Startup Guru Steve Blank Says It’s Time for E-Schools, Not B-Schools

A few weeks ago I had very long lunch at Vitrine with Steve Blank, who’s famous in entrepreneurship circles as the originator of the “customer development” methodology for getting a technology startup off the ground. Here at Xconomy, we’ve been cross-posting Blank’s blog posts for a few months, but the lunch was my first chance to meet him in person, and we had a long, winding, enlightening conversation about Steve’s own history as an entrepreneur, the origins of the customer development framework, and his current thinking about the state of business training for entrepreneurs.

In short, the retired co-founder of E.piphany—who lives with his family in Pescadero, CA, about 45 minutes south of San Francisco—thinks that startups are unique animals that grow according to their own rules, and that those rules don’t have much to do with what MBA students learn at business school. He thinks it’s time for a new generation of “entrepreneurship schools” to spring up alongside traditional business schools, with their own unique curricula emphasizing things like customer development, agile software development, and business model generation. It’s a provocative argument, and while a few traditional business schools such as Babson College have been vigorously promoting their own degree programs as foundations for entrepreneurial careers, startups are so different from traditional corporations that Blank may well be right—it could be time for a total reboot of business education.

I recorded our conversation, and my plan is to publish parts of the transcript over the next couple of weeks. The recording is an hour and a quarter long altogether, and the text below represents only the first 15 minutes or so, which gives you an idea of how fast Blank talks and how many ideas he processes per minute. Before you dive in, it helps to know that Blank’s book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany, first came out in 2003, and that the eponymous four steps consist of customer discovery, customer validation, customer discovery, and company building. You can learn more about those steps from this Slideshare slide deck and from Eric Ries’ excellent summary of Blank’s book. Ries, who first met Blank as a student in Blank’s class at the Haas School of Business at Berkeley, is famous these days for his own “lean startup” methodology, which is often conjoined with the customer development inside Web 2.0 startups; in coming segments of this interview, Blank discusses Ries and his contributions in detail.

Xconomy: Clearly you could be doing many things with your time. Why put so much energy into helping entrepreneurs and promoting entrepreneurship?

Steve Blank: One of the things about me, first, is that my career was [built] on—in hindsight, and only in hindsight—intense curiosity. And ironically, intense curiosity about fields I had absolutely no competence in initially. If you look back at the startups I did—they were two semiconductor companies, a supercomputer company, a video game company, an enterprise software company, on and on—[with] each one of them, the way I learned to become a good entrepreneur was to become the customer. Meaning, it wasn’t just write a data sheet. You had to understand what they did. At the supercomputer company, our customers were essentially Cray’s customers. People doing computational fluid dynamics, computational chemistry, reservoir simulation. You had to actually know what they did on a daily basis, and for me, that meant being able to demo the code and the simulations.

I’m going to answer your question, but my career was one of waking up in the morning, driving down 101, to whatever the company was, and I can remember multiple times, saying “I can’t believe they pay me for this,” because if they knew how much I loved it, I should have been paying them. The only time in my entire career when I didn’t feel that way was … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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