Jen van der Meer is the Founder and CEO of Reason Street, where she provides business model consulting and data services in the health and social impact sectors. Prior to Reason Street, Jen held executive management roles at Organic, Frog Design, Luminary Labs, and Dachis Group which acquired her social data + community company Drillteam. Jen is an adjunct at NYU ITP, where she teaches Lean LaunchPad, runs the ITP Pitchfest, and serves as a Judge and Mentor for multiple NYU Entrepreneurship programs and competitions.
This is part two in a two part series - see part one here.
Customer Discovery Divines Sustainable vs. Scale Potential
In the first week indoctrination to Lean LaunchPad, the 24 teams in I-Corps L were encouraged to change their approach for how to scale curricula and teaching method innovations, under the relentlessly direct feedback of fellow Ed-Tech entrepreneurs, VCs, NSF advisors, and the Lean LaunchPad creators, Steve Blank and Jerry Engel. Each team, a triad consisting of an academic principal investigator, an entrepreneurial lead, and a mentor, were charged with taking their initial learning innovation and finding customers - fast. “Get out of the building” to discover potential customers.
The Customer Discovery approach is well suited to answer the question of scalable vs. sustainable. Most academic educators share the same bias as tech founders who fall in love with their solution without ever talking to more than a few potential customers. Customer Discovery forces the team out of the comfort zone of academic hierarchy and challenges the egos of the team, who are deeply humbled when they first try to sell their solution.
Almost every team had defined the STEM crisis as the “hair on fire” problem they were motivated to solve, and were shocked to learn a quick sample of parents at Union Square in SF, or the Exploratorium museum, had never heard of STEM or STEAM. The creators of an after school STEM curricula learned that a highly educated high income parent would pay a premium for these kinds of programs, but then the educators were disappointed that launching with this segment would delay their ability to reach students of all incomes.
Those teams that were successful in repositioning their value proposition to appeal to a potentially larger addressable market were on to a more scalable innovation. For example, a number of after school curricula creators learned that they shouldn’t be headlining their value proposition with the STEM crisis. After deeply listening to families of all incomes and educational advancement status, they learned that there were common themes for how parents described their deepest needs. More important than science, or design thinking, or engineering methods, these parents want the benefits these methods have to offer.
Parents want their children to develop team-building skills, collaboration skills, discovery and joy in learning, and reduce their fear of failure.
There is a huge addressable market in a society that seeks these outcomes. Recasting the value proposition based on these outcomes of learning, rather than the curricula itself, worked to expand the market.
Other teams confirmed potential sustainability rather than scalability. Defining how a certain curriculum or program could replicate within a local school system, or to other school systems. While these project teams were unlikely to see a hockey stick style growth curve in their future, they are well equipped to envision how their innovation can move beyond their initial experiments.
At the end of the program, the NSF has a particularly open stance to what becomes of the project team innovations.
The outcomes of the projects are expected to be:
- A clear go-no go decision concerning the viability and effectiveness of the learning oriented resources/products, practices and services
- An implementation “product” and process for potential partners/adopters
- A transition plan to move the effort forward and bring the innovation to scale.
The prize for participation for academic entrepreneurs is high: The I-Corps programs feed the popular NSF Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Tech Transfer Programs (SBIR and STTR), and successful businesses can earn multiple non-dilutive grants that rival seed or Series A investments.
NSF is very comfortable telling STEM educator / entrepreneurs that it’s ok to fail once you’ve gathered enough evidence that your project isn’t viable. At the start of the program, teams were assured that a decision to not continue a program is completely acceptable. Teams move to no-go when they learn the steep uphill climb it would take to scale their innovation, because they are too early, there is too much competition, or they are not cost effective enough to deliver in the current market environment. Teams also choose no go when the individuals involved decide that entrepreneurship is just not their calling.
What I learned from the experience in the end: parents want for their children what the NSF wants from educator entrepreneurs: learning how to take risks, collaborate, and reduce our fear of failure, and the joy of discovery.