Startup Sprints

What is this and is it for me?

I formulated ‘Startup Sprints’ based on work I’ve done as an entrepreneur, mentor, and mentor-to-mentors working with various industry and academic programs for startups. Basically, it’s a way for teams to spend a fixed amount of time per sprint on core venture development using today’s best practices in a coherent, integrated fashion. A few of the most core practices I used here: design thinking, Lean Startup, customer development, business model canvas, and agile.

Here’s the pitch in summary:

I’M A FOUNDER/
ENTREPRENEUR
I’M A MENTOR I’M A PROGRAM LEAD
Founder-Entrepreneur-Small Startup-Mentor Teaching-Tech-Entrepreneurship
- Structured program to stay focused on what’s pivotal
- Best practices- in one place; integrated
- Ready to use materials and templates
- Techniques for moving your team forward
- Structured exercises to keep meeting times focused, productive
- A ready infrastructure that implements best practices in a coherent fashion
- Techniques to increase the quality of team-mentor interaction
- A way to institutionalize a measureable, repeatable process

The program is organized into five ‘sprints’ (Sprints are an agile technique where you have a fixed working period with specific goals for working product.).
Startup Sprints Summary

You or your program set the sprints’ duration. An intensive 10-week program would use a 2 week duration. A 3 week duration works well in a typical 15 week academic semester or quarter. But you could go up to 6 weeks for a slower pace.

Overview of Sprints

1: WHERE’S THE PONY?
1: Where's the pony?This sprint is about anchoring the venture with a solid definition of the proposed business. You’ll then master operational tools for applying design thinking and Lean Startup. For most ventures, a lot of this activity is about acquiring a working knowledge of the techniques and identifying all the things you want to know or validate. You’ll also design work for the next sprint where you’ll go out and learn about your customer and validate your assumptions.

OUTPUTS WORKSHOPS AND SESSIONS
MINIMUM
Positioning Statement
Take I: Personas & Problem Scenarios
Take I: Pivotal Assumptions
Take I: Customer Discovery Plan to Deepen Personas & Validate Assumptions
Design-Driven Entrepreneurship
Lean Startup in Practice
Customer Research- Blending Qualitative and Quantitative Techniques

 

2: WHERE’S THIS PONY HEADED?
2: Where's this pony headed?This sprint is about initial validation of your personas, problem scenarios, and pivotal assumptions. You’ll assess what you’ve learned and figure out what’s next. You’ll also step through your business model using the Business Model Canvas and complete a first take on the ‘minimum viable product’ that will allow you to finish validating your pivotal assumptions. Accelerated teams will move ahead to drafting user stories and prototypes; BUT this is only advisable if your validated learning strong supports your existing assumptions. Otherwise, it’s better to focus on validated learning about your customer and operating environment.

OUTPUTS WORKSHOPS AND SESSIONS
MINIMUM
Take II: Real, Validated Personas & Problem Scenarios
Take II: Pivotal Assumptions
Business Model Canvas
Experimental Design to Validate Other (Non-Persona) Assumptions
Minimum Viable Product Definition- MVP (if applicable)

STRETCH
User Stories
Prototypes or MVP
Business Model Canvas
Defining Your MVPPrototyping

 

3: TRAILBLAZING
3: TrailblazingThis sprint is about going full tilt at that ‘pivot or persevere’ moment. You’ll be using the low-cost, short cycle experiments you’ve designed to prove or disprove your pivotal assumptions. This may or may not involve the creation of actual product (MVP). If so, or if you’re close to building product, you should start drafting user stories.

OUTPUTS WORKSHOPS AND SESSIONS
MINIMUM
Results from Assumption, MVP and/or Prototype Testing
User Stories
Prototypes
Revisions-
What have you learned?
How did you learn it?
How has your point of view changed?
Design Thinking & Lean Startup in Practice- Case Studies

 

4: PATHFINDING
4: PathfindingLast sprint before the ‘pivot or persevere?’ conclusion! Here you’ll continue to evolve your point of view on the venture based on validated learning, continuing the acquire as much priority validated learning as possible before the last sprint.

OUTPUTS WORKSHOPS AND SESSIONS
MINIMUM
Results from Assumption & MVP Testing
Revisions-
What have you learned?
How did you learn it?
How has your point of view changed?
Peer Presentations- What We’ve Learned so Far (in specific format)

 

5: ARE WE THERE YET?
5: Are we there yet?This is it! It’s time to decide whether you have a venture worth scaling up or whether it’s time to pivot and revise. If your conclusion is pivot, work on how your validated learning points you in the direction of your next pivot. If your conclusion is persevere, what are the next steps?

OUTPUTS WORKSHOPS AND SESSIONS
MINIMUM
Conclusions: Pivot or Persevere?
Peer Presentations

 

If you’re a founder scrambling to launch or evaluate a new venture, I think you’ll find these materials an easy way to keep focused on the key questions toward a ‘pivot or persevere’ moment. If you’re a mentor, I think you’ll find useful, ready-to-wear tools to help your teams move forward. If you’re a program administrator, a mentor of mentors, I think you’ll find an infrastructure you can use to help build a repeatable process for building better ventures.

I’m a startup founder.

Founder-Entrepreneur-XSmallRunning a whole company, even on a small scale, comes with a lot of odds and ends. That and more pull you away from the core questions you’re addressing: Do I have a compelling venture here? If so, how do I focus, validate, and scale it? I think you’ll find material here that helps you move forward with a minimum of overhead and a maximum of focus and transparency you can use with your stakeholders.

Here are a few specific problem scenarios and how the program approaches them:

Problem Scenario Startup Sprints
I have an idea I’m excited about, but I’m not sure if I should pursue it. Starting with Sprint 1 you’ll nail down a working description of the business and start working out an operational definition of your customers, what they want, and if/how you’re in a position to give it to them.This material draws heavily on design thinking and Lean Startup
I’m doing this- Can I bootstrap it? If so, how? You already are! If you’re already full time on the venture, you can move faster. But this program is designed for 2-5 days/company/sprint, which you can easily accommodate on nights and weekends.
Can I raise money for this? How? Imagine you’re an investor. What would you want to see? You’d definitely want a venture that understands its customer, specifically the problem scenario(s) they’re addressing and how they’re going to validate the underpinnings of the business (or already have).We’re going to do all that in Sprints 1 and 2 with additional validation work in the sprints that follow. You’ll be packaging and pitching your learning’s as you go so you’re ready to pitch investors and other stakeholders at the drop of a hat.
I’m not sure how to identify, contract, and work with the right development resources. The first step is to make sure you have a strong foundation for what you want to build and why. The second step is to make sure you can describe it to others. We’ll be using personas, problem scenarios, and user stories to do that in the first few sprints.It also helps to have a rough model of what you want for descriptive purposes- a prototype. This isn’t to the job of the designers and developers. Just like the items above, it’s to communicate a vivid picture of your ideas for discussion and action.
How do I do my launch? Just about everything you read on startup’s today has something in it that emphasizes the importance of launching early, not trying to make everything perfect. And most of that is true and useful. But you can increase validated learning and reduce turmoil with some core preparation. We’ll hit that in Sprint 4.
How do I know who’s buying and using the product and why? Great question! Nothing’s worse than getting a few tantalizing nibbles, then nothing, and not knowing what happened. We’ll be instrumenting focal visibility and metrics into your work as you go along so you won’t have to ask yourself this question after the fact.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Do you grapple with these problems? Others? How do the solutions here help? What else would you like to see? Please consider posting to this LinkedIn discussion or drop me a line.

I’m a startup mentor.

Startup-Mentor-XSmallYou want to help, you want to share your expertise, but sometimes it’s hard to know where to push and where to let the venture learn on their own. Also, how do you structure meetings so you cover the right ground at the right level of detail? This program includes workshops and team-mentor sessions specifically design to help you use these best practices techniques with your team(s). Below are a few key problem scenarios I’ve identified with notes on how the program addresses them:

Problem Scenario Startup Sprints
I’m there for them when they need me but I’m not sure the venture’s really moving forward like it could. We have meetings where I’m not sure what’s changed from the last meeting. If you and the team agree to use the program, you’ll have specific timelines and deliverables for each segment of the program.
They have a lot of ground to cover and I can only spend an hour or two a week, max. We consistently run out of time. Each program has specific, time-boxed exercises for you to coach them team through. These are part of the overall sprint infrastructure to keep the team moving.
I think I’d better serve the team and learn more myself if I was able to confer with other mentors about what’s working, what isn’t. Also, I’m not an expert in everything. The consistency of the program creates a natural platform for this. If you’re part of a venture-creation program, the Program Lead is probably doing this for you already. Please also join me on the Startup Sprints LinkedIn forum to share your experience.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Do you grapple with these problems? Others? How do the solutions here help? What else would you like to see? Please consider posting to this LinkedIn discussion or drop me a line.

I’m a Program Lead. I help run a program for startup’s & entrepreneurs- university class, business plan competition, hackathon, etc.

Teaching-Tech-Entrepreneurship-XSmallThe world of high-tech and startup’s has never had any shortage of pundits and books, blogs, etc. Nevertheless, weaving all this into a coherent, repeatable program that reliably enhances new product and new venture creation isn’t easy. This program is specifically designed to help you create a repeatable infrastructure. Below are a few specific problem scenarios I’ve observed that the program is designed to address.

Problem Scenario Startup Sprints
Consistently recruiting high-quality mentors that dovetail with the team is tough. I gotcha. I think you’ll find that having a program the mentors will implement is a great screening tool for reliably recruiting mentors that consistently engage with the team. See the section below on mentor recruitment.
I get wildly different results from team-mentor meetings. I’m struggling to keep up with all the different learning’s and pitfalls that are cropping up across the various teams and mentors. Everyone does. The closest thing to a silver bullet is having a specific agenda and templates the mentors and teams use to engage in a time-boxed framework. This isn’t to take away from the particular chemistry and interactions that can develop- there’s still plenty of opportunity for that.It’s also good to foster mentor-to-mentor interaction for consultation and learning. Having a standard program facilitates that and I’ve created a space for that on the Startup Sprints LinkedIn Forum.
My job is to build a program that fosters entrepreneurship. My stakeholders all have their own ideas about what that means and what constitutes success. It’s hard to answer the question ‘Can entrepreneurship be taught?’. How long is a piece of string? But students and professionals can definitely be better prepared. I wish I had a program like this when I was an undergraduate.This site provides a measureable infrastructure for you to run a program something where participants learn today’s best practices in a hands-on fashion. These are also the most reliable recipes for creating hits.
We’re holding a weekend ‘hackathon’ type event. The whole idea is to build an MVP or at least a prototype over the weekend. But teams end up spending a lot of time just nailing down what they’re building for who vs. executing. By the time a team is through Sprint 2 the ‘idea people’ will have more than enough foundation to have a practical, action-oriented discussion with a development team.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Do you grapple with these problems? Others? How do the solutions here help? What else would you like to see? Please consider posting to this LinkedIn discussion or drop me a line.

Program Overview

Sprint Contents

The 10 week program breaks into five 2-week “sprints”. The benefit of such a construction is that it allows for discrete checkpoints and breaks big tasks into soluble deliverables. Each sprint has the following core components:

Inputs & Outputs

Particularly in the first few sprints, the program anticipates that the teams will move forward in a relatively predictable fashion with regard to deliverables. Each sprint has a set of inputs from the last iteration (or kickoff) and a set of target outputs that service as inputs to the sprint that follows.

The outputs are various deliverables and presentations, generally in a prescribed format. Each of the five sprints has a table with explanations, tutorials, and tools for creating the outputs deliverable with each sprint. If the program has mentors available, the final output of each sprint is a presentation to the team’s mentor or (better still) a permanent panel of mentors selected for the individual team. The full materials should be submitted to the mentor panel no later than three full working days before the presentation.

Learning Materials and Templates

Each iteration has a set of learning materials and templates in support of the sprint’s objectives and outputs.

Workshops

Each sprint will have one or more workshop for mentors and mentees. These will be focused on the deliverables at hand in the first few sprints, with specialty topics for particular teams layered in particularly in the later sprints. The intent is that as many team members (including mentors) as possible attend with at least one team member attending. This is important because the workshops prepare the teams for the Team-Mentor sessions.

Team-Mentor Sessions

Each sprit has a specific session designed for the team to execute with their mentor. Note: Depending on the mentors’ background this may require preparation on their part as well. Ideally, the mentor attends the preparatory workshop if this is the case.

Standup(s)

After each two week sprint, the team will present answers to the following question (to their mentor):
What did we accomplish during the last iteration?
What will do accomplish in the next iteration?
What obstacles are impeding our progress?

Note: This mirrors an agile format call ‘the daily standup’ and teams may want to answer these questions among themselves as often as every day

 

Notes on Mentor Recruitment & Development

What Programs Want vs. What Happens

Having a mentor from industry is one of the most important facets of the program. The premise is that the mentor has been successful in the ‘real world’ and they can teach that to the teams.

This premise is valid but the result is not automatic. Most programs struggle with:

  • consistently recruiting and retaining high quality mentors
  • creating consistent, high quality interactions between mentors and teams

Some of the most persistent problems arise from the ‘Gandalf/Obi-Wan fallacy’. This is the (usually implicit) idea that the mentor knows everything worth knowing and can improvise whatever advice and activity the team needs to be successful. Even if program administrators don’t actually believe this, many programs are organized such that this would have to be true for the formats to work.

Obviously, in the real world all mentors will be knowledgeable and experienced in certain areas and less so in others. Additionally, as an mentors they have to use a light touch to encourage their teams in the right direction, even when they’re highly confident about what the team needs to do in a given period.

Solution: Recruit for the Program, Not the Individual

For the program that wants to create a reliable, repeatable, measurable infrastructure for recruiting, retaining, and maximizing the impact of mentors, I can offer three techniques. These aren’t silver bullets, but they’ll deliver a more consistent result than the alternatives I’ve seen.

The mentor’s primarily role is to help implement the program (see below), which is a modern, best-practice approach to entrepreneurship. Their commitment involves learning the program, collaborating with other mentors, and contributing to refinement of the program, all of which are great growth opportunities.

Towards understanding how to help the mentor prepare and collaborate with other mentors, each should fill out a self-assessment along with their profile that will go on a shared intranet. This way the mentors know what skill sets will come into play and which of their peers they can go to for help in a given area. I’ve created an example here: Sample Self-Assessment. (This is a simple prototype- it’s probably easy to do something more automated with Google Forms.)

If prospective mentors take a strong interest in the program structure and the learning opportunity it presents, that’s a good sign. If they’re dismissive of it, feel they have another universal approach that works, that’s a bad sign. Even if their approach is a reasonably good fit, having in lots of different mentors with lots of different approaches to mentorship is not a scalable

This may seem like a lot of preparation but as they say ‘Easy come, easy go’ and I think the reverse is also true.

Design the Interactions for Specific Successes

Each of the 2-week sprints has specific actions and responsibilities assigned to the mentor. These are integrated with learning materials, templates and recommended time boxes to help the mentor coach the team to a successful result.

Create Specific, External Pressure

As silly as it may seem for the serious business of starting companies, NBC’s ‘The Voice’ actually has a lot to offer on the question of how you motivate teams to prepare against a deadline. Aspiring singers are offered spots by one or mentors, choosing one. Then, and this is the important part, they and their mentor prepare them for an audition to the rest of the mentors/judges.

Having presentations to a panel of mentors (some or all) at the end of each cycle is a great way to motivate teams. Having been a mentor many teams, I can confidently say I’d feel better off if I could say ‘Hey, we have to get read to get in front of the mentor panel’ vs. ‘Hey, we really need to get on [such and such] to stay on schedule with the program.’ I would not recommend a peer panel- too much unstructured feedback with too much variation in validity.

Team Preparation & Development

Self-Assessment

The teams should complete a simple self-assessment to help both themselves, their peers and the mentor network identify where they may need help. A simplified version of the mentor self-assessment above would probably serve:

Items

Person_1*

Person_2

Team Max

Product Design & User Discovery 2 3 3
Product Development (Programming, Engineering) 0 6 6
Operations & Sysadmin 0 5 5
Customer Creation- Sales and Marketing 4 2 4
Core Business- Mgmt., Finance, Legal 6 2 6

* This is not an exact science but please approximate a value using this scale-

0: Not my thing. No experience whatsoever.
1-2: I have a passing familiarity.
3-4: I’ve had some coursework in the area.
5-6: I’ve had a lot of coursework in this area.
7-8: This skill was related to one of my primary responsibilities at a job.
9-10: I’ve used this skill extensively in a professional context.

Relationship with Mentors

What’s tenable here? This is obviously both important and hard to do well on a highly repeatable basis. What about having students and mentors submit rank-ordered lists? Too much work?

IMAGE ATTRIBUTIONS
Startup Founder: By Kippelboy (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Mentor: By Yahoo! Blog (Flickr: Music mentor Pete Wentz) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Program Lead: By Viveksaraswat26 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons