Recently, I started teaching an intensive entrepreneurship class to the new cohort of 13 startups that were invited to participate in the Thrill Mill year-long program. Thrill Mill is an incubator/accelerator. Lots of people use these words – what do they mean, really? In another post, I might postulate what they mean, the similarities and differences. For this post, it doesn’t matter, except to say that Thrill Mill is a new generation of support and encouragement around early stage entrepreneurship. Thrill Mill is reinventing incubation and acceleration in Pittsburgh.

Luke Skurman and Bobby Zapalla, founders of ThrillMill

Luke Skurman and Bobby Zapalla, founders of the Thrill Mill program

The non-profit organization was founded and is run by 30 somethings, including veteran entrepreneur, Luke Skurman, CEO of Niche (which used to be College Prowler) and who was my student, Bobby Zapalla, who was a practicing lawyer with a big firm until he decided that he needed to live and breathe the entrepreneurial air at the cool space that Thrill Mill occupies, and a host of fellow board members and advisors that are not your typical gray-haired entrepreneurial leaders. I am drawn to this group because they are passionate, energetic, and creative. They don’t “do entrepreneurship” the way that it has been done in Pittsburgh before. They bring new ideas, new programs, and new “juice” to a city that has risen from the ashes of the rust belt to the new age of being “rust built,” as my friend and fellow entrepreneurs, Kit Mueller has dubbed it. Pittsburgh is hot. Pay no attention to the traditional media which downplays the fact that Pittsburgh is one of the best places to start a startup in the US today. Thrill Mill is one of the reasons why.

What is Thrill Mill doing that is so new and innovative? It’s a programmatic approach: 1) they put all 35 finalist teams through a new venture bootcamp to hone their ideas and pitches; 2) now, the 13 teams accepted into the program are taking my baseline six-week class; 3) subsequently, all teams will have access to onsite mentoring on a daily and weekly basis. Thrill Mill is wrapping formal programming around acceleration to get down to the nitty gritty of helping first-time entrepreneurs figure it out. That’s why I’m there. This is how you do it. How you create it. How you make it happen. You help it to be created. You MAKE it happen!

All 13 projects in this second cohort of Thrillers are nascent; not all of them are even companies. That’s why they applied. Because they need help to get their projects to the stage where they are actual startups, with viable products that meet customers’ needs. Which is where I come in.


The Thrill Mill space

The Thrill Mill space

The course.  My job is to train them and to hammer them, to not let them off easily. To do that we have to first create an atmosphere of trust, so that they are receptive to the “constructive criticism.” We are using much of Steve Blank’s material from his and Eric Ries’ Lean Startup movement. However, as an entrepreneur, and with more than 15 years of teaching entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University, and, now, as Director of Innovation and Outreach for the new Innovation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh, I have my own tools and techniques. My goal with the Entrepreneurship@ThrillMill training program is to develop a common foundation for the teams to build better businesses. I want the entrepreneurs to develop a common lexicon, a vocabulary. I want them to understand that when we use terms like “value proposition” we know exactly what is meant. I also want them to help train each other. The course is designed to be highly interactive because I know the value of peer-to-peer learning is unparalleled.

What we cover.  Over a series of posts over the next several weeks, I intend to capture the content and development of this class. The timeframe? Class is two three-hour sessions per week for six weeks. I have broken each session down by topic to cover the basics that they need. The end goal is not to make an investor pitch, but to define and articulate their value proposition, to understand their customers and their needs, and to know all of the stakeholders in their domain. Each class consists of an hour of lecture/discussion around a particular topic, an hour where the teams work on a particular assignment designed around the topic, and an hour of team-share, where several of the teams share their discoveries, their challenges, and their dreams.

Week one, session 1.  After spending time on intros, since many of the groups didn’t know me and I didn’t know them, we went over a series of slides about the entrepreneurial mindset. I wanted to get them thinking about who they are, what’s important, and find common ground so that they can relate to each other, to our upcoming guest speakers, to the Thrill Mill leadership team, and to me.

We then spent a few more slides discussing the importance of understanding the problem that they are facing. This comes before figuring out the solution. However, to a man and woman, they are all focused more on their solution – a typical attitude of early stage entrepreneurs. They love their idea, their solution. They are not aware of their customers’ needs, at least not to the extent that they need to be in order to ensure that they have a solution that meets these needs. In Eric Ries’ words, they need to make sure that they “stop wasting people’s time” and make sure that they don’t make a product that “no one wants.”

As the teams hunched over their giant post it pads and markers to craft their problem that they solve, I could see their heads spinning with confusion. I won’t let them talk about their products until they have satisfied all of us – the other 12 teams, Bobby, Kenneth Hendrata, Thrill Mill’s COO, and me – that they have identified a problem worth solving. I can see that they don’t get it, not yet.

For the final third of the class, the teams returned to the front of the room to engage in team-share, where a few of them sharede with us the results of their work over the past hour. These first few brave teams had of course not clearly understood their problem, nor their customers. I started the feedback gently because these folks don’t know what they are in for. We have to build to a level of trust where bluntness is a virtue. But the push back had to begin right away. And so it did…

Moving forward.  This is not your usual university-based entrepreneurship class where you are evaluated on how hard you work. Or where you learn the process of entrepreneurship for future endeavors. This is entrepreneurship here and now – they need to understand it now. If they don’t, they likely don’t have a business. If that’s the case, let’s fail fast; if not, let’s push to reveal the customer and all of the stakeholders in the domain that they are in.

First week, first session, good class, good group, good baseline established. I will post the weekly progress of this program. Comments welcome!

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