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Sometimes it Pays to Be a Jerk

Steve Blank

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
William Shakespeare Henry V | Act 4, Scene 3

band of brothers

The concepts in my Lean LaunchPad curriculum can be taught in a variety of classes–as an introduction to entrepreneurship all the way to a graduate level “capstone class.”

I recently learned being tough when you select teams for a capstone class pays off for all involved.

Here’s why.

—-

Our Lean LaunchPad class requires student teams to get out of the building and talk to 10-15 customers a week while they’re building the product.  And they do this while they are talking a full load of other classes.  To say it’s a tough class is an understatement.  The class is designed for students who said they want  a hands-on experience in what it takes to build a startup – not just writing a business plan or listening to lectures.

The class syllabus has all kinds of “black box” warnings about how difficult the classes, the amount of time required, etc.

Yet every year about 20% of teams melt down and/or drop the class because some of the team members weren’t really committed to the class or found they’ve overcommitted.

This year that drop out rate went to zero when I ran an accidental “be a jerk” experiment.

Here Are The Rules
We set up the Lean LaunchPad class so that teams hit the ground running in the first class. Before students are admitted, they formed teams, applied as a team with abusiness model canvas, had homework and were expected to be presenting their business model canvas hypotheses on day one of the class. Our first class session is definitely not a “meet and greet”.  The syllabus is clear that attendance was mandatory for the first class.

This year, at one of the universities where I teach in the engineering school, our quarter was going to start right after the New Year.  Some of the teams had students from the business school, law school and education school whose start dates were a few days later.

To remind everyone that attendance at the first class was required, we sent out an email to all the teams in December. We explained why attendance at the first class was essential and reminded them they agreed to be there when they were admitted to the class. The email let them know if they missed the first class, they weren’t going to be allowed to register.  And since teams required 4 members, unless their team found a replacement by the first week, the team would not be allowed to register either.  (We made broad exceptions for family emergencies, events and a few creative excuses.)

I had assumed everyone had read the syllabus and had planned to be back in time for class.

Then the excuses started rolling in.

Be A Jerk
About 25% of the teams had team members who had purposely planned to miss the first class.  Most of the excuses were, “I thought I could make it up later.”

In past years I would have said, “sure.”  This year I decided to be a jerk.

I had a hypothesis that showing up for the first class might be a good indicator of commitment when the class got tough later in the quarter.  So this time, unless I heard a valid excuse for an absence I said, “too bad, you’ve dropped the class.”

You could hear the screaming around the world (this is in a school where the grading curve goes from A to A+.)  The best was an email from a postdoc who said “all his other professors had been accommodating his “flexible” schedule his entire time at the school and he expected I would be as well.“  Others complained that they had paid for plane tickets and it would cost them money to change, etc.

I stuck to my guns – pointing out that they had signed up for the class knowing this was the deal.

Half the students who said they couldn’t make it magically found a way to show up.  The others dropped the class.

The results of the experiment?  Instead of the typically 20% drop out rate during the quarter none left – 0.

We had a team of committed and passionate students who wanted to be in the class.  Everyone else failed the “I’m committed to making this happen” test.

Lessons Learned

  • Commitment is the first step in building a startup team.
  • It washes out the others
  • Setting a high bar saves a ton of grief later
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Comment to "Sometimes it Pays to Be a Jerk":
    • Beecher Bowers

      It’s great to see education providing real-world consequences to real-world assignments like this. You don’t get do-overs in business. Fail the opportunity and it costs something. Removing the net like this keeps the focus on the goal.

      [Report abuse]

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