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Finding the entrepreneur


I make entrepreneurs honest. Yesterday I wished that, instead of offering slots in the Thrill Mill accelerator as a result of pitches by a team for a particular idea, we could just pick by interviewing the people to discover if they have what it takes to be an entrepreneur. This doesn’t mean that the ideas that they present are bad. Far from it, some of the ideas may be great. My point is that it’s hard to tell because they are so early stage that no one can know for sure. It’s a guess at best. A guess as to whether they have discovered an actual opportunity, versus a good idea. To find and build a business opportunity, the lead individual has to have the heart of an entrepreneur – to get from here to there, from concept to business.

During the intensive Entrepreneurship @ Thrill Mill class that I am teaching to 13 early stage teams, we have spent the first half of the six weeks in customer discovery. The problem is that since they all came in to the program with an idea, most of the teams are wedded to that idea. Getting them to jump off that ledge to one of customer discovery is a painful process. I have to beat them up enough to get them to see that their focus cannot be on product or technology (not yet), but must be on understanding the problem that they are trying to solve. Babs bashing this group calls it!

I have to do more than talk about customers and customer discovery, hypothesis testing, validation. I have to catch them, in real time, not understanding, and help them to make a correction in their thinking. This is not even a pivot. It’s a pre-pivot! To get to customer understanding, they must leave their comfort zone, conduct many customer and stakeholder interviews, and analyze the responses they get. As a class, we’ll make them share their learnings with us in the team share portion of each class session. And I will not them be dishonest in this process. Neither will their peers who are in the same Thrill Mill cohort.

The team has to solve a real problem. Mostly, I see that these early stage teams look at the problem through their eyes – the eyes of the product developer – rather than through the eyes of the customer. I tell them to: “Put on the shoes, clothes and hats of their customers. You can’t just read about them on the internet, or theoretically know them. You have to BE them. You have to feel them, internalize their pain, their problems. See the world through their eyes. Only then do you know if they have a real problem, and if you can actually provide a solution.”

The resistance that I see from teams is not intentional. But they have never been pushed in this way before. The ones who will be successful – that will become entrepreneurs – are the ones who do more than listen. They absorb, they internalize; they go where they have not been before. Those are the coachable ones. I want to work with them! They may also put up a fight, stand their ground, insist, argue with me. That shows spunk and passion, both of which are good qualities.

These wantrepreneurs have to show stamina and persistence to drive to the next level with their concept on the way to being a real, fundable, value-creating business. They have to be able to take the bashing, and relish the fact that they are getting what few others will tell them: the truth.

  • FIND your customer.
  • ARTICULATE the problem.
  • DESIGN the solution.
  • KNOW your value proposition.
  • TEST all of the above.
  • AGAIN, please.

This is applying the scientific method to entrepreneurship. That’s entrepreneurial honesty. I make entrepreneurs honest.

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  • 8Wells

    Now that’s innovation! I absolutely love the idea of focussing on entrepreneurship potential as a metric rather than product ideas – the former create businesses around the latter, while the reverse is rarely the case hence the prevalence of founders left behind by their investors. How do you measure entrepreneurship potential? How have you evolved a curriculum?

    • babscarryer

      Curriculum developing as a result of this experience. In a university setting it doesn’t make much sense since the students receive grades and credits. In Thrill Mill, it’s all about them – where they are today, and where they are going. But great to think about how to do this even better for next time. Maybe I will have the class and THEN we pick those that make it through for the cohort in the accelerator!

    • totally think that people, people people are #1, #2, and #3 in importance in entrepreneurship. start with them, not as add-ons but as THE point.

  • Adam Coimbra

    A quick note from one of the teams who have been thoroughly “babs bashed.” She is absolutely right: we have never been pushed this way before. But over the last month or so, I have gone from dreading the gaping holes that Babs regularly cuts into our flimsy ideas, to relishing the chance to fill those holes back up with something solid.

    One of our technical team members is a freshman in college who told us at the outset that he was uninterested in the business side of things. During one of the early sessions Babs had to call him out for coding instead of listening to the class. Last night he told my co-founder and I a story about how a techie friend pitched a start-up idea, and his immediate, instinctive response was: “there’s no market here! you’re not solving any real pain for your customer.”

    My team has only taken its first baby steps down a long and difficult road, but we are committed to giving everything we have and then some to getting from concept to business. And when we finally do it will be largely because Babs was there to keep us honest.

    • Adam – great thoughts. i totally agree that the techie has to be an integral part of the process. he/she has to build what customers want; he/she can’t guess. you know this now! i have seen you progress incredibly over the past few weeks. you are brave to make it to this level of understanding. now the real work begins! 🙂

  • There is something to be said here, these babs bashings — although seemingly daunting and painful, they are actually the only proven way to build a successful business and minimize risk at an early stage.

    Now I know people want to believe they have the solution to a big problem and thus yearn to build their “baby” immediately, but if you do not proceed with an open mind and learn how to LISTEN to your customer, then you may actually miss out on changing the world.

    Babs, you and the class are invaluable. Thanks so much and we will do you proud.

    • awesome comments, Mark. thanks! and keep the focus!

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  • Çağdaş Tekcan

    Hello again I’m from your course at Ege University, lessons are great thank you so much 🙂