High School Entrepreneurs Are a Thing — And Will Do Customer Development For You
Two years ago I was asked by LA based Brentwood School to help develop a new course in entrepreneurship to be offered to high school juniors and seniors. As a BWS alum, longtime entrepreneur, LA native and wannabe teacher I jumped at the opportunity. A year prior, I had created a similar course for high schoolers and taught it at Amplify — so I was fairly confident I had the chops to help out here.
After a pretty stellar brainstorming session with several BWS educators and some legit parents of current students (Brian Lee, Howard Marks, Ben Van de Bunt, Randall Kaplan and others) it was clear I had the most passion and desire to further this initiative. A few weeks later I was asked to teach the entire course in the fall of 2015.
At the time I wasn’t in a position to take a semester off and teach the course, so I proposed the idea of co-teaching the class with longtime BWS educator Rob Michelson, who was also well liked by the student body.
I agreed to be at school 2 days per week and would work with Rob over the summer and off hours to develop the curriculum. And last fall, we did in fact teach the course — and it was a great success.
Our first cohort included 13 boys and 1 girl, all of which were quite adventurous but also fairly novice at the whole entrepreneurial thing. And by entrepreneurial thing I’m not just talking about coming up with cool ideas and starting companies, I’m referring to the general philosophy — things like:
“There are no instructions, you need to figure things out yourself.”
The course was designed to introduce the fundamentals of entrepreneurship and to inspire students to explore their passions.
Much like a startup accelerator, the course leveraged well known best practices from Eric Ries’ Lean Startup and the Business Model Canvas initially proposed by Alexander Osterwalder. Students learned most of the key aspects in developing a startup — from ideation to customer development, business model creation, product development, marketing and ultimately fundraising. The structure of the course had students begin with various consulting projects to learn and practice some of these skills; then students worked on their own projects, ultimately concluding with a fundraising pitch to well known LA investors.
Last year we had Brian Garrett from Crosscut, Mark Suster from Upfront and several others on the judging panel.
This fall, we will be teaching the course for the second time, learning from our mistakes and iterating the curriculum like any good entrepreneur would.
There were two major learning’s from last years course. First, high school students, particularly those in a college preparatory environment, tend to be given very rigid guidelines and instructions around course work. This in and of itself is one of the downfalls to traditional education, in that many students struggle with the “boxy” nature of the curriculum. In other words, those students that are inherently more entrepreneurial often struggle with the straight and narrow path that educators expect students to follow. This course is an attempt to expose students to a core tenant of entrepreneurism, which is to find your own path, however windy and unorthodox it might be.
To that end, because students are used to being told exactly what to do, the bulk of the class struggled to get started. Our instruction and course expectations were very loose by design and most students were initially unable to see what path to take. We share this just to highlight the need and value of this type of work in our education system and so, if you are an entrepreneur, you should appreciate that what you do is not easy.
The second big learning was around customer development. Most students, and young people in general, have a sense of confidence around what they think people want. They intuitively believe when they have an idea that it’s a good one, that there is a market for it, that people will want and pay for it and that it naturally solves an acute pain point for a sizable market. But of course this is rarely true. In hindsight we clearly spent too little time on this subject and plan to devote a good portion of the first month on this topic — thus the co-subject of this post — a request for help from the entrepreneurial and startup community.
We plan to have the students participate in at least 2 consulting projects focused around customer development. For this we need real world companies that want to help young, hungry and energetic students learn the trade and can benefit from some customer development on a new product or initiative. Optimally, we would have teams of 3–4 students’ work with different companies.
Each participating company representative would meet in person or by Skype 1–2 times to share about the business, customer and product, then outline a specific or general need to understand their customer and market better. Expect this to take an hour total.
This could be around a new product or release or generally around your business. Students would further research your customer segments/markets and do a series of customer development exercises including in-person interviews, online research and competitive analysis. Ultimately student teams will deliver a written document outlining their findings, insights and opportunities. We can’t promise this will be all the customer development you’ll ever need, but you can be sure it won’t be a waste of time — and best of all you would be doing some real good for students who may one day work for you.
If you are interested in helping and benefiting from our program, please complete the short contact form: