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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.

Observations

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 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.

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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.

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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.”

I’ve Got 99 Problems But a Pitch Ain’t One: What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Rap Music

Allow Me to Reintroduce Myself
Two years ago I presented at an investor conference and when I used the phrase “making it rain” the audience of VCs and angel investors returned only blank stares. Ever since, I’ve been interested in exploring and discussing the relationship between rap music and entrepreneurship. A month ago I delivered a keynote at Startup Week hosted at The University of Texas at Austin. This piece is an adaptation of that talk.

Rap music is one of the few genres that embraces business principles. When was the last time you heard an opera singer, jazz guitarist, or dubstep producer talk about the business of what they do in their art? Rappers, however, talk about this topic all the time.

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There are a staggering number of commonalities between rap and startups. For example, the culture of “performance enhancing substances” is heavily referenced in both industries.

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Lil Wayne with codeine cough syrup and 3 Day Startup Alum Sri Sonti (cofounder of Remark, a 500 Startups accelerator company) with energy drink

Another common thread is that the parental approval rate for kids wanting to pursue a career in rap music or entrepreneurship is still relatively low. This is the case because both endeavors still maintain a high failure rate: 90% of new businesses fail and the number of rappers that fail is probably even higher.

Given these commonalities, there are several insights that these industries can provide to one another. Here is what entrepreneurs can learn from rap music.

Get a Cofounder

Rapper Snoop Dogg and Producer Dr. Dre/Business cofounder Steve Jobs and technical cofounder Steve Wozniak

Left: Rapper Snoop Dogg and Producer Dr. Dre / Right: Business cofounder Steve Jobs and technical cofounder Steve Wozniak

Rap music and startups resemble each other at the earliest stages. Rap music starts with a rapper and a producer. The rapper provides the words, the voice, and handles the more public-facing activities. The producer (also called a beat maker) creates the tracks that the rapper raps over. Some of the biggest names in rap music today found their initial success due to their own in-house producers (see: Drake and 40, Kendrick Lamar and Ali). Often this person not only supplies beats, but helps architect the sound of a rapper’s signature style.

This duality is eerily familiar to the beginning stages of a startup. Two people — a business and a technical cofounder—represent the best foundation on which to build a new company. The tech cofounder usually builds the software that powers the product, and the business cofounder runs operations, fundraising, or other activities that are needed for the startup.

Aside from the obvious benefit of having a cofounder with a set of skills that complement your own, having another person with dedication and passion that equals yours increases the chances of capturing opportunities by way of identifying early employees, discovering initial investors, and more.

And attaining success in a startup is difficult. There are ups and down in the process.  Having someone to balance you out is of enormous value. Single founders often endure a lonely journey.

The best way to choose a cofounder is to collaborate on projects, in hackathons, or at programs like 3 Day Startup. This is the fastest way to see a potential cofounder in action and test them out so you can understand their work ethic, capabilities, communication style, and sensibilities. How do they lead a team? How strong is their execution ability? How are they in front of a crowd? Can they build what they claim they can build?

Fail Fast
The RZA is the leader of the Wu-tang Clan, the biggest and most successful collective in the history of rap music. He is known for a gruff rapping style, grimy beats, and an obsession with kung-fu films and asian mysticism. But he had to try a few times before he found the winning formula — or what the startup world might refer to as product/market fit. Signed to Tommy Boy records in 1991, he released his first single “Oh We Love You Rakeem” under the moniker “Prince Rakeem”. Prince Rakeem’s persona was that of a smooth talking loverman character. This record flopped and rap music fans paid it little mind. Undeterred, the RZA re-emerged a few months later with an altogether new project: he and his neighborhood crew reformed as the grimier, gloomier Wu-tang clan and released one of the greatest rap records ever.

Prince Rakeem vs. The RZA

Prince Rakeem vs. The RZA

Grammy award-winning rapper Common followed a similar path: his first release, under the name “Common Sense”, represented a thuggish portrayal of life at the bottom. This release failed to gain the reception he was looking for so he retooled and eventually ended up releasing more emotional, progressively-minded lyrics referred to in the rap industry as “conscious.”

Common vs. Common Sense

Common Sense vs. Common

Initial failures provide learning and feedback to eventually reach success. Just like the The RZA and Common, several of the most famous startups in the world experienced a bump in the road before they hit it big.

Paypal began as a mobile payments company and pivoted several times before realizing that the greatest customer need their product met involved handling transactions inside the Ebay platform. This was the first step upon which Paypal created their dominance of online payment processing. Twitter, originally known as “Odeo”, represents another notable example of the founders going back to the drawing board. Odeo provided directory and subscription services for podcasts before scratching that concept in favor of short-burst messaging. Finally, Instagram began as a complicated, feature-heavy geolocation app with a Swiss army-like array of features. User behavior indicated that photo-sharing resonated most with their users so they scrapped the excess features and honed in on what really excited their users.

Practice Rapid Prototyping and Customer Feedback
The rap industry follows an extremely effective product development cycle unlike any other genre. Rappers use mixtapes as de facto beta products. A rap “mixtape” is not a cassette — it is an unofficial album not fully refined and developed, usually given away for free online. The goal of releasing a mixtape is to generate awareness and receive feedback from the market before the release of a full-length record.

Aspiring rappers release mixtapes through various channels, allowing them to build a following and catch the ear of more established rappers who run their own labels. This process is know as “co-signing” — in the startup world this could be compared to partnerships.

In the early 2000s, Lil Wayne proclaimed that he was the greatest rapper alive and the rap world let out a collective laugh. Up to this point, Wayne was considered an afterthought in the cannon of rappers on the Cash Money record label and mostly known for being the weak link in the Louisiana supergroup the Hot Boyz, which featured more marketable rappers such as Juvenile and B.G.

But he kept cranking out music at a rapid pace, eventually releasing 14 mixtapes in the early 2000s.

Lil Wayne mixtapes

Lil Wayne mixtapes

With each release, Lil Wayne was refining his sound based on feedback from listeners before releasing an official album. This proved to be successful for him. When he released Tha Carter III in 2007, the album achieved double platinum status.

Share Ideas and Tools: A Tale of Two Apaches
Ecosystems and communities matter for a slew of reasons. Good ecosystems encourage sharing ideas and tools. Rap music is built upon samples, which borrows beats or small snippets from other songs. A “break” — short for break beat — is the part of the song where the instrumentals and vocals drop out and all you can hear is the drums. Kool Herc, the father of hip hop, had the idea to get two copies of the same record and play the break beats one after another, creating an uninterrupted beat over which rappers could rap. Others starting copying this technique, searching for and sharing popular breaks from records. Some of the most famous rap songs ever are built on some famous breaks.

The image below maps out popular songs that sample the Apache break:

Songs that sample the Apache break

Songs that use the Apache break

The way the rap community uses breaks is exactly how the startup community uses open source software. Open source software is software developed and shared by hobbyists, amateurs, and professionals.

Coincidentally, one of the most important pieces of open source software is the Apache web server. This software runs major infrastructural components of some of the biggest software companies in the world.

Companies using the Apache break

Companies using the Apache web server

Represent Your Local Community
Unlike other genres, rappers constantly remind you where they are from. The regionality of rap is one of its greatest strengths: region-specific genres such as the Bay Area’s hyphy, Texas’ chopped and screwed music, and traditionalist East Coast rap all have unique signatures that provide identity, character, energy, and relevance to each community.

Startup ecosystems have similar regional differences, and coincidentally, these three rap music hubs* represent three of the largest startup ecosystems. In the startup world, the Bay Area is known for innovative consumer-facing startups. Texas, specifically Austin, is known for profitable B2B software startups. New York City is known for media and content-focused companies.

Note: Atlanta is the current center of the rap music universe but the Atlanta startup scene, while impressive, does not map as cleanly into this analogy

Note: Atlanta is the current center of the rap music universe but the Atlanta startup scene, while impressive, does not map as cleanly into this analogy

Rap regionality is a big deal because it is empowering on a local level. Successful regional artists provide success stories to others from that community. Global names matter and they always will: Global rap superstar 50 Cent and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg are similar in this respect. Both of them represent huge successes. But both of them emerged from fairly predictable sources, i.e. locales where lots of successful rappers and startup founders are from, respectively (50 is from Queens and Zuckerberg went to Harvard).

Tech N9ne (Kansas City), Nipsey Hussle  (Compton), or E-40 (Bay area) may not be household names in popular music. But each of these artists is stylistically inseparable from their hometowns; they embody the idea that someone from their community can make it in the rap game.

Anyone who attended Harvard can look to Zuckerberg’s success as a motivator. But it can be more motivating to see a local entrepreneur having regional success. This is why Dan Graham’s Build-A-Sign is important to Austin and Brett Martin’s Castle Branch is important to Wilmington, NC — these companies may not be well-known outside of their regions but they are symbolic of the potential of their respective ecosystems.

Conclusion
It is an exciting time for both rap and startups. Both of these cultural forces have boomed in popularity over the last two decades: demand for rap music and entrepreneurship are at all-time highs. The change in tide for both indicates a change in attitude of the new millennia. The current generation of young people that are driving our culture and shaping our economic future resonate with the values inherent in both rap and startups: innovation, a healthy sense of risk, and the power of community.

3 Day Startup Hosts a Pitch Workshop for University of Tokyo Students

3 Day Startup works with students from all over the globe to help them kickstart their startup ideas into viable companies. During SXSW, 3DS hosted a pitch workshop for students from the University of Tokyo. The purpose of the workshop was to help students further refine their elevator pitches for a global audience. Most of the participating teams already had working products or early traction from investors or customers.

Participating students were part of Todai to Texas, a program aimed at bringing the brightest student startups from the University of Tokyo to exhibit at SXSW.

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