Up close with Steve Blank, Lean LaunchPad founder and Silicon Valley legend

Photograph © Steve Blank

Serial entrepreneur, academic, author, mentor and ‘Godfather of Silicon Valley’ — Steve Blank is known for wearing many hats. In 2013, he visited Singapore to see the inaugural Lean LaunchPad Singapore at the National University of Singapore (NUS). This 10-week programme was originally developed by Steve for the NSF I-Corps programme, which adopts new methods for teaching entrepreneurship by getting participants to understand the customer, validate their ideas and search for the right business model. NUS Enterprise brought Lean LaunchPad to Singapore, which was the first time the full course was taught in Asia.

A founder of eight Silicon Valley start-ups, Steve is also the author of The Start-Up Owners Manual and The Four Steps to the Epiphany, which essentially launched the Lean Start-Up movement. Steve shared his insights on entrepreneurship at a fireside chat attended by 150 entrepreneurs, students and researchers. Here are some of his words of wisdom:

Q: Is Singapore the right place for start-ups?

Steve: I think Singapore is a great place for start-ups, as it has an incredible set of resources in science and technology. The entrepreneurial culture here is fantastic; Singapore is a gateway to Asia, which is a booming region; there is good government support; there is access to funding; and, society is getting more accepting about risk. So overall, it’s an awesome place to be an entrepreneur!

Steve Blank with Prof Wong Poh Kam, Director of NUS Entrepreneurship Centre (a division of NUS Enterprise) at a Fireside Chat session addressing questions on start-up challenges

Q: Is entrepreneurship a science or an art?

Steve: In the past, educators have been teaching entrepreneurship in a scientific way, focusing on a set of theories, which are put into action. I believe we’ve been teaching entrepreneurship wrong, as entrepreneurship is more like an art, where we need to teach both the theory and allow the students to practice. This is what the Lean LaunchPad programme is all about — giving students a series of tools that allow them to validate their ideas and find the right business model.

Start-ups are still searching for a business model, and this needs a completely different set of tools than what business schools have been teaching.

The reason why previous methods do not work is because start-ups are not a smaller version of an established company. Large companies execute a known business model, where activities such as writing a business plan, financial forecasting or business development work well. However, start-ups are still searching for a business model, and this needs a completely different set of tools than what business schools have been teaching. So before they pump in a lot of money into the company, start-ups need to ask questions like: Who is the customer? Will the customer pay for product? Who needs it the most? Until a start-up has validated its hypotheses, it’s just a faith-based enterprise.

Q: What are some of your mistakes and how did you learn from them?

Steve: I worked in eight startups over 21 years and there’s not enough time to share all my mistakes. However, one particular costly mistake was when I lost US$35 million as CEO of Rocket Science, a video game company. I had seen a good career up to this time, with a couple of IPOs. We were getting great press publicity, even making it to the cover of Wired magazine, where we were called one of the hottest companies in the Silicon Valley. So it was a shock to me when no one would buy our games. This taught me the best lesson: All the publicity in the world doesn’t matter, until the customer tells you they love your product and are willing to buy it.

Fortunately, in Silicon Valley, we have a special word for a failed entrepreneur: Experience. So despite my mother’s thoughts of us having to leave the county or change our name (even though it was already Blank!) due to my loss, I managed to raise another US$12 million for my next company, which turned out to be a success. So there is no shame in failure. In fact, after Rocket Science, when I met my friends, their first words were, “So what’s your next company?”

Q: How does a founder choose between intuition and logic?

Steve: This is a personal choice that each founder will need to make on their own. Having said that, entrepreneurs need to have some craziness, which is why individuals from dysfunctional families often make great entrepreneurs, since they thrive in uncertainty, chaos and conflicts. So when the accountant says: The company is going out of business on Tuesday, the Founding CEO will reply: I need to raise $1 million by Monday night!

Lean LaunchPad Singapore is now accepting project applications for the 7th run from August to October 2017! It’s the perfect platform for researchers to learn about commercialising technological innovations, and to gain the necessary business knowledge, skills and tools to bring inventions to market. Graduates, MBA students and working professionals may apply as Entrepreneurial Leads. Visit our website for more information.

This article was originally published in Enterprise SPARKS, a quarterly newsletter by NUS Enterprise.

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