Strategies for Innovation & Entrepreneurship
Strategies for Innovation and Entrepreneurship taught me far more than the title of the course implied. The strategies that help entrepreneurs shape their ideas into ventures and sustain their companies vary from those of established corporations, but many of the core ideas are the same. Startups and mature companies alike need to serve their customers, solve their problems, and keep up with market trends to be successful in any economy. Over the course of the semester, I saw the value of knowing one’s customers’ job to be done, of effectively working within and managing a team, and the value of diverse perspectives in the entrepreneurial world through our team assignments, readings, and passionate, fascinating in-class discussions.
In what was arguably the most important takeaway of the course, I learned that the focus of every innovation should solve a customer’s problem. While I knew this before the course, our work helped me see exactly how that occurs. Entrepreneurs must successfully identify an issue and ensure that it is a need for a large enough number of people before moving towards a venture. If an entrepreneur wants to be successful, they must validate this by obtaining customer feedback and making changes appropriately, working in an agile way, and making sure he or she understands his or her concept and its market. We saw in the Rent the Runway case that validating an idea by talking to potential customer demographics can reveal vital information that traditional research or first impressions might not. Rent the Runway co-founder Jenn Hyman was inspired by a problem her younger sister had with getting designer clothing for more reasonable prices and worked with co-founder Jenny Fleiss to determine if this was an issue that existed on a wider scale. They conducted market trials with college women to evaluate interest, demand, and potential for profitability. Their validation process for their concept showed me the value of understanding the space your idea exists in and the true interests of your potential consumer base before investing heavily in a fixed idea. Great ventures do not exist in a vacuum—they must be improved in the context of customers’ interests and accommodate their needs. Based on the concepts discussed this semester, innovations are best validated with respect to fulfilling customer needs through market trials, conversations with prospective customer groups, and evaluating current players in the market to make sure your innovation provides a unique improvement or offering to customers.
As seen in the Rent the Runway case and my own experience with our team assignments in this course, the people you work with have a large impact on your work and experience in entrepreneurship. Fleiss and Hyman had a successful partnership based on their academic background and different strengths. In young, lean ventures, a strong dynamic between team leaders and members is vital to the startup’s success. It is important to understand your partner or team and to keep a venture team small until expansion is necessary. Clear, constant communication and the motivation to work towards the same goal, even if in different roles, were key takeaways from their partnership. I saw this in my class teams as well. We did best when we communicated early and often and took the time to understand each other’s work styles and strengths. Leading a team effectively requires empathy, the ability to facilitate different viewpoints, a willingness to work with others towards a superordinate goal, and the ability to help the entire team move forward from failure. In similar academic team settings in the future, I aim to continue these behaviors by getting to know my teammates and starting our work early with clear communication and expectations. If I found myself in a situation like Hyman’s, I would also look for a partner with a passion for their work and an interest in my concept, as well as a unique set of skills that would complement mine and make us stronger as a team than we are as individuals.
Innovation requires a positive mindset and a belief in self-efficacy. New ventures face doubt and criticism at every turn, and their leaders need to champion their ideas until the end. The idea of ethics comes into play in creating a market, working with partners, and understanding customers—all of them require conscious awareness of the segment being served and the effects of the innovation (intentional or unintentional). In the Envirofit case, we saw the difficulties that arise when a company does not understand the culture of its customers or how their approach to doing the job to be done influences its effectiveness. The company was led by predominantly white Americans leading an initiative that worked in small Indian villages. They lacked a necessary understanding of how the culture of cooking and purchasing exists in those spaces. It is poor ethics to assume the needs of a customer segment based on stereotypes or uninformed ideas. This can harm relationships in those spaces and hinder entrepreneurial effectiveness, as seen in the challenges Envirofit faced when trying to sell its devices. A more ethical culture could be created by leaving public relations, marketing, and communications decisions to the employees on the ground, who could have worked with locals in the village. Even within India, power dynamics and culture differences existed between those who were working for companies like Envirofit and the ideal consumers in small, rural villages. In general, an ethical culture for innovation and entrepreneurship produces goods and services in efficient ways that do not adversely affect partner populations, operate with a focus on understanding and serving the needs of consumers and their communities, and maintain a broad focus that takes into account the many possible effects of an innovation or a venture in a new space. Combined with an enduring positive attitude, this ethical culture can help ventures persevere in effectively solving problems.
While I learned a great deal about entrepreneurial practices in this course, I feel that my greatest takeaways were related to my own education and interests. What we learned gave me a perspective through which to evaluate companies I learn about in years to come. As I explore businesses in future classes and learn about new ventures through the I&E Certificate, I now have the ability to evaluate their value, analyze their leadership teams, and determine how well they are fulfilling their jobs to be done. My next courses in the certificate will focus on enterprising leadership and technology ventures, two areas vital to my career aspirations. The concepts we covered in Strategies for Innovation and Entrepreneurship established my foundation in understanding what makes for a successful venture, being a compelling and effective leader, and working with others to optimize resources to achieve our shared outcomes.
Professionally, this course pushed me further into my innovation-centered mindset. I have always loved problem solving and making positive change and discovered entrepreneurship in college as a way to pursue that professionally. From devising recommendations for the companies in our case studies to working with a team to lead our simulation food truck to success, I was able to think critically about problems and use principles of entrepreneurship and innovation to address them. Our readings on identifying jobs to be done have helped me identify problems in a more organized, systematic way—something that will be useful to me in my career as I work to improve the practices and operations of the companies I work for. Given my interest in innovation culture and entrepreneurship, I am also hugely grateful for the knowledge shared regarding company valuation and finances. My education has largely focused on marketing, management, and leadership—should I one day start my own company, knowing the basics of company valuation, types of venture financing, and more will be enormously helpful for my venture.
Finally, the content of this course and the way it was delivered taught me personal lessons. Identifying customer problems means exercising empathy, asking questions, and gaining outside perspectives. I have seen firsthand how useful empathy can be when serving consumer audiences and employing it in this course has been useful in aspects of my personal life throughout the semester. The structure of this course was one of my favorite parts of the semester. I have heard many teachers tell students not to focus on grades, but this was one of the first classes I’ve taken that made sure the focus switched to one on learning. Open-note tests and team projects prepared me for real-world scenarios where I will have access to resources and need to synthesize them effectively or navigate different groups of people to achieve my goals. Receiving concrete feedback on an assignment I struggled with enforced my growth mindset and made me more resilient to failure. When I studied abroad in Madrid, I told myself I would bring my host mom’s mindset—that everything works out in the end with hard work and strong belief—back to Duke with me. This class held me accountable to that decision by helping me move past obstacles and placing my effort on working hard, not just on good outcomes. This course set the framework for the rest of my entrepreneurial education and innovation mindset, and Professor Amato’s way of teaching it helped me remember that both entrepreneurship and life require agility and resilience.
During this class, I also learned from a mentor. Read about my takeaways from my conversations with her below.