What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Socrates

What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Socrates

Academic institutions worldwide, such as Stanford University’s Center for Teaching and Learning or Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, are searching for ways to improve learning outcomes – knowledge and skills that students take away from the classroom. These concepts are also finding their way into the entrepreneurial environment, as learning has become increasingly important in the today’s chaotic economy. [1]

Learning outcomes as a concept have been studied for thousands of years, reaching back to Socrates and his students. Socrates spent his entire life trying to understand a better way of conversation that could not only enlighten the student, but everyone in the classroom, including the teacher. His findings led to the creation of the Socratic method – a dialectical (discussion-based) process for the meaningful acquisition of knowledge.

Before we can appreciate the values that entrepreneurs can gain from the Socratic method, we need to first define the Socratic method and its role in entrepreneurial learning.

The Socratic Method (Re)defined.

Since Socrates never recorded his own teachings, our understanding of the Socratic method comes from the Socratic Dialogues, a series of stories written by his most famous student, Plato. The purpose of the Socratic method is to generate an open-ended discourse, so its own definition is vague and open to interpretation.

One way of defining the Socratic method is as “a systematic process for examining the ideas, questions, and answers that form the basis of human belief. It involves recognizing that all new understanding is linked to prior understanding, that thought itself is a continuous thread woven throughout lives rather than isolated sets of questions and answers.” [2]

Another way to understand the Socratic method is to understand what it’s not. This can best be viewed in Socrates’s direct opposition and reaction to Sophism. Sophism was another method of teaching in Ancient Greece in which a handful of intellectuals taught general wisdom about human affairs, such as rhetoric and philosophy, to children of the wealthy. While early Sophists were well-respected, later Sophists came to be known as deceptive (due to their use of rhetoric) and elitist (since they reserved their teaching to only those who could afford it). Critics accused the Sophists of doling out opinions on specific subject matter as opposed to actually encouraging independent thinking.

The Socratic method, on the other hand, is a way of thinking that allows individuals to define their own purpose for learning and explore this purpose through open-minded questioning of what they hold to be true.

Entrepreneurs can find value in the Socratic method because they, too, are bombarded by assumptions based on what others and they themselves believe to be the best plan of action for pursuing a business idea.

Entrepreneurial learning, or the acquisition of knowledge necessary for creating a business venture, is built around the constant questioning and testing of these assumptions – theories about what we hold to be true – for validity. These assumptions can range from beliefs about what the market wants, where opportunities lie, to the effectiveness of a new product feature.

The Socratic Method and Entrepreneurial Learning.

The nature of the Socratic method is indefinite and, therefore, has countless interpretations and applications. In examining the Socratic principles outlined by Rob Reich, a Political Science professor at Stanford University, we observed that the principles he advocates for in the classroom translates to entrepreneurial learning. We applied Reich’s interpretation of the Socratic method to entrepreneurship and found valuable insights relevant to starting successful companies.

Here are two quick takeaway on what entrepreneurs can learn from Socrates.

1. The Socratic method provides focus through clarity of purpose.

Reich encourages his students to use the Socratic method “to examine [their] values, principles, and beliefs”. In essence, this approach demands that you as an entrepreneur answer the question, “Why are we here? Why do we exist as an organization?”

Founders who define values, goals, and concepts for their company set a clear direction for the organization. By constantly questioning our belief system, we reach clarity of purpose. Clarity of purpose leads to a shared sense of accountability, keeping team members on the same page and in pursuit of the exact same outcomes. Organizations, then, are able to fully maximize human capital when everyone’s desires are aligned and pointing to a shared vision of the future. Like running a race, it makes sense for a company to first define its starting line in order to work towards an intended finish line. Furthermore, given the myriad directions that outside forces (markets, investors, competitors) can pull an organization, the Socratic principles of self-inquiry can help you stay the course through the inevitable distractions.

When a company clearly defines and communicates its belief system, it attracts customers and employees who share similar beliefs about the world. Apple is the most obvious and universally recognizable example of a company who does this extremely well. Their rallying cry of “Think Different” engenders fanatical loyalty and support for the Apple brand.

2. Use the Socratic method to develop and reinforce an entrepreneurial mindset.

Reich states that the “Socratic method is better used to demonstrate complexity, difficulty, and uncertainty than at eliciting facts about the world”. Note the keywords: complexity, difficulty, uncertainty. These words paint a realistic picture of day-to-day life at the beginning of a venture, and in so doing present an opportunity to learn.

Most people view this set of words as negative. An entrepreneurial mindset involves interpreting complexity, difficulty, and uncertainty as an opportunity to test assumptions, run experiments, and create knowledge from these activities.

Entrepreneurs start testing assumptions by defining current beliefs based on past observations or intuition. They then ask themselves or are asked by outsiders (investors, mentors, etc.) questions that serve as the basis for setting up experiments. Whether in the form of interviewing customers, doing competitor analysis, or conducting A/B testing, experimentation essentially tests what entrepreneurs hold to be true against reality.

The Socratic principles of defining current beliefs, developing a question, and setting up experiments to discover new insights are the core building blocks of entrepreneurial learning. The Socratic method is a powerful, world-changing idea for a reason, and entrepreneurs, whether consciously or unconsciously, follow a Socratic path as they grow their ventures.

[1] Fast Company’s This is Generation Flux: Meet the Pioneers of the New (and Chaotic) Frontier of Business

[2] Learn NC’s Socratic method

[3] Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching’s The Socratic Method: What it is and How to Use it in the Classroom

3DS Healthcare: Texas Business Foundations Summer Institute

On July 9th, the Texas Business Foundations Summer Institute (TBFSI) at the University of Texas at Austin embedded a healthcare-focused 3 Day Startup into the curriculum with over 50 students.  Participants in the TBFSI program are used to intense days, working from nine to five during eight weeks of their summer vacation. Their interests are quite different from the business, design, and computer science students in most 3DS programs.  With backgrounds ranging from pharmacy and biology to psychology and geoscience, each participant is working towards earning a business certificate that they can pair with their specific science-related expertise.

Day 3 Team Exercise: Students attempting to build the tallest marshmallow tower.

(Day 3) Team Exercise: Students attempt to build the tallest marshmallow tower.

The objective was simple: develop a sustainable healthcare company in 3 days.  Teams began each day with exercises like “Rock, Paper, Scissors” to build teamwork skills and a product innovation exercise involving random household objects that students sold as coffee stirrers to practice storytelling.  Afterwards, students quickly dove deep into developing their solutions to society’s biggest health care concerns such as obesity, autoimmune disease, and EMRs (electronic medical records) lack of standardization.

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Professor Houser (left) and Professor Vindis (right) showing a complete lack of diversity with their matching wardrobe.


Diversity and Teamwork

With Gallup’s recent release of Entrepreneurial StrengthsFinder, progressive entrepreneurial ecosystems across the nation are adding this tool to their arsenal of personality assessments.  These tests provide a valuable framework to explain one’s strengths, weaknesses, and the value one is adding to a team, project, or organization.  For the 3 Day Startup Healthcare Program, participants were broken up into teams based on their Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment results and coached to lead with their strengths. Through the (MBTI) method, diversity was evenly spread.  The students could see the value they were adding to their teams.  Joe Gerstandt, a thought leader in diversity and inclusion, says “diversity is a driver of innovation.  When everyone is thinking the same, no one is thinking at all.”  Actively creating situations where teams can work in a more diverse environment will increase creativity and yield a space more conducive to high performance.  In higher education, team building through MBTI and other methods should not be a rarity.  Experiments such as these can develop effective tools to increase self-awareness and how to work in a team.

Competitive Intelligence How-To

It is easier to talk about why collecting information on a market is important rather than to how to actually do it.  Thankfully, Laura Young, Co-Founder of Bizologie, was there to give teams a roadmap of how to find the information they were looking for.  Having a background as a Librarian at the University of Texas and a research analyst at Austin Ventures allowed her to develop a process of competitive landscaping to take the guesswork out of the process.  The list of resources she has created is a great tool for entrepreneurs to kickstart their competitive landscaping.  Understanding the competition is just as important as understanding what one’s company brings to the table.

Triumphant smiles at the end of the program.

Triumphant smiles at the end of the program.


Time-Capped Education: Why 3 Days are Better Than 3 Months for College Students.

Time-Capped Education: Why 3 Days are Better Than 3 Months for College Students.

The demand for entrepreneurship education is rapidly growing at universities with almost 90% of students now believing that entrepreneurial skills are “vitally important given the new economy”. [1] With the rise of campus incubators (like those at Duke, UCLA, and Syracuse) and private incubators (like Y Combinator and Techstars), the opportunities for students to pursue ventures while still in college are dramatically increasing.

There are a number of avenues to accelerate your entrepreneurial journey – classes, incubators, etc. There is a strong case to be made for short format entrepreneurship programs as the most effective choice for that journey. After running over 100 3DS programs on 5 continents, our experience shows that entrepreneurial learning happens best in 3 days versus 3 months for college students.

Here’s why.

Time constraints create focus.

Parkinson’s law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” For example, think about the last time you procrastinated a school assignment and maniacally cranked it out the night before. Fighting against the clock (aka clutch time) leads to a state of intense focus and efficiency.

The idea of time-capping projects is not new. Productivity hacks like the Pomodoro Technique advocate for 25 minutes of intense work output interspersed with break intervals. Goal-setting theories like the SMART criteria – making goals Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-related – also preach creating time-bound goals.

The email-marketing powerhouse, Mailchimp, is a great example of a company that manipulates time for productive sprinting. Ben Chestnut, CEO of Mailchimp, encourages his team to consistently crank out new products by having them work in cyclical 1-week stretches of intense focus. The success of Mailchimp stems from the company’s ability to harness one of the most effective creative forces out there: time.

In terms of building a company over the span of a weekend, knowing that your team only has 72 hours intensifies the process of ideation, marketing validation, prototyping, and so on. Not only does this intensity increase focused productivity, it also leads to a heightened level of execution in a simulated high-pressure startup environment.

Short form immersions empower students to move fast and break things…without fear of failure.

Let’s first talk about the importance of failure. Failing is a stigma that’s deeply ingrained in our cultural consciousness. Failure is seen as the polar opposite of success. Success and failure, however, are not dichotomous opposites but rather necessary complements. Failure is embedded in the process of creating something great since, at its core, failure is simply “trial-and-error learning.”

The key to successful failures is to fail quickly and with a purpose. First, failing early (and cheaply) allows teams to avoid the pitfall of escalating commitment – a tendency to keep throwing energy and time behind a failing course of action. Scrapping a bad product you built in two days is cognitively and emotionally easier than scrapping a bad product you’ve been working on for the past two months. Secondly, successful failures have end goals in mind. They disprove or validate assumptions in order to reiterate a product or plan of action.

For short burst formats like 3 Day Startup, students are given permission to fail. Since the level of expectations is different for a 3-day event versus a 3-month program, students can view the exercise as a safe space for entrepreneurial experimentation. The 3DS “laboratory” gives students permission to fail and fail quickly.

Students can commit for 3 days.

Lastly, university students are generally resource-crunched individuals when it comes to time and money. While entrepreneurs obviously have to make professional and personal sacrifices, it’s impractical to ask students to make a long-term commitment to a startup idea without some level of validation. It’s like getting married without a few first dates.

A three day immersion is a manageable short-term commitment that’s less intrusive on the life of a university student. Once startup ideas are validated and show promise, students should take it to the next level and apply for that incubator or accelerator program.

[1] Time’s How Entrepreneurship Can Fix Young America

3DS Participant Spotlight: Dan Otto of 3DS William & Mary

Contributor: Dan Otto is a student at William & Mary and was a participant at 3DS William & Mary.

The question we kept asking ourselves at 11:40 pm, 20 minutes before the due date of 3DS William & Mary application  was, “Is it worth applying?” Looking back, we could almost laugh at ourselves for thinking that.

3 Day Startup (3DS) was an experience that we never expected to have. Initially, we didn’t know if it would be useful to us, but we thought it would be at least a decent opportunity to make some new connections over a weekend. Our startup idea had already been incubating for months prior to 3DS, so we initially thought this was going to be a way to get the opinion of others, and nothing more. In reality, we couldn’t have been more wrong.


The Zairge team at 3DS William & Mary

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3DS Cybersecurity Teaches Entrepreneurship and Innovation Skills to the San Antonio Cybersecurity Community

In late May, the 8020 Foundation and 3 Day Startup partnered to bring the San Antonio cybersecurity community together to focus on entrepreneurial learning and new venture creation within the cybersecurity space. From Heartbleed to breaches at Ebay and Target, the markets and industries tied to information security have been in the spotlight in recent weeks. Looking at the world through an entrepreneurial lens, however, one can see these problems as opportunities for improving the way the cybersecurity industry serves its market. This situation, coupled with a rapidly growing cybersecurity industry, set a perfect stage for a 3DS program focused on the space.


This 3DS, the first of its kind, provided an opportunity for community members–both UTSA students and local cybersecurity enthusiasts–to experience core entrepreneurship practices such as customer discovery, rapid prototyping, fast failure, and learning-by-doing. The participants originated from a variety of backgrounds: cybersecurity and computer science PhD students at University of Texas at San Antonio, members of the San Antonio Hackers Association, and a wide range of industry professionals.

The participants experienced a series of modules over the course of a weekend, including an overview of entrepreneurship and innovation within the cybersecurity industry, how to recognize market opportunities in the information security space, and pitching/advocacy workshops. Led by facilitator Maia Donohue and lead mentor Dane Stuckey, Director of Cyber Operations at Root9b, the first module guided the participants through an ideation session. Pitching and group voting transitioned into a team formation process where the participants formed six project teams. Participant led-projects included concepts such as a tool to perform rapid vulnerability scans, memory-focused protection agents, CEO/CISO (Chief Information Security Officer) interfacing dashboards, and a suite of threat diagnosis and education tools aimed at novice software developers.


While many participants showed up as battle-hardened cyber security soldiers, others simply showed up with an open mind and a willingness to learn. Said one participant, a recent Codeup graduate, “I was exposed to elements of cyber security I had no idea existed. It was a phenomenal experience.”

Lead Organizer Spotlight: Meet James Gray from 3DS Austin

James Gray just graduated from The University of Texas at Austin. James is now working on the product and business development team at Sparefoot. He was also the lead organizer of the 10th 3DS Austin in Spring 2013 when he was still a student.


James says the most rewarding part of organizing the program was to see teams progress from start to finish. He also enjoyed trying new things during the organizing process, hearing input from fellow organizers, and trying to launch a bigger and better program than the previous 3DS Austin he participated in. “It was also really fun. We got to work with some really big sponsors like Intuit,” he says.

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