Back to school for business founders

Workshops set out to help turn a good idea into a better commercial proposition

It’s a Saturday afternoon in late August and a group of business students is out on a roof terrace at Microsoft’s New England Research Development Center alongside Boston’s Charles River.

The entrepreneurs, a mix of individuals funded by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, a not-for-profit organisation that encourages entrepreneurship, and winners of business plan competitions, are holed up for Venture Lab, an intensive five-day boot camp. Each of the 21 teams is from an existing early-stage business that has a technological innovation, funding and a market, and is attending the workshop to help turn a good idea into a better commercial proposition.

Venture Lab is part of a wave of entrepreneurial boot camps that aim to provide founders with a way to step back from the daily grind and assess their business. These workshops are often focused on tech start-ups that may benefit from strong product innovation but have a weak business model.

The format can range from multiday intensive programmes to more compact one-day courses. Multiday boot camps allow participants to benefit from a fuller immersion in their business idea. Those attracting the most interest include: the 3 Day Start­up, an event that began at the University of Texas and has now spread around the world, putting 45 students, from undergraduates to PhDs, together to create a real tech business in three days; Startup Weekend, which brings people together for 54 hours to create new businesses; and Lean Startup Machine, a three-day workshop aimed at social enterprises, teaching a methodology devised by Eric Ries, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

Extending the boot camp concept into a longer-form programme, the Unreasonable Institute unites 25 entrepreneurs for six weeks in Boulder, Colorado to receive training from 50 mentors, from Google executives to social entrepreneurs.

This particular Venture Lab is focused on social entrepreneurs, whose ideas range from a business making digital tools to help coffee farmers in Latin America to another helping farmers make fertiliser in Ethiopia.

A core theme is to challenge existing assumptions about the customer – to rethink the business offering through customers’ eyes. Ariel Chait, the founder of Acopio, a technology company providing business management tools to agricultural co-operatives, says: “The programme has forced us to leave our own point of view and look at our business from the perspective of those who make it work – customers, investors, stakeholders.”

As director of the International Development Initiative at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Laura Sampath selects student teams to put through Venture Lab as part of their business education. She says the programme complements MIT’s own entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“The timing of the programme usually means student teams have just returned from some time in the field and can focus – in a real way, not merely hypothesising – about their customers, their end users, their short- and long-term needs,” she explains. “This is messy stuff that no one knows exactly how to do well, and every venture will follow a different path. This is a really important message for early-stage entrepreneurs to hear.”

Back in the classroom some of the unconventional techniques being used by facilitator James Barlow, the director of entrepreneurial leadership at Tufts University, set boot camps apart from traditional business education. Mr Barlow gets the teams playing poker to understand dealing with risk; he sets them the task of assembling jigsaw puzzles to appreciate problem solving; and he asks them to map the path from idea to market with Post-it notes; and the room reverberates to the music of the Foo Fighters as the teams embark on a group exercise.

Mr Barlow explains that using Post-it notes is designed to take a similar approach to launching a start-up as is used for creating a product. “When we design a physical product, we sketch it out, make a rough prototype with whatever is lying about and we do this in a quick and dirty fashion because we know it will be wrong,” he says. “With businesses we then to try and go straight to the perfect end-product. Strategy mapping enables ventures to articulate visually the working hypothesis of their venture and evolve it as a system.”

Jennifer Keller Jackson, grant manager at the NCIIA, says the boot camp concept delivers results. “The luxury of being away from campus or the field and being able to immerse yourself in this thinking for five days nonstop with your team members is a rarity,” she explains. “The network of other teams in the room ... is a huge benefit. All kinds of connections are shared and it’s a safe environment for getting good feedback.”

Dan Jansen is co-founder of Earth2Block, a social venture that manufactures bespoke presses that can turn earth into building bricks and are sold in Thailand. Having never taken a business course before, he believes the Venture Lab experience took him out of his comfort zone, forcing him and his team to rethink and develop their business model. “As we worked through our economic model, we identified offering workshops as a new money generating opportunity that also increased the value of our product,” he says.

Ella Peinovich runs Sasa Africa, a Nairobi ecommerce platform for the developing world, and says Venture Lab filled an information gap between a “lab project and a functioning business”, validating the lessons she has learnt on the ground as well as helping to structure her understanding of the business model. “The boot camp forced us to challenge our assumptions. I now have a well detailed road map of necessary steps to launching our business,” she explains.

While most of these entrepreneurial boot camps are clearly focused on early-stage businesses, there are also lessons for more established executives and entrepreneurs.

Out on the roof terrace, over a slice of pizza, Mr Chait says: “Starting a business can consume you. It takes up most of your energy every day. For five days we stepped out of our idea and into the shoes of customers, stakeholders and even mentors to our own business. Fresh eyes can be hard to come by, and this programme handed us a new set for us to use ourselves.”

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