Stanford professor and startup guru Steve Blank shares the slide deck he's using to teach entrepreneurs how to launch and grow businesses during the pandemic

  • Steve Blank is the founder of the highly influential Lean Startup Method and a professor of entrepreneurship at Stanford.
  • Blank has partnered with the Stanford and University of Hawaii to host bootcamps designed to give entrepreneurs the tools to launch new businesses and improve existing ones.
  • Blank has updated his curriculum to reflect how the pandemic has affected his method's customer feedback, minimum viable product, and customer validation components.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Entrepreneur, Stanford professor, and founder of the Lean Startup method Steve Blank is spending his summer helping entrepreneurs navigate the turbulent waters of a pandemic and a recession.

In the bootcamps he's hosting for Stanford students and alumni as well as  the University of Hawaii's Office of Innovation and Commercialization (OIC), Blank lays out a blueprint for how entrepreneurship has changed in light of COVID-19. 

Steve Auerbach, the head of the OIC, told Business Insider he proposed the collaboration because Hawaii has been particularly affected by COVID, given the state's reliance on tourism. According to the Bureau of Labor, unemployment in the state peaked in April at nearly 25%.

"My main goal is for those who complete the course to take that knowledge back to their work environment, continue to develop it, and reinvent their business post-COVID," said Auerbach. 

Blank's famous Lean Startup Method rests on three pillars: the business model canvas; customer development; and agile development. The first and third pillars of the ideology can easily adjust to pandemic-era conditions.

But the second pillar, "customer development," must change dramatically to accommodate COVID. Blank's concept of customer development relies heavily on "getting out of the building," his phrase for describing the reconnaissance entrepreneurs need to do when figuring out the specifics of their product. 

How does that change when everyone is stuck inside? Business Insider asked Blank for his insights and included the deck he's teaching from below.

Ramp up customer feedback (remotely) by 50%-100%

According to Blank, prior to the start of his bootcamps, he was worried about how students would get customer input when both parties were stuck inside their respective houses. 

"At first this seemed to be a fatal stake through the heart of the class," Blank wrote on his website. "How on earth would customer interviews work via video?"

Soon, though, Blank found this was hardly an obstacle at all. Students were able to easily connect with potential customers and pick their brains about the product. In fact, Blank says, the absence of "gatekeepers" made some of their findings even easier to come by. 

In-person interviews still offer the most valid feedback, but Blank offers a hierarchy of feedback methods. At the top is "in-person," followed by video teleconference, phone calls, emails, and finally surveys.

"First-level interviews should probably be done by Zoom," said Blank. "No question about it. You should step up the pace of interviews by at least 50%-100%."

 

Acknowledge the current challenges when connecting with customers

In his deck, Blank tells students that any new product they are creating needs to take into consideration the new realities of COVID. 

So, Blank says, entrepreneurs should ask questions like, "What were customers' needs/problems/solutions pre-Covid? What is it like now? Have there been regulatory changes? What do they think it will be like when the recovery comes?"

Blank also recommends being sensitive in your outreach efforts, acknowledging that potential interviewees might have more responsibilities, more stress, and a diminished bandwidth for helping.

Finally, he says getting what is called "customer validation" will be more challenging. 

"Customer validation is fancy phrase for, 'Can you get an early order, or early something, that gives you evidence of people's willingness to buy?'"

Given the recession, potential customers may be less willing to spend money on non-essential purchases. But, says Blank, that reticence might wear down the longer the pandemic drags on.

 

Make a digital 'minimum viable product'

Showing customers your minimum viable product, or MVP, is a critical component of the customer development process. 

In order to get user feedback, you'll want to show a version of your product. But it should be the most minimal, stripped-down version because you will then adjust your offering based on the feedback.

Pre-COVID, many MVPs were physical products: sketches, lo-fi models, and physical approximations. 

Now, any MVP developed must be digital. For software products, there is no change necessary. But for anything that was best modeled in a physical form, you need to find a way to offer customers a simulacrum of the product digitally.

Accept what you cannot change

As old koan goes, you have to accept that some things are outside of your control. Depending on your product, right now might not be the best time to launch. 

For instance, if your product deals with front-line respondents, they might lack the bandwidth to give you their feedback. It might even be irresponsible to borrow their time right now, given the pressing demands on healthcare workers' schedules and mental health.

Blank breaks it down pretty simply: "If your product is relevant to making people healthier, safer, or more effective, keep at it. If it's not, then put it on hold."

 

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