This course is organized around component elements of developing skills needed to launch a venture. Starting at the point of need identification, the course covers lean methodology; innovation and entrepreneurship strategy; creating needed financing and resource structures; effectively marketing/communicating innovation and its associated benefits; leading, managing, and working effectively within teams; creating a positive and ethical work culture; and evaluating success.
Before I had ever stepped foot into our I&E Keystone class, I thought I had a perfect grasp on what innovation and entrepreneurship really was. My preconceived notions were centered around the famous “innovators” of our time – geniuses like Mark Zuckerberg who had a great revolutionary idea and transformed it into a successful enterprise. I never gave much thought to things like late-mover advantages, exemplified in this example by the fact that there were many social media platforms, now obsolete, that existed before Facebook’s success. This class has redefined what innovation and entrepreneurship means to me and has allowed me to reframe my definition of success.
From the first day in class, we talked about the problem-solving process fundamental to innovation. This revealed a fallacy: entrepreneurship is all about what you can innovate. In class, we learned that it is not about the solution, but about the problem, and more importantly the people being faced with the problem. The goal should not be innovation, but rather to solve a specific and defined problem for a specific and defined group of people. This leads to another important point we learned: what the customer considers value is decisive. Creating, and retaining, a customer is the rudimentary definition of business purpose. This again highlights that it is not about what you – the entrepreneur – can invent, but what you can do for the customer. Another misconception is that meeting customer needs is all about having a product or service with superior features and performance. In reality, the key customer benefits may be completely unrelated to features and performance. In class, we discussed the “FAB” model, where you move progressively from features to advantages to benefits. It is at this benefit level where you can really assess if you are meeting the customer’s needs. For example, in class discussed a drill in the “FAB” context. Its features include its color, portability, speed, battery life, and so on. Its advantages include the fact that it is easy to use, that it can create identical holes with minimal effort, etc. However, the benefit is that you can hang pictures, and more importantly how you feel when you look at those pictures of your loved ones. The reason command strips have been such a successful innovation and replacement for drills is that they get to the same benefit level – they provide the same emotional experience of looking at the pictures hung up.
One example from class that best illustrates how to validate that an innovation meets a valid customer need is the Rent the Runway case. Rent the Runway captures how the features and advantages of the service are very different from the benefit level. The advantage of Rent the Runway is that it allows women to rent designer dresses for special occasions that they would otherwise not be able to afford. However, the benefit level is that the customer gets to feel confident, beautiful, and have a “Cinderella experience” for a night. To validate that their innovation meets a valid customer need, the founders tested at many different steps. They ran trunk shows at university campuses and had a waitlist to judge customer demand. The company also had a customer insights team consisting of stylists, who provided important feedback and were crucial to the founders’ ability to experiment with features. The founder’s willingness to prototype, test, and pivot is what allowed for them to successfully validate that they were meeting customer’s needs. This process of testing minimum viable products is a key best practice. Another best practice is paying attention to customer feedback. Through their stylists, Rent the Runway was able to understand what features customers wanted, and from the data were able to create positive experiences and brand loyalty.
My understanding of what makes an effective team was shaped from our class discussion about Google’s Project Aristotle. This project is based off of the Aristotle quote, “A whole is greater than the sum of its parts” and explores the question of what makes a team effective. Initial intuition might suggest that combining the best people is what makes the best teams, but an analysis of the data found that there is no correlation between team membership and success. What actually determines the success of a team is how the team interacts. Through class discussions, we learned that psychological safety – when team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other – is the single greater correlate with a team’s success. In my own groups throughout the semester, we tried to foster this psychological safety. I made an effort to take risks, ask questions, and offer ideas, even if this meant making mistakes and being vulnerable in front of my teammates. One misconception is that psychological safety and accountability lie on a spectrum. In reality, there is not a tradeoff between these two, but rather you want to be in the learning zone with both high accountability for meeting goals as well as high psychological safety. In my groups, we were able to reach this zone by each asking a lot of questions and utilizing our curiosity to drive the work. We also tried to frame our projects as learning problems, rather than just executing problems. In doing this, we were better able to distribute the work, so we all worked horizontally, rather than just dividing up the work by each person’s “specialty”. From the course readings, I learned the importance of a heterogenous team. When you chose individuals with different backgrounds and skillsets for your team, there is a wider range of capabilities and expertise, as well as more diverse networks. This enables your team to draw on a broader array of internal perspectives and contacts to help grow the venture. One example of successful teamwork is the team for Rent the Runway. The founders, Jenn Hyman and Jenny Fleiss, complement each other’s skills. While Hyman’s strengths lie in strategic and marketing visions, executing on the details is not one of her strengths. On the other hand, Fleiss is very task-oriented and risk averse, so she will think practically about the proposed ideas. Beyond their heterogenous team make-up, the Rent the Runway team was also successful because of their ability to adapt to new roles as the venture’s needs shifted. This fluid approach to allocating responsibilities allowed them to keep up with the fast-paced dynamic and uncertain environment of the startup. They hired like-minded people who were were proactive about working wherever they were needed. This example illustrates how attitude and passion are often more important in determining a team’s success than just experience and skills. In my future teams, I want to bring this jack-of-all-trades attitude and commitment to getting things done.
A positive and ethical culture is crucial for the innovation and entrepreneurship process and built upon the same foundation that makes an effective team – psychological safety. Psychological safety allows people to ask questions and more importantly, to make mistakes. Only by making mistakes are people able to learn, pivot, and iterate. More specifically, it allows people to learn by doing. In our increasingly technological and global world, we cannot know what future endeavors we might pursue, simply because they may not have been invented yet. Therefore, the best way to prepare is to build an adaptable skillset, rather than just accumulating knowledge. The only way to truly grow is to get out of your comfort zone and accept that making mistakes is inevitable in this growth zone. Our class fostered this culture, ensuring that it was a safe space to make mistakes and learn from them. This is best illustrated by our class simulation, in which we split up into groups and attempted to make the most profit by virtually running a frozen-treats business. During this simulation, our team profits were posted on the board and ranked. By fostering a positive and ethical culture in our classroom throughout the semester, this simulation resulted in an engaging and energizing class, where no one was afraid of ranking low and being embarrassed by low profits. In this simulation, we were able to learn that in the unstable environments in which new ventures exist, the key to success is to prototype, test, and repeat.
I am certain that this course will have a lasting impact on my life. First and foremost, it taught me not to be afraid to fail, and when mistakes do happen, to be resilient. This has already impacted my future educational endeavors. This spring, I was contemplating whether or not to write an Honors Thesis for my Economics major. I knew that writing a thesis is a huge commitment and that I would be challenged to utilize all of the economics modeling I have learned over the past three years at Duke. However, I also knew that it would be a great learning experience, challenge me to grow, and ultimately be incredibly rewarding. The philosophy instilled in me from this class encouraged me to leave my comfort zone and commit to writing the thesis. This same philosophy will also guide me throughout my career and personal life, as I know failure is constructive and that mistakes are not indicative of one’s potential to change the world.