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

3/9/11Follow @wroush

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when I was cratering Rocket Science. I couldn’t even go to work in the morning. And that was such an exception, it stands out in my twenty years.

X: That was Rocket Science Games, the video game company.

SB: Yes. I did two craters so deep they left their own iridium layer. Those were Rocket Science, where I was the CEO, and Ardent, where I was part of the founding team. At Rocket there was no one else, other than me, screwing that up. But in any case, that was the exception.

And so when I retired [in 1999], I retired because when Epiphany went public, I had more money than I had ever dreamed of. My parents were immigrants, and I grew up in a 600-square-foot apartment in New York City. And so this was way past what I had ever expected. And to be honest, I’m not confused about this—the bubble added probably two zeroes at least to Epiphany’s market value. It was a serious company with a valuable product, but probably would have had a fraction of the valuation [without the Internet bubble]. But I looked at my kids, and they were seven and eight at the time, and decided that I wanted to see them grow up.

By this time, I had watched a lot of guys who were my mentors and role models be world-class executives and scientists and engineers whose kids grew up to hate them. Since we had had kids late in our life, we had already set a set of rules about—in fact, it’s a blog post called “Epitaph for an Entrepreneur.” If you haven’t seen it, it’s one of the best-read ones. It had nothing to do with technology, but how a serial entrepreneur manages a family life and the rules we set.

So this was not just wordsmithing, it was the reason I decided to put the startup life down, because I kind of said, is my life just about other startup, or is there a life involved? I said, “I don’t need to do this, let me take a break.” Like everything, I threw myself into a couple of other passionate endeavors. Some of them take up a good bit of my time. Non profits. I’m also a public official in the State of California, on the Coastal Commission. And so I now have a diverse set of interests.

But my first job in Silicon Valley was as a training instructor, which got me into some other exciting places, but I loved to teach, so I got invited to be a guest speaker at Berkeley, and teaching reconnected with my initial passion.

Now at the same time I retired, as I was searching for what to do next, I took the family skiing like we had done a couple of times, in Tahoe, and while the girls and Alice, my wife, were out skiing, I decided it was a great time to write my memoirs. You know, “20 years as an executive, Steve’s brilliant whatever, and here’s the lessons I learned out of that.” I got 80 pages into it and I realized two fundamental things. One is, I’d have to pay my children to read this thing. Two is, 20 years and I never recognized it, but there was a pattern. These were not discrete and separate stories. I said “Oh my god, there is something going on here that I never even recognized.”

And I still remember sitting in that cabin watching it snow, and I’m going wait a minute…by that time, I’m on the advisory boards of a ton of companies. I’m on a couple of public company boards. My friends are now VCs as well as entrepreneurs. I went, “Oh my god, this is a pattern that goes on in other companies.” It wasn’t just me. The pattern was how startups failed and succeeded. I said, “World-class VCs must know this, but obviously I’m not reading the right books, because this must have been written about.” In the next year and a half I must have read every marketing and strategy and whatever book. And I realized that every book on strategy and execution was written about large companies. And in fact there was no body of literature about startups. Every writer was describing a startup as a small version of a large company. And the pattern I was recognizing was, “Uh oh, no they’re not.”

X: Are you dramatizing a little bit here? You’re in the cabin in the snow and this is the first time in your life you’ve wondered about whether there are some repeatable lessons to growing a startup, when you’ve already done five of them?

SB: Every entrepreneur—maybe not today, because I’ve poisoned the well here—says their startup is unique. I think in the ’70s and ’80s when I was doing startups, every one of them was unique. And VCs were these brilliant sources of wisdom. Not that they … Next Page »

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

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