both for the venture that Eric was working on (and many others) as well as providing inspiration for The Lean Startup. There are many examples from that entire process throughout the book, which is divided into three sections of Vision, Steer, and Accelerate.

The Other “F” Word: How Smart Leaders, Teams, and Entrepreneurs Put Failure to Work

John Danner and Mark Coopersmith, 2015

As any angel or VC investor will tell you, far more startups fail than succeed. And even for those that do succeed, almost all of them have many small setbacks and typically more than a few large/near-existential failures along the way. So how do successful entrepreneurs engage productively with failure? That is the premise of our book, which I co-authored with my UC Berkeley colleague John Danner. As entrepreneurs and executives ourselves, and also as long time innovation and entrepreneurship teachers at UC Berkeley, we understand the importance of dealing effectively and productively with failure. In fact, we coined a term for that ability: “failure-savvy” leadership.

This book investigates how effective entrepreneurs and leaders turn failure from a regret into a strategic resource. It looks at failure through the lens of startups, midsize businesses, and global  enterprises alike. In researching this book we interviewed hundreds of executives and leaders of all types, and looked at hundreds of organizations, which contribute to the many original examples and case studies contained in the book. One of the key outcomes of our work was the development of a seven stage Failure Value Cycle which breaks failure down into discrete stages, and also provides insights and suggestions for each of these stages. Want to be more successful? The take our advice and put failure to work!

See you next Fall?

To learn more about entrepreneurship training at UC Berkeley, check out this press release from the Haas School of Business. A recent publication by Forbes listed UC Berkeley the 3rd most Entrepreneurial Research University the United States, and that is certainly what we experience in our Learn to Launch program. Students in our classrooms not only get a guided tour through the aforementioned classics in entrepreneurship literature, but also an immersion into the San Francisco Bay Area entrepreneurial ecosystem. The guest speakers in our program include entrepreneurs, investors, and advisors, as well as visits to companies in the Bay Area. Regular hands-on workshops throughout the course of the program require students to form startup teams and undertake the major activities needed to launch a new venture. Courses like ours are part of the reason UC Berkeley can boast one of the highest rates of alumni and students who classify themselves as founders and business owners within the United States.

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