Lessons from a serial entrepreneur — @bobdorf

Bob Dorf is a serial entrepreneur. His twitter handle describes him as a STARTUP TRAINER/COACH Coauthor Startup Owners Manual …founded 7 startups for 2 home runs, 2 basehits, 3 tax losses. invested/advised 24 for 7 IPOs, 6 wipeouts. And just like his twitter pic, Bob is as animated as you can get!

I recently had the privilege to listen to Bob speak at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) when he attended the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Johannesburg as a key note speaker sharing a platform with the likes of Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, Small Business Development Minister, Lindiwe Zulu & Adrian Gore — to name but a few.

Bob shared personal war stories of his journey into entrepreneurship, showering great respect and praise onto his business partner and Coauthor of the Startup Owner’s Manual, Steve Blank. I was intrigued with his humility and brute honesty as to what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur and why it was not for everyone. He funnily related a story of how the Dean from Columbia Business School in appointing him Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship to teach Customer Development and Business Modeling, had asked him to provide his academic qualifications. He’s response was that he had a diploma somewhere on a wall which he could bring but his real qualifications were the scars on his back and he’ll happily take off his shirt to prove it!

Bob did a sterling job in summarizing the 608 page The Startup Owner’s Manual: A Step — By — Step Guide to Building a Great Company into a 40-minute management talk. In the process he epitomized what a true entrepreneur is. That is structured somewhat but not, serious yet funny, inspiring, thoughtful, reflective and agile in his responses. His key take-outs were;

  1. More startups fail from a lack of customers than from failure to build a product

Here Bob emphasized the need for the new customer development process using Alex Osterwalder’s Business Canvas framework.


He placed detailed focus on the Value Proposition, Customer Segments and Customer Relationships components.

2. Startups are in search mode, companies are in execution mode

The canvas, although diligently completed, may only result in a set of guesses. Changing “guesses” to fact will entail the 3 Key INITIAL Discovery Phases i.e.

- Does anyone care?

Are we solving a serious problem?

Are we filling a big need?

- Become your own customer

- Does our product do the job?

Do they grab it out of your hands?

Are they eager to tell their friends? It’s extremely rare but this is the “light bulb” moment when you know you have Product/Market fit!

The key actions are;

“Get out of the building!”

- Don’t talk to friends or family as they will always give you a biased view

- Founders must do this themselves! Don’t outsource it to interns, researchers etc.

- Do not sell!

Pivot between Customer Discovery and Customer Validation

3. The ultimate goal is Product/Market Fit!

Summed up as, the core customer segment likes the Minimum Value Proposition (i.e. the smallest set of features that gives you the most orders, learning, feedback or failure) and knows there’s more to come but clearly eager to BUY!!!

4. And when it doesn’t work (which is most of the time) …


In closing, Bob demonstrated that the tumultuous journey of startups could be reduced to a science with a formula (i.e. Customer Discovery, Customer Validation, Customer Creation and Company Building) if followed in a somewhat structured way, could result in a higher probability of success. In response to my question of how important is market in the product/market fit, especially in the context of South Africa’s stagnant GDP growth? Bob responded that there are always opportunities and since there is no such thing as a perfect product/market fit, even more validation and iteration is required. His 5 core principles are very profound and worth remembering to any budding entrepreneur i.e.;

- Startups aren’t smaller versions of companies;

- Customers don’t read business plans — so just make a forecast;

- Startups Search now and then Execute;

- Only one set of opinions matter;


Copyright and great free content @ Steve Blank (tools/more: www.steveblank.com)

Ashley Mathura·
3 min
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