How I teach startup

A student wrote to me: “Steve Jobs never asked customers what they want but he still created excellent products. He never asked customers about their problems but he still made a lot of money. I have taken several “startup” courses and learned about how to be a successful entrepreneur by having a great product. I think motivation and inspiration are more important in startup instead of focus on the customers.…..”

I wrote back to him: “There are differences ways of teaching startup depend on the motivation and experience of the teachers. In my blog, I share my view on how I teach entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University. Some people may agree with this approach and some may not because there are no guaranteed formulas for success in a startup. I know Mr. Jobs was very successful with the iPods, iPhones, and iPads and made a lot of money. But the problem is some people believe that they are another “Steve Jobs” and they think they know everything. They do not like to listen to the customers’ needs or knowing what the customers want. They believe that if they can create a product, people will buy, and they will be rich. The fact is it does not happen this way in real life, and most technology startups fail because no one buys or uses their products.

For many years of teaching entrepreneurship and mentored many successful startups at Carnegie Mellon, I always taught my students that without customers, there is no startup. Only when you have a product that the customers are willing to buy, and you can sell it with good profit then you will succeed. How do you know what customers will buy? The only way is to ask them so each week, my students must go and ask as many people as possible and build a list of customers’ inputs then bring back to class for further discussion. During the class discussion, students must explain what customers like and do not like; what they want and do not want, and how much they are willing to pay for the product. If there are enough customers and the market is large enough or profitable enough then they can start their company, if not they should begin with a new idea and new product. In my class, students must continue to do this until they come up with a product that has a lot of customers then they start their company. If they do not succeed, at least they learn the lesson of how to create a startup.

For ten years of teaching this approach, my program has successfully created over 60 successful companies and after several years, 58 of them are still doing well. I do not focus on motivation or inspiration but on the customer as the important factor in technology entrepreneurship. The customers know their problems; know what they need; and know what they do not need. But they do not know how to solve the problem. And that is why they are willing to buy a product if it can provide the solution. All of the students in my program are technology students with strong technical skills. They need to learn about market analysis and customer validation and they have to go interview at least 10 customers per week to discover the needs as well as understand what the customer’s problems are BEFORE even built the product.

I always told my students: “You are not Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, so do not use these people as your model. There are other thousands of successful entrepreneurs in the technology industry today. They are successful because they work hard, know the market, know their customers and willing to learn from their mistakes. Entrepreneurship is NOT simple as people say but a lot of learning and changing. You need deep technical knowledge as well as business knowledge to succeed and that is why you are taking this course. You learn about market analysis, you learn about opportunities, you learn about modeling your business as well as successes and failures of others. From the market analysis, you learn about the new opportunity and come up with ideas. From the idea you build a prototype and sharing with the class for additional comments. Although your classmates may like your software product or your complex algorithms you need to take your prototype to the customers for their inputs. Depending on the product, some may go to a company to demonstrate their solution, others talk to random people on the street or students from another university to get them comment on the prototype. They carefully record their inputs, ask questions to understand what the users are saying then incorporate what they learned into their product.

That is the approach I teach my students on “startup.” A practical process where my students must follow a rigorous step by step to build a product, and keep changing and adjusting until the product meets the customers’ needs. If not they must change the direction and start over until they succeed.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University
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