Startup Lessons that will Transform your Work with Alumni Entrepreneurs

By now, you may have read my other posts exploring Higher Ed advancement and entrepreneurship. You may be thinking about building a Founders Pledge philanthropy program at your school, or applying a new approach to some aspect of your work. Perhaps you want to better understand your alumni entrepreneurs.

If you’re interested in building mechanisms for entrepreneur-driven philanthropy, consider this post a preface to that work. It will challenge you to bring a creative, efficient, determined, and resourceful mindset to the table — in other words, to become an entrepreneur.

The right mindset helps you move through and around barriers

Why is mindset so important? When there’s no clear path, you’ll be forced to think beyond tried-and-true approaches. You’ll need to see and make new connections. Imagine and explain outcomes that don’t yet exist. Tell new stories that excite both your colleagues and your alumni.

This gets easier with practice, and there’s a huge bonus attached. As you apply more startup lessons to your work, your conversations with alumni entrepreneurs will deepen. You’ll see more ways to connect them with resources at your institution. Your relationships will become more authentic and meaningful. Alumni will find real satisfaction in connecting with the school — everyone wins. Here are two ideas to get you started.

#1. Building a great product requires deep empathy

It’s a familiar concept in Silicon Valley, but the idea isn’t just for tech folks. The principle states that in order to create something that people will actually use, you must deeply understand their needs, desires, motivations, and barriers.

Startups talk with their users, watch how they interact with products, survey them afterwards. This helps companies formulate an intuitive, emotional sense for user behavior. It enables them to design a better product. The principle holds true whether building software or an alumni newsletter. This short article on The Next Web is a good intro to the concept.

Shift the concept to Higher Ed Advancement: Talk to your ‘users.’ Think of your offerings to alumni as ‘products,’ and talk with your ‘users’ in order to truly understand what will get them to engage. Observe an alum using your website or reading your newsletter. Try to put yourself in their shoes. What matters to them? What are the demands on their time and attention? What keeps them up at night? And can you align your institution’s offerings with those issues?

#2. Focus on your Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

The concept is often tied to the Lean Startup movement, a method for startup development. Lean Startup principles dictate that you build a basic version of your product with the smallest possible investment. You test this with customers to learn which directions to pursue in your next, more robust version.

The opposite approach would be to build a beautiful, fully-featured product and spend even more time and money to launch it. Few startup failures were as spectacular or instructive as that of Color, a photo sharing social network that closed in 2012. Color failed for several reasons, but it was basically the opposite of a lean startup.

Shift the concept to Higher Ed Advancement: Start small. You always risk something when you build a new product. This is usually time, money, and/or reputation. Why not cut these risks by keeping your idea simple and your investment limited? Ask yourself, “What’s the smallest, easiest, most affordable step I can take, and still move forward?”

Building something new can push you to think sideways

Countless startup lessons apply to Higher Ed and other businesses. A key part of startup culture is sharing these lessons, and you can learn a ton by starting right here on Medium. Another great place to browse is question-and-answer site Quora. Simply learning the vocabulary of startups can enhance your results. I hope this post has been a helpful start.

I’ve also learned a lot from hundreds of alumni startup founders and execs I’ve worked with. I try to use every interaction to build knowledge and empathy. This is a practice that carries over to my development work as well, of course.

In a resource-constrained environment like Higher Ed, an entrepreneurial approach makes sense. If you put any of these concepts into practice, please get in touch! I’d love to co-author a blog post with you about your results.


I’m exploring Philanthropy + Entrepreneurship + Higher Ed. When these three domains intersect, the true power of a university/college’s innovation ecosystem can be unlocked. Ideas and learnings always welcome!