Have you ever felt an epiphany coming on? You just knew that you were on to a very big “aha” moment, one that could change the world, or at least a significant part of the world you care about. Well, I feel a big one coming thanks to Steve Blank’s Startup Owner’s Manual and Lean Launchpad course taught by the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps for STEM Learning program. In order for you to understand, let me share some basic concepts I’m learning.
A startup is a temporary organization in search of a repeatable, scalable business model. This is very different from an established company with an established product or service and customer base. We, as the HEIR (Humanoid Engineering with Inexpensive Robots) Corps startup, are just three people, Joshua Panka, our entrepreneur lead, or E-Lead, Jeff Snell, our I-Corps Mentor, and myself, the Principal Investigator. Together, we are searching for a repeatable, scalable business model by first attempting to understand potential customer needs.
A startup, in general, and more specifically a technology startup as HEIR Corps is, uses a business model canvas, as opposed to a traditional business model to test our hypotheses for several areas in order to find our repeatable business model. And we test these hypotheses, or guesses, in several areas by talking to customers. Customer is a bit of misnomer because we don’t even have a finished product yet. Why build a product if you don’t really know what a potential customer needs first? The “Build it and they will come model” from the Kevin Costner Field of Dreams movie doesn’t work for startups.
The areas we develop hypotheses and experiments for are listed in our business model canvas (read Steve Blank’s Harvard Business Review article, “Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything”.) The areas we create hypotheses for include: value propositions (what meets the customer’s need that they are willing to pay for), customer segments, channels, key resources, key partners, etc. Don’t worry, if you don’t understand what they mean, you can read the glossary in Steve Blank’s, The Startup Manual, and you’ll see that these concepts really are concepts you already understand but didn’t know what name to place to them.
When we began this I-Corps L program, I didn’t know we were actually launching a technology startup until we began the course. As a professor, I understand scientific, engineering, and educational research. But in order to become a participant in educational innovation, I have to learn what it means to startup a company, i.e. searching for a repeatable business model, before I can make a lasting impact on our national economy that also makes a positive impact on our low-income communities. And the small part of my epiphany so far is, if you invite people who live with needs that you care about to talk to you have a wealth of knowledge they can share as potential customer for your startup if you will only actively and intently listen to them.
Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is a humanoid robotics and AI professor at Marquette University. His recent TEDx talk, Belonging in Technology, What I learned from Steve Jobs, addresses creativity and its relationship to innovation, diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).