“Strategies for Innovation and Entrepreneurship” is the Keystone class for the I&E Certificate. The course is extremely comprehensive and covers the key facets for launching a startup – interpreting financial statements, discovering a customer need, working effectively in a team, pitching, etc. Taught in Fuqua by Professor Kathie Amato, the course reflects business school-style classes that is characterized by team projects and case-based learning. I truly learned so much and am so grateful for this opportunity – below are some key lessons that I took away from the course.
February 26, 2019
Innovating to Solve Problems
As someone with a human-centered design background developed through Duke Design for America, I had assumed that innovating to solve a customer need would be second nature. However, after I spent 6 months designing and pitching a startup idea for the Hult Prize, a social entrepreneurship competition, and failing to truly understand the problem, I realized how difficult maintaining a customer-focused approach really was. Among the cases discussed in class, Rent the Runway (RTR) struck me as an example of a startup who embraced and effectively conducted customer need validation. The idea for RTR itself came from Hyman, one of the co-founders, recognizing the problem that women like her sister had to spend a fortune for one-time designer dresses. Using a lean start-up approach, the founders then validated the ability for RTR to address that need by testing one hypothesis at a time – testing women’s willingness to rent dresses after a physical try-on, then after only viewing the physical dresses, and finally, renting from a website. From RTR, I learned the importance of breaking down assumptions into small, testable hypotheses, and quickly going to customers who can support or disprove those hypotheses. By adopting this approach, RTR could test their value proposition quickly, with low risk and cost, much before they finished their minimal viable product. This takeaway was reinforced by the Food Truck Challenge, in which our team came in second because we conducted market research instead of promptly testing our hypotheses using the cart. I believe that my Hult Prize team also fell into this “research-focused” pitfall – instead of quickly jumping into a solution based mostly on online research, we should have broken down our many assumptions into testable hypotheses, and spoken with potential customers and stakeholders to test those hypotheses early on.
Furthermore, RTR taught me that validating that an innovation solves a problem well does not end with the launch of the product or service. By continuing to monitor progress and customer feedback, RTR continued to improve their service to meet customer needs, such as adding a stylist team to assist with fit and create a more personalized experience. Thus, I think that adopting a lean-startup approach to testing hypotheses with customers, combined with continuing to iterate based on customer feed, are crucial to building a company that truly meets the customers’ needs.
Ethical Culture for I&E
I think that a positive and ethical culture for I&E is one where all ideas are considered, diverse and interdisciplinary backgrounds are valued, and people’s contributions are acknowledged. One memorable example from class that illustrates this culture was when a classmate brought up Elon Musk and the merits of replacing a high-profile and influential leader. Although the topic seemed tangential, I ended up learning so much about entrepreneurship (e.g. power of company’s stakeholders, differences between building technologies and leading a huge company) through that 30 minute conversation because Kathie and my classmates embraced the opportunity to explore the question. Rather than shutting down the conversation, we respected different opinions, and drew upon each other’s experiences (e.g. Kathie’s visit to the Tesla factory) and ideas to better understand the facets of this issue. I’ve also realized that since virtually every innovation is not 100% original and is built upon existing ideas, it is crucial to practice honesty, communicate effectively, and attribute credit where it’s due.
Impact of I&E 352 on My Life
I&E 352 has truly impacted so much of my life, both in terms of considering career path options and better understanding my interests and motivations. To begin with, this class taught me a lot about myself. The lectures, guest speakers, and case studies confirmed that I really enjoy entrepreneurship, especially the fast-paced nature of it, challenge of constantly testing and learning, and combination of creative and analytical components. Furthermore, I was surprised to realize that I really enjoyed the quantitative parts of the course, such as calculating valuation using Excel and extracting business insights from quantitative analyses of startups. Thus, I discovered that my analytical mindset is one my strengths, and I want to continue building a technical skillset through classes and workshops at Duke.
Regarding my career plans, I&E 352 has introduced me to business from a startup perspective, an area that I was pretty unfamiliar with before. It’s contributed to my realization that business decisions and strategy lie at the core of the success of any innovation, and similarly, business can be an effective means of making an impact. I am currently exploring the intersection of business and life sciences, which hopefully combines my interests in biology, healthcare, and entrepreneurship, and am excited to learn what business strategy looks like at a real biotech company through my summer internship at Precision Biosciences. My conversation with my mentor has also helped me realize that entrepreneurship does not always look like starting a company, and that an entrepreneurial environment can exist even in some large companies. I want to always keep that idea in mind by actively identifying companies/organizations that truly embrace an entrepreneurial, interdisciplinary, and growth-oriented culture, and taking initiative to seek and create entrepreneurial opportunities for myself.
Below is my group’s case study for Rent the Runway (RTR), which represents the startup case studies that we did throughout the class. I always learned a ton from these real-world examples, and they were one of my favorite parts of the class!