This Course covers component elements of developing skills needed to launch a venture. Starting at the point of need identification, 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.
When I started this course, my view of a “problem” solvable through entrepreneurship was very different than it is now. Before, I viewed it from a purely technical perspective. I thought if you could create something that makes people’s lives even slightly easier, or slightly improve on the existing status quo, the business side of the equation would solve itself. However, through the case studies, lectures, and discussions we have had in I&E 352, I’ve come to realize business plan viability is an integral part of not only the long term success of the product, but also ingrained in the very problem itself.
Iteration is a concept familiar to me, as it is hammered home in engineering design classes. However, the idea of iteration in business was still a new idea to me, and I was surprised to learn how entrepreneurs can iterate on every step of their business plan, and every facet of their operation. One example that highlighted the effectiveness of testing ideas was the case study on Rent the Runway. Rather than forging ahead with a preconceived business model, they ran focus groups and were able to pivot rapidly in response to customer feedback and events that impacted their business. For many, it is tempting to get pulled into the sunk cost fallacy and become too invested emotionally in an aspect of the product or business plan to make rational decisions on the direction the venture should take. Out of the many case studies we interacted with, the ventures who excelled seemed to all have a heavy emphasis on getting feedback through focus groups, customer complaints, and product testing.
As ventures are always a result of collaboration between multiple people, it’s essential to maximize the efficacy of the team, and in the readings and discussions we saw many guidelines on every aspect of teamwork and leadership in business. It was interesting connecting these with my personal experiences in working with various teams in both my professional and personal life. To me, the themes of embodied by Google’s research into attributes into successful teams ring true. In both pseudo-leadership and assigned positions, the “five keys” we mentioned in class affect the personal and professional relationships have affected personal and professional relationships within the group and directly contributed to success.
As leaders of ventures, entrepreneurs have a very prominent role in putting together a competent, driven team, that shares the vision they do. One important trait I observed in the founders of successful ventures in our class was the ability to step back and realize they were not well suited for a task. As we saw, the startup world was one where an entrepreneur could often end up (and should be willing) to be flexible with their role, jumping from courting investors one day to boxing up orders the next. At the same time, hiring a marketing expert or web developer instead of trying to hack it themselves was an important decision that could make or break some of the companies.
This was a theme that I saw with many topics in class: unlike some other subjects, there often is no “right” or formulaic answer to problems and tasks in the entrepreneurship world. Everything comes with tradeoffs, and often entrepreneurs were held “under the gun” by market factors such as short runways, high burn-rates, and shifting demands.
In business it is often heard “cash is king”, to what extent are the means justified? Ethics in entrepreneurship is a nuanced issue, and one we confronted a lot in this class. From studying social entrepreneurship initiatives, such as Envirofit, to evaluating and suggesting workforce cuts in our case recommendations, this class brought us to think critically about our personal values and their role in business management. My mentor, who I met through this class, also shared extensive real-world insights on the decisions he’s had to make as an entrepreneur and how ethics has played a role in every step of the way.
In the class, we saw a classic example of profit being chosen over ethics: drug companies abandoned research and development of drugs that still showed potential because of reduced projections of future cash flows from the product. It’s easy to point to that and say the pharmaceutical company should’ve chosen to continue development to ensure people can receive treatment and better living conditions. However, the case also made sure the present the statistics and money involved in just attempting to bring a drug to market. Certainly, even if the biggest pharmaceutical corporations attempted to follow through every drug to the end of its development cycle, they would go under. Inherent in the field of business, leaders must choose to draw the line of ethics somewhere to maintain some level of fiscal viability, and the cases and discussions in this class drew me to think about the nuanced issues regarding implementing ethics in business.
Just as many decisions are left up to the agency of the entrepreneur, so is the decision to include personal values in business decisions, and the extent to which it comes into play. It is no coincidence that silicon valley, a place filled with tech startups, also has a reputation for disregarding ethics. Ethics in business can also mean different things to different people. It is a pretty logical conclusion to say an entrepreneur might have an ethical calling to uphold their fiduciary responsibility to shareholders above all, while others might argue for the value of a triple bottom line, which I personally believe in.
Being personally very passionate about environmental issues, especially with regards to emissions and climate change, I could never see myself disregarding that in favor of the bottom line. My first job, at In-N-Out, also instilled in me the value of caring for employees, as their wellbeing and happiness contribute to their drive and productivity for the company. In addition, being an associate also taught me the importance of ensuring customer service was a value-add and a point of differentiation for the company, a lesson I will be sure to bring into my future endeavors.
This course solidified my interest in the entrepreneurship and startup field and taught me the value of having an educated and credible background. To gain a better understanding of the financial side of business and economy, I plan to enroll in markets and management and finance courses at Duke. After hopefully commissioning and serving in a management/leadership role in the Air Force after Duke, I would like to pursue an MBA down the line to dive deeper into the topics touched upon in this course. Many concepts from this course, including lessons on teamwork, finances, and critical analysis transfer over to my daily life, and I’ve already started incorporating the skills learned.