STRAMGT 321 – Create A New Venture

Here’s the class information website for last year (doesn’t look like it has been updated for 2014-15 yet).

As I mentioned in a previous post, this class was hands-on with a pre-formed team. I partnered with Erik Wittreich and Randy Sternke to create Hinted (actually it started as uLooped – thankfully we were able to figure out a better brand) – we intend to take the feedback-rich environment out of Stanford and bring it to enterprises and consumers.

Prof. Dennis Rohan admitted a number of teams into this class, each having already submitted an idea for a business concept. Our class ranged from coffee honey beverages and artisanal cheeses to investor certification, liquor retailing and, of course, feedback. Some of the teams stayed very true to their original concepts and made minor tweaks to accommodate business or customer realities. Other teams made drastic changes – but this is all expected – the key learning in this class is not to drive your original idea forward to become a business, but rather to start with an idea and see where it leads.

Structurally, this class was comprised of whole-class lectures (often with a guest speaker), section seminars (mostly teams presenting and giving feedback to each other), individual group / instructor meetings (a short private meeting with Prof. Rohan for him to asses your progress and give direction, advice and critique) and also mentor meetings (Prof. Rohan arranges for each team to be assigned a mentor with entrepreneurial or venture capital experience).

The lectures often brought in guest speakers to cover different topics: from d.school methods to Touchy-Feely concepts, we repeatedly heard the advice to get off-campus and talk to the real world. Go find experts and talk to them – it’s often surprising who will take the time to talk to a Stanford GSB student under the cover of research. For some reason, the idea that they’re talking to a student seems to open up avenues that would otherwise be closed to a cold-call. It also helps to have your own contacts to reach out to – people who know you will generally be your biggest supporters and often look forward to being a mentor.

Our assigned mentor was Eric Chen – a former GSB’er who was co-founder of TinyPrints – another GSB Startup. Yes, the team with 2 Erik’s got an Eric as a mentor… Eric generously met with us several times and was a valuable sounding board for our ideas and changes of direction. It was helpful to have more than Prof. Rohan’s POV – sometimes they would give us the same advice, but often their ideas were diametrically opposed, so it fell to us to hear both, think critically ourselves and decide upon a path to follow.

Gerard at Beecher's Cheese (Seattle Study Trip)

Gerard at Beecher’s Cheese (Seattle Study Trip)

On top of the scheduled sessions, the groups are expected to do a lot of field-work, individual and group work. What exactly each team did varied greatly – after all, each team had very different needs and customer prospects. For example, Gerard Tuck’s cheese team were actively conducting focus groups – feeding the groups marinated cheese and asking for customer marketing data. How much do you typically spend on cheese and other snacks? Is cheese an impulse buy? Have you ever heard of … These types of customer interactions are only a small fraction of the total effort required. Another team, Elevado (formerly Coffee Honey), experimented with different recipes for their natural sweetener – testing beverages, snacks and other ways to use their product.

Hinted conducted experiments on the Sloan/MSx ’14 cohort – our first embodiment involved a mocked up test using Excel spreadsheets and hand-selected test candidates. This process largely validated our original assumptions, so Randy proceeded to build our alpha-test tool – since he was simultaneously taking CS 142: Web Applications, he was able to build the tool for his class project and share his effort across two classes. Once the web tool was working, we continued testing with a larger group within the cohort and eventually collected more than 10,000 data points from self- and peer-ratings. Later, in the Spring Quarter, we would eventually use this same tool in Prof. Gary Dexter’s OB 374: Interpersonal Dynamics class.

If you are contemplating taking this class, consider the following:

  • It’s a ton of work – if you are taking this class seriously and “doing it right,” you will be spending a lot of time on this class. Some weeks will be lighter than others, but don’t be surprised if you need to spend 10-20+ hours/week
  • Team dynamics is crucial – because you will be spending so much time on this, make sure you enjoy the company of the people you will be working with – you will also need to apply as a team, so you need to figure out who you can work with as early as possible – don’t forget to look for MBA and non-GSB teammates if applicable
  • Only work on something you enjoy – because you will be spending so much time on this and in close quarters with your team, make sure the concept is something that you will enjoy working on, or at the very least you will learn a lot while you’re working on it – the last thing you want is to get stuck with a team or project that you can’t tolerate

At the conclusion of the class, each team presents their current state to a board of investors (but keep in mind that they’re there to give feedback and suggestions, not to invest – although they might facilitate helpful introductions). Consider this an opportunity to practice your pitch skills!

STRAMGT 321 is a two-quarter class (second Quarter is, unsurprisingly, STRAMGT 322). However, our team found it impossible to make the schedule fit – so we opted not to take the second half of the class. But unlike many of the teams formed in S321, we are still actively working on Hinted.

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