Course Description:

The Keystone Course is a case-study class that analyzes different start-ups to learn entrepreneurial lessons. By dissecting the qualitative and quantitative elements of each startup and predicting future outcomes, students learn some of what goes into creating a successful company, as well as everything that can go wrong. Additionally, there is a big emphasis on group work because businesses are only as good as their teams.


Course Reflection: 

There is one idea that I would add to Scott Berkun’s words; solving a problem is only worthwhile if people appreciate the solution. Before stressing the importance of understanding this concept, I think it’s beneficial to look at step zero, which is identifying a problem to solve. Not all solutions are straightforward, and neither are all problems. I remember reading “Jobs to Be Done” and thinking to myself that the problem a business is trying to solve is not necessarily the problem that needs to be solved. Customers are not just customers, but humans with genuine, complex emotions, thoughts and feelings. Understanding a customer goes beyond understanding how they might incorporate a product into their life and includes how a product mentally satisfies them. The example from “Jobs to Be Done” in which home constructors realized that people wanted a place to hold onto memories and family ideals rather than just a building with many features demonstrated this idea perfectly. Problems can be multi-faceted and stem from intangible desires.

After correctly identifying a problem, the solution must be validated. As I’ve learned, there is a difference between an idea and an opportunity. Many times, entrepreneurs become more attached to a solution rather than the problem they’re trying to solve. Even great solutions can be flawed. The most accurate example of such a phenomenon is the invention of an incubator made entirely out of car parts, granting hospital administrators of third-world countries the ability to improve and maintain infants’ health. Unfortunately, despite the genius of this invention, the innovation did not succeed because the product could not practically be implemented in hospitals. The main take-away is two-fold.

  1. Talk to all customer bases before, during and after product creation to validate the product and its feasibility.
  2. Divergent and convergent thinking should be used in tandem to come up with many viable solutions, protecting against the possibility that entrepreneurs falsely believe there is only one way to approach and solve a problem.

Finding a suitable problem and solution is not enough. Generally, one must also form a team in order to see the innovation to fruition. I’ve learned that there is not a right or wrong way to lead and manage a team. However, there are several mistakes that are toxic to a team environment. There are three that stand out to me. The first is making decisions prematurely, such as the splitting of equity. The second is failing to hire the right person for the job. And the third is faulty communication. Focusing on the second mistake, it’s important to recognize that the environment can determine the fit of the employee. A CEO who perfectly manages 600 people may come up short when it comes to managing 30 people. Another example is presented in the Florida Air case, in which a worker named Henry showed great aptitude for delegating tasks, but poor boot-strapping skills. With more resources, Henry might have thrived in his work, despite the fact he would be essentially be doing the same job. In contrast, the founders of Rent-the-Runway worked fluidly, each person willing to do whatever job was presented. This structure would not work for some businesses with different barriers to entry.

A final example of how the same job in a different environment can go awry can be found by examining my transition to another team during I&E 352. I was accustomed to a certain way of doing work and was not prepared for a radically different style of collaboration. Despite multiple meetings and conversations with my new group members, I could not seem to fit into their style of working, lessening the value of my contribution. Though this problem could have been resolved through effective communication, the third mistake came into play. My team members met the professor who oversaw our work without informing me there was an issue. While they accurately portrayed the situation, the knowledge that plans were made without my involvement heightened my distrust of my team members. So, although my team members and I settled upon an agreed working style, I did not feel as if I was a part of the team, nor did I necessarily want to be a part of the team. The experience illuminated why communication is so important- trust. Struggles can either bring a team closer together or father apart, and the best way to ensure that the latter does not occur is to communicate. This is a lesson I will bring with me whenever I must work with others to accomplish a goal.

Although we covered ethical business culture, I could never quite figure out a definition that explained everything. If I’m being honest, I do not know what comprises an ethical business culture, and I believe many people are also trying to determine the answer to this. I recall major controversy when discussing Envirofit, a triple bottom line company that manufactured stoves. Many students believed that it was unethical to charge any price for such a needed device. Others argued that the business needed to be profitable to have the biggest impact. Another controversy arose when we discussed the Medical Company that produced Angiomax, a drug that could have been priced in a variety of ways. If it was priced too low, the researchers who had dedicated years to developing the drug would lose money or barely break-even. If priced too high, there was a question of whether people might be denied access to the beneficial drug. I believed that both companies displayed exceedingly ethical business models. However, there was no right or wrong answer. The services provided by each entrepreneurial firm benefitted the world, but the question resides in how much duty the entrepreneurs bear to provide their services at low prices. I do not have an answer, but I believe that when price prevents a would-be-consumer from a crucial, potentially-life-saving service, a business must evaluate their priorities and make a decision (one that takes less affluent individuals into account). Due to my refusal to take a stance upon what is right, the only definition I can provide for an ethical business model is a business that cares about its consumers. While I cannot say I learned a concrete manner in which to think about ethical business practice, I can say that I will be cognizant of this debate when starting my own businesses.

When I think about I&E 352, I feel very accomplished. The type of accomplishment I feel is not the kind that comes from knowing a bunch of facts or figures, but rather the kind that comes from feeling you are capable. To me, this feeling is empowerment and allows me to believe that even if I don’t know some important aspect of a business, with enough dedication, I can figure it out. When I first joined this class, my only hope was to be unafraid to fail. However, I now realized that my goal was ambitious and maybe even flawed. I’m still afraid to fail, but I’m more willing to try new things. My fear of the unknown is not as suffocating, and though still present, it does not control me. I’ve always prided myself on taking risks and my ability to walk away from bad situations. However, to me, a business is like a child and failing my child would be like failing myself. Yet, at the end of the day, life goes on. An important aspect of the class in my opinion is when we reviewed several businesses that failed, such as Lit Motors and a New Power in Transport. Knowing why the ventures failed was important. But just important is knowing that just because a business spirals, doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile. While I want to avoid the pitfalls that both these businesses faced, I know that a business failing is not the end of the world. And though I knew this before I joined the class, I believe it a little more now.

I truly think my conversation with my mentor Sonny also helped me tweak my mindset about innovation and entrepreneur lifestyle. I do not want my life to be dictated by a company, even one that I created. I learned several valuable truths about myself. I do not want to be in charge of a big company nor would I want to pursue a high-risk venture long-term. Though I am okay with fundraising money, I would prefer to bootstrap. I don’t want to tie myself down to only one venture. I’d rather be a John Osher type of business woman and experience variety by not being permanently chained to a business. The most valuable lesson the I&E class reinforced applies to both my education, career and personal life. When I make decisions, even when regarding business or education, I need to make the decisions for me and those who are affected by my decisions only. My education and any business I create shape my future and should be optimized for my happiness. I do not have to be an archetypal entrepreneur, but rather my type of entrepreneur. I finally figured out how to measure my capacity to change the world- by measuring my capacity to ignite change when something isn’t working.


Mentor Conversation One: 

Completed with a partner, my conversation with Sonny Byrd provided me with valuable insight directly from a successful entrepreneur that shares our passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. The dialogue started with the discovery that we all come from a family of entrepreneurs, and that our personalities have benefitted from having an “innovator” trait distilled in us since a young age. Sonny, later talked about how he leveraged his acquired innovator quality to enter the world of entrepreneurship and create a profitable business model.

During his time at Duke, Sonny helped to start “Small Town Records”, a music label for Duke Students who want to pursue music. After graduation, he started travelling and playing with his band, until they split. During a coffee chat with a fellow Duke alumni, Sonny was asked to be the marketing director at a newborn startup. He soon realized that the only experience he needed for the position was his role in the band. He approached his new job in the same way he was doing outreach and PR for his music, and he succeeded. Sonny discovered that he didn’t need to an extensive education in business to be an entrepreneur. Through constant movement in the job market he to picked up valuable experience in many different sectors. He jumped from project to project, until he felt ready to start his own venture.

When asked about problem definition and customer delineation, Sonny gave a non-traditional response. He started his own startup without and idea or a clear problem to solve. He built a team of people that wanted to work in ecommerce, then he started to to talk to potential customers to understand what problem he could solve for them. This helped the venture to adapt to what consumers needed from them. After having targeted the focus of the venture, they specialized their business, Betabox. Betabox enabled brands to distribute product samples to targeted consumers through e-commerce. Sonny emphasized how not starting with an idea, helped his team listen to customers. As Sonny said, when a venture makes sure that is doing something that consumers need, it is hard to go wrong. However, he did struggle with his venture at the beginning. Another firm was already doing what Sonny’s company was doing, except better. Being bigger and already having a sizeable customer base, the company was Betabox’s biggest threat, but Sonny described how taking an unconventional approach helped him. Instead of working against the competitor, he decided to treat them as a potential partner which eventually lead to the acquisition of Betabox by advertising celebrity Gary Vaynerchuk.

Sonny Byrd imparted more knowledge than can fit in this page, however, what stuck with us most was the advice to remove the word failure from our vocabularies and replace it with the word experience. Sonny dove deeper into this piece of advice, explaining how all of his supposed “failures” taught him important lessons that led to his greatest successes. He also gifted us with the concept of leverage. He doesn’t believe in hard work so much as leveraging one’s abilities to make hard work seem easy. For example, Sonny is a great marketer so he leads tasks focused in marketing. He delegates the tasks in which he is particularly unskilled to others who can leverage their talents in the task more efficiently. In other words, Sonny is a strong advocate for implementing comparative advantage ideology in day-to-day work. his We are both excited to learn even more from Sonny in the future.


Mentor Conversation Two: 

The talk I had with Sonny was fantastic. While our conversation did hover around entrepreneurship and career, a great deal of what we talked about was focused upon lifestyle. Sonny refuted the notion that as an entrepreneur, one needs to constantly work to achieve his or her aspirations. He outlined the flaws to such a plan and really honed in on the idea that true success isn’t only what looks good on paper. Sonny also lives what he believes by blocking out his morning from 6am to 11am as time for himself. I personally appreciate the stress put upon the importance of enjoying life and not being consumed by work.

The conversation then furthered to cover how people can optimize their work, and most importantly their life. Together we contemplated the intricacies of habit formation and the paradox of choice. Despite the fact that nearly all humans have something (most likely many things) they want to change about themselves, most people cannot make lasting change in their lives. Whether people want to quit smoking, eat better, start exercising or just finish a new year’s resolution, actually following through with such a desire is easier said than done. Sonny and I both agreed, such changes required massive effort on the part of the individual who wanted to change. Changing involves more than just making the desired choice the easy choice (ex: stocking a fridge with healthy items to encourage better eating habits), it requires deep reflection and commitment. The world does not change to accommodate the life-changes that one wants to make, which is why commitment cannot be underestimated.

Sonny offered me a new way to think of changes. Rather than consider the inability to make a change as a lack of willpower, he suggested viewing it as an inappropriate distribution of commitment. We can only be committed to so many endeavors and sometimes not pursuing a desire isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes, neglecting to chase a dream is to support a different commitment (ex: refusing to work abroad to be with family). While it may be disappointing to view change in this manner because it means one truly is limited in what they accomplish, it is also invigorating in that one does not necessarily need to feel bad about not accomplishing another task (as they were merely committed to other tasks). Eventually, what was once difficult becomes easy (ex: exercising), requiring less commitment (at which point, one can commit to something else).

Sonny imparted that the smartest people he knew were not necessarily book smart and didn’t always have a plethora of knowledge upon which to draw. However, they knew how to work with what they had. He told stories of business men who are completely self-taught and friends who navigate through the world without stress or worry because they’ve figured out how to optimize their life for themselves. Proactive individuals are individuals who can change parts of themselves in order to enhance their life. In other words, most people don’t need to be more intelligent or beautiful or connected to achieve their dreams. Rather, they just need to be proactive and patient enough to change.

The last thing Sonny and I talked about were experiences. He came back to a lesson he brought up in the first conversation I had with him. Success is not worth becoming an angry and vindictive person. There is no reason to treat others poorly. While he acknowledged it was important to learn this lesson, he concluded that “the mean CEO” part of his life was not a part of his life he’d wish to repeat. Experiences shape us and it’s important that people learn from their experiences. If there was one thing I learned from the conversation, it is that success and innovation can be as simple as changing aspects of yourself or a business that are hard to change. People can think, dream or imagine. However, at the end of the day, following through with such thoughts, dreams and new concepts is what actually matters.