The I&E Capstone course, “Discovering Opportunities,” equips students with the tools for identifying and objectively evaluating opportunity spaces that can be addressed with a venture. Entrepreneurship is commonly viewed as fast-paced, and while it is tempting to jump right into building solutions, it is crucial to first take time to understand the problem. In this class, we started by learning the right questions to ask (e.g. “Why does this thing exist?”, “How does this make money?”) for identifying entrepreneurial opportunities. In the second half, we split up into teams to assess a problem space, conduct research, and determine as a group whether the data and our personal values supported moving forward with the opportunity.
My biggest takeaway from the I&E capstone is the importance – or necessity – of evaluating the problem space your potential venture is tackling. Once you invest the time and resources into building a startup that’s not solving a real and/or substantial problem, it becomes difficult to tease apart whether the solution or problem space is the root of setbacks. Moreover, making incremental improvements to the solution won’t be effective if the problem does not exist. My project team ultimately concluded that the opportunity we were looking into – reminding people to save energy and reduce their electricity bill – was not worth pursuing. While slightly disappointing at first, the project taught me that spending time upfront to comprehensively evaluate the opportunity could avoid wasted time and money from diving into a startup that’s bound to fail. As a project manager in Duke Impact Investing Group who evaluates startups to potentially invest in, I will also bring this approach for assessing opportunities to the due diligence process.
Furthermore, I learned the importance of conducting unbiased tests to assess the core questions (level of demand, access to demand, value proposition) for a problem space. My team initially considered sending out a survey to students, which we learned would inevitably generate misleadingly positive results. Instead, we ran tests such as launching a smoke test (publishing a fake ad for our product) and analyzing Google AdWords data that evaluate customers’ level of active engagement.
In addition, the Slack Groups exercise taught me that to become an entrepreneur, I need to start questioning the status quo in my everyday life. Although we were tasked with asking these questions throughout the week and consistently sharing them with our groups, I struggled to actively ask myself the questions in my day-to-day life. However, questions from classmates revealed fascinating insights on companies and products that we commonly don’t question on a deeper level. While developing this skill will take time, I want to challenge myself to ask more questions until it becomes second nature, which may someday lead to an entrepreneurial opportunity.
Finally, this class taught me the importance of considering the impact – both positive and negative – of building a venture. As someone passionate about social entrepreneurship and companies that drive positive impact, I hadn’t previously given much thought to the unintended negative consequences of a startup. However, learning about the Cambridge Analytica data scandal was a wake-up call that companies often evolve far beyond the scope that the founders imagined. Thus, it is crucial when launching a startup to determine whether it aligns with your values, and whether the net impact justifies the investment.
Below is my group’s final presentation for the class. For our project, we assessed the opportunity space of tackling the household energy waste problem. We initially started with the problem space of forgetting household tasks, but eventually narrowed down the problem space to forgetting to turn off appliances (mainly lights). This type of forgetfulness leads to significant energy waste, which translates to high electricity bills and carbon emissions that damage the environment. Although we ultimately determined that this space was not a significant opportunity, this project was a great learning experience.