The Entrepreneurship Curriculum at HBS: A Student’s Guide
It was 2008 and I had just moved to California to work for Google. My job involved a lot of travel to far away countries and I loved it. But booking was a nightmare.
Google allowed me to donate whatever I spent below the cap to a charity so I spent hours searching. I had always wanted to do a startup and I decided that building a product I wanted would be a good first step.
With my technical background, I decided to learn web development in my free time. I started going through the curriculum for 6.470, MIT’s web programming competition. A month later, I got unmotivated and stopped. What was the end goal? Even if I built something… then what? I had no idea how to find users, market to them, or even what their needs were.
That was the end of my tiny spark of entrepreneurship in 2008. Four years and 550k miles traveled later, travel booking is still at the top of my mind. This time, however, I’m actually building a company. What has changed? Surely spending the last two years in a HBS classroom only weakened my connection to “normal travelers.”
My biggest challenge in starting something was simply having no clue of what to do. I had no goals, no milestones and further, I simply didn’t know what startups did apart apart from code.
Through startup tribe and club events, I learned from successful entrepreneurs that the key to having a successful startup is to build something that people need. I went out and interviewed 30 people from Craigslist for my idea. And was stumped again. Now what? Do I hire outsourced engineering? Do I relearn how to code? Or do I talk start talking to partners?
This year, I am taking a lot of entrepreneurial courses. Like most MBA classes, none of them were prescriptive. However, I did learn that 1) the lean startup methodology is highly iterative and 2) almost everyone with a background similar to mine got off their butt and relearned how to code.
Even the smartest entrepreneurs.
Over the winter, I had dinner with two of the smartest kids from MIT. One of them was a triple major and spent all his time doing lab work and the other built fingerprint scanners for the door to his room.
During our two-hour dinner, the entire conversation revolved around customer development and iterating on the product. It turned out that the smartest people I knew had just built an amazing product no one needed. They had been spending the past month pouring over Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup and their world had changed forever. Their conversations no longer revolved around the latest breakthroughs in building super semi conductors but how to understand their end consumer.
I felt like I’d taken a short cut. Through Launching Tech Ventures, not only did we learn the general concepts of lean startup methodology, we assessed how well different ventures implemented it and what else they could have done to test their hypotheses quickly. We also determined cases where it might not have worked. Launching Tech Ventures provided me with a basis of when I needed to go lean and how to do it.
I applied to and participated in HackHarvard, the one week incubator at the end of January, run by Harvard undergraduates. It was a transformative experience.
The difficulty of learning how to “code” with the internet is that essentially you’re learning 3 different languages, all with different frameworks and different ways of communication. HackHarvard had 4-6 hours of lectures a day, held by teaching fellows (mainly HackHarvard board members) and professors in the Computer Science department.
Within a week, I had a much better understanding of how different languages interacted with each other and how to actually build something. To solidify my comfort with coding, I decided to take CS164 – Mobile Software Engineering, a sequel to CS50.
This is hands down the most practical computer engineering class I’ve ever taken. It consists of four projects: 2 mobile web apps and 2 iOS apps. Within 3 weeks, I had a working course selection HTML5 web app! Furthermore, all the projects had to be done with a partner so we had to use version control collaboration tools that were popular in the industry.
So, I learned from a few classes. Did that really help? Aren’t there some lessons you can only learn through personal experience? To be completely honest, I don’t know how much I’ve been able to internalize these lessons.
However, what I can say is that I am no longer stuck. I know what I need to do and how to do it. I have an internal roadmap for what needs to be done. I’m probably missing a few hundred steps in the roadmap, but at least I’m doing SOMETHING. There is no way to learn without trying and being here has taught me what it means to try.
Enduring support along the way has helped as well. One of the most helpful extracurricular things I’ve done at HBS was join the Women’s Founder’s Forum.
Every other Wednesday this semester, I’ve sat in a room of 9 other extraordinary female founders while we discussed the things that keep us up at night as founders, and as women. There were a lot of similarities in the topics most salient in our minds. From structuring co-founder relationships to how and when to find a board of directors, it was refreshing hearing the experience from someone who had just gone through it last week and reassuring that others had been in the same position of uncertainty.
One of the main problems with being an entrepreneur is that the path is extremely lonely. Your life is devoted to your company, a place where you don’t have coworkers, you have employees. Your job is to sell your company wherever you go. Apart from co-founders, it is hard to discuss the topics that are keeping you up at night.
Led by Professor Janet Kraus, the goal of the Women’s Founders’ Forum was to gather a close and active support network for female entrepreneurs. In her words, through her career, she’s had a lot of mentors but really, it was the women that put the wind in her sails. In an environment where we were all working nonstop on our own ventures, it was hard to connect with other women going through the same experience.
The Women’s Founders’ Forum was a way for us to find each other and purely rejoice in each others’ triumphs while being helpful about our struggles. It was a place where unbridled honesty prevailed and we could receive real and currently relevant feedback on our companies.
So, now that I’m graduating, did I learn everything I need to succeed in launching my own startup? I don’t know. We will all find out later on tripossible.com. But have I learned how to be an entrepreneur? Absolutely. I am taking a risk and launching my company. I’m going out to build something that customers need.
In TEM terms, I am pursuing an opportunity without regard to the current resources controlled and I’m loving it.