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Startup Corps Graduation Requirements
At Startup Corps, our primary value is action. Entrepreneurs take action. They don’t just dream, plan or talk about stuff. Entrepreneurs make things happen. To be an entrepreneur you must take significant action.
Significant action does not mean doing something really big like getting a college degree, sailing around the world or becoming president of the United States. As the saying goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step“. A significant action is anything that moves you closer to your goal. Over time, lots of little, significant actions lead to progress.
At Startup Corps, a significant action is defined as anything that moves your venture forward that you can get done in one week or less. For example, you could write a personal mission statement and share it with a few people to get feedback. You could tell a bunch of people your business idea and get feedback. You could make a one pager explaining your venture. You could interview a potential customer. You could make a product or a prototype for a more complex product. You could start a Twitter feed. You could make a sales call. You could design a logo. There are countless ways to make progress.
The total number of significant actions you take throughout the year is up to you, but consider 20 actions as a minimum. To be a successful Startup Corps graduate, you must take at least 20 significant actions.
Eleven of these actions we believe are core to your success as an entrepreneur and are therefore required. The rest are up to you (though we will provide options and guidance throughout the year). Here is a list of the required actions.
Required Actions: (the order you do the actions in is not important)
– Use a personal strength
– Write a personal mission statement
– Keep a problem/opportunity journal
– Help a fellow Startup Corps member
– Prepare and give a 3 minute elevator pitch for your venture
– Interview a customer
– Make a one-pager
– Sell something
– Sell something bigger
– Write a case study
– Write an annual report
Note: For an action to be considered completed, you must document and describe it on your class blog. Until this is done, the action is not considered complete because we will not be aware of it.
Use a Personal Strength:
At the beginning of Startup Corps, we ask you to complete a few surveys. One of those surveys is the brief strengths test that identifies your top strengths:
After you take the BST you will get a ranking of your top strengths. These strengths are like your own personal super powers. Just like Superman can fly, the Flash can run, and Batman can use his toys, you too have signature strengths that allow you to do things others cannot.
Every person has strengths, but not everyone develops and uses them to their full potential. People that focus on their strengths enjoy using them and therefore gain energy and drive. People who focus only on their weaknesses lose energy because the skills are more difficult and therefore they are less happy. By using your strengths, you will achieve more, learn very important things about yourself and better understand how you should be spending your time to maximize your success.
Action: Take any action that positively impacts one or more people and utilizes one of your top three signature strengths (from the test you took). This action can be done solo or in groups with individuals combining their strengths. The action could be done inside or outside of school, but needs to make one or more people better off. An example of this might be if your strength is love of learning, ask someone from another culture to spend time with you and teach you about their culture. Spreading their cultural pride makes people happy and will also strengthen your relationship with them, thus it makes them better off and utilizing your strength of love of learning. Be sure to post this action to the blog.
Personal Mission Statement:
A personal mission statement has three components: (1) Who I am, (2) What I love/care about, and (3) What I am going to do about it. One of the first actions that we ask you to take in Startup Corps is to write a one to three sentence personal mission statement that can be delivered in 30 seconds or less.
This sounds relatively simple, but it is far from it. Who I am is not just my name, but what that name stands for. Your name represents you, your history, family, culture, strengths, weaknesses, hopes, dreams and values. What you love or care deeply about is often very complex as well. For example, if you love to cook, why do you love to cook? You may like eating, but it goes deeper. Maybe you love creating reasons to bring people together. When you cook good food and gather people together for a tasty meal, you create the environment for a happy community. It may be making people happy and creating community that are actually closest to your heart.
What are you going to do about it? This is where it gets interesting. Based on who you are and what you love, there are many different possibilities for action. This is where the entrepreneur in you comes out. If you really love creating communities and making people happy, there is an endless number of ways you could do this, but maybe you start with your Startup Corps teammates and help them directly by checking in every week to help keep them motivated and happy.
Action: Write a personal mission statement about
(1) Who you are
(2) What you care most about
(3) What you are going to do about it
It should be 30 seconds or less. Share this statement with at least 10 people and write down their responses. Post both the statement (or a video of you saying it) and a summary of the responses you got to the blog.
All businesses and nonprofits solve problems. If they didn’t, then there would be no reason for them to exist. When entrepreneurs create new ways to solve problems more effectively or differently, people may be willing to pay for this solution. But before you can create a solution, you need to fully understand and define the problem. Rain jackets and umbrellas solve the problem of getting wet when it rains. Bread solves the problem of being hungry. Houses solve the problem of exposure to foul weather and personal safety. So businesses and nonprofits that provide basic food, shelter, and clothing are solving clear problems.
For some products and services it is a more subtle and nuanced as to the exact problem it is solving. Gucci shoes may not immediately seem to solve a different problem than Sketchers, but from the customers’ perspective, they want to differentiate themselves from others and increase their social status. The Girl Scouts of America helps girls develop leadership skills and build self-confidence. Sony Playstation solves the problem of boredom. School solves the problem of an uneducated public.
One thing to note is that problems can be solved in multiple ways. For instance, if the problem is that “I am hungry,“ I could go to a restaurant and order a sit down meal. I could pull out my cell phone and get pizza delivered. I could go to the supermarket and then make food myself. The point here is not to get hung up on which solution is the best. That comes later. The point is that if people have problems, (which they all do), you can solve those problems, and they are willing to pay for it, you may have a business opportunity.
Action: For one week, track all the problems that one individual encounters. Tell them you are you going to do this and then write down all the problems they have, both small and large. Keep a running list and discuss with them which problems they see as critical and which are less important. Specifically note which ones they say they would pay someone if they could solve it. Post this list to the blog.
Help a fellow Startup Corps Member:
Startup Corps is not merely a class. Startup Corps is a community. Communities are formed not only around common interests, but deeper things like shared values and helping each other out. No entrepreneur is successful all by themselves. They need lots of help from investors, customers, employees, strategic partners, mentors, and more. Part of the Startup Corps culture is helping each other start our ventures. So find some way to help a fellow corps member. One corps member volunteered to be a talent scout for another member who was starting a record label. Another referred a customer and many more have just helped talk out ideas.
Action: Help another Startup Corps member with whatever it is they need help with. This may be small or large and it will depend completely on what the other person needs help with. So ask people if there is any way you can help and find a way that you can. You may have to ask multiple people and keep your ears open throughout the year, but there are plenty of ways to help others that will arise. Then, post how you helped them and what the result was on the blog.
Making a good elevator pitch is a key skill for entrepreneurs to help people understand what you do and why it is important. You must be able to quickly explain what your business is, what problem it solves and for whom.
The name “elevator pitch“ comes from the story of an entrepreneur that is on his way to a meet an investor. When the entrepreneur gets to the investor office, on the 30th floor, the secretary tells the entrepreneur that the meeting is canceled. As the entrepreneur is leaving, he gets in the elevator with the investor who is rushing out. The entrepreneur only has as much time as the two of them are in the elevator to convince the investor that they should have a second meeting. The entrepreneur only has 30 seconds to make a great impression on the investor. Ok, so that story is made up, but you get the point.
In most cases, you have a little longer than 30 seconds, but making a convincing pitch in a very short time is incredibly difficult and must be practiced many times. For the Startup Corps pitch competition, you have three minutes to make your pitch. That still is very little time, so don’t waste it. Practicing your elevator pitch is very important. You might change the pitch slightly for different audiences, but the core elements remain the same. What does your company do? What problem does it solve? And for whom? (Who is the customer?).
For each of these sections, be specific and be sure to demonstrate how your solution is unique and different from your competitors. Focus on a specific type of person that is best served by your solution. Even if anyone could buy it, you most likely have a specific type of person in mind (teenage girls aged 14-18, possibly). Knowing how to focus means you will be more effective at communicating with them and solving their unique problems (which are obviously different from 30-40 year old men).
Action: Write, practice and present a 3 minute elevator pitch that covers…
(1) What your company does
(2) What problem it solves
(3) For whom
Be specific, detailed, and convincing for each section and show you know where your company is going. Don’t be boring. Convince everyone that your business is going to be a success because you know who you are serving and how to best solve their problem. Record this pitch and post it on the blog.
Understanding your customer and their needs is key to building a product or service that solves a specific problem. Even if you think the idea is amazing, until you validate the idea with customers, you don’t know how the idea will be received. In order to better know your customers and exactly what problem your product or service solves, interviews and gathering customer feedback must be done over and over again as long as you are in business. Even before you have a product or service, you will be interviewing potential customers to understand your idea from their perspective. Customer feedback will help you improve your product or service as well as come up with new ideas that better solve your customers’ problems.
For example, one of our students, Cameron, wanted to sell pencils to raise money for his school Ultimate Frisbee team. The pencils were going have “SLA Ultimate“ inscribed on them, but before he bought pencils to sell he asked around his school to see if people would actually buy them. He did a whole bunch of customer interviews. Most people said, “No,“ so he tried to understand why. Some of the people that he asked said, “I don’t use pencils but I would buy a pen if it looked cool and said, “Go Rockets“ (the school mascot). So Cameron decided to sell pens instead of pencils. He was very successful. He broke even within two weeks having sold over 80 pens. Customer interviews paid off.
Action: Design a customer interview that helps you determine…
(1) What the problem someone has is (Get an example of when the problem occurs)
(2) How they currently try to solve this problem (Do they use a competitor or solve it themselves? Why?)
(3) How important it is to them to have the problem solved (How much would they pay to have it solved?)
(4) If your product or service solves this problem (Which features are useful and which aren’t?)
(5) How your product might better solve this problem
Each business will try to get to these answers in a unique way based on what you are selling, so make sure your questions are written in a way that you get responses that help you improve your business. The number of questions will vary, but you should spend at least 10 minutes with each customer trying to get into the details of these questions. Once you have written the interview questions, sit down with someone, ask these questions and take notes on all of their responses. Post these notes to the blog. Repeat with as many customers as possible (the more you know about your customers, the better you can solve their problems).
Make a One-Pager:
A one-pager is a marketing document that sums up your business in a single page. It is very similar to your elevator pitch but written down so that you can email it or hand it potential partners, investors or customers. When someone reads your one-pager, they should be able to quickly understand what your company does, what problem you solve, for whom (define the customer) and what makes it unique compared to competitors. Because it will be sent out both digitally and on paper, it must be created on the computer. It should have your company name, logo and contact information on it. It might also have pictures, graphics or other designs, but it needs to look professional in a way that represents your company. This means graphic design and careful production, not just a Word document. The one-pager is often one of the first times someone learns about your business so it needs to represent you and your company positively.
Action: Create a one-pager for your business that clearly describes…
(1) What the company does
(2) What problem it solves
(3) For whom
(4) Why your solution is unique and better
Create this document on the computer and include graphics or other design elements that make your business look highly professional. Once this document is completed, post it to the blog and share it with all of your mentors, advisors and supporters.
The first sale is very important. It doesn’t matter how big or small it is. The important thing is that it validates your assumption that your product or service solves a problem well enough that someone is willing to pay for it. It proves that what you have to offer is valuable to someone else, your first customer.
One summer Startup Corps ran a class for the Urban Technology Project, which helps students develop and utilize computer networking and repair skills. Jose wanted to start a computer repair store in North Philly. Before he built a store or invested lots of money into equipment, he wanted to know if people would be willing to pay him enough to make it worth it. He often fixed computers for his family and family friends, so one day after fixing his sister‘s computer for free, he asked her how much she would have been willing to pay someone to fix it if he wasn’t around. She told him she would have paid $50 to get her computer fixed. The next week his sister’s friend needed her computer fixed and Jose offered to do it for $50. He made his first sale and proved his service was valuable to someone else.
For a nonprofit, things might be a little different. You might not sell a specific product but get people to volunteer or donate towards your cause. One nonprofit founded in Startup Corps was a venture called Phresh Philadelphia. They organize neighborhood cleanups and introduce students to other nonprofits and social service agencies to help keep the neighborhood empowered and cleaned-up. Although they are not selling any products or services, their operation requires lots of volunteers. Just like the old saying “time is money.“ people volunteering their time to help out is an exchange of value. They had over 50 people show up for a community clean up event and this counted as a “sale” because people gave their valuable time to the organization. It was just a different way to sell something. Barter, trade, in-kind, volunteering and donations all also count as selling something.
Action: Make your first sale. Start with something small, but make sure it demonstrates an exchange of value (your product or service for their money or time). Each business will sell something different and your Startup Corps mentors can help you decide what an appropriate first sale might be. Once you’ve made your first sale, celebrate! And then post an update on the blog describing…
(1) What you sold
(2) Whom you sold it to
(3) How the sale happened
(4) The amount ($, time, donation, etc)
Sell Something Bigger:
Your first sale will most likely be something small. For Cameron it was a one dollar pen. For Jose it was a $50 computer repair. Cameron next started to think about other things that people might buy with school logos, such as water bottles and t-shirts. These would be his step up to selling something bigger. Jose realized that the real need was not that they wanted their broken computer fixed but rather they wanted a working computer. His assumption was that they would prefer paying for this guarantee rather than only when the computer broke. So Jose decided to guarantee a working computer by selling computer insurance. For $100 per year, he would fix any virus or software problems your computer might have. He sold this service the same week he thought of it and proved that he was on to something even more valuable.
For you, selling something bigger may mean a short version of your comic book, holding a larger volunteer event, or selling a music video on iTunes, depending on your business. It’s up to you to determine what the next step should be, but be ambitious and prove that your idea is valuable to customers!
Action: Sell something bigger than you did in the “sell something” action. It still does not have to be at a high cost, but should be at least twice as large a price as your small sale. Make sure that this test continues to lead you to proving your business or non-profit concept. Post an update to the blog with…
(1) What you sold
(2) Whom you sold it to
(3) How the sale happened
(4) The amount ($, time, donation, etc)
A case study is a learning tool used by business schools to study real world situations and decisions after the fact. They typically present a series of facts that setup a decision that needs to be made and then the reader must carefully consider which decision they would take if they were in the same situation. They are valuable because it is rarely the case that one decision is obviously better than the rest. Instead, there are often a range of options that are all reasonable but the results of each will vary depending on how the future emerges.
As a way to help future Startup Corps members deal with uncertain situations that they may face, it is valuable to hear how past Startup Corps students dealt with difficult decisions. When someone else reads your case study, they should have all the information you had to be able to make an informed decision. This requires an explanation of the background information leading up to the decision, the various people or organizations involved, external forces that would impact the decision, and the possible options you considered. We ask you to write this up using a real example that you had to deal with so that we can share it with the rest of the Corps.
Action: Write a 2-5 page case study based on a difficult decision you had to make in your business. You will decide which decision to write about, but the elements of the story must include…
(1) Background info
(2) Who’s involved
(3) External forces
(4) Possible options for the decision
This Case Study may require multiple edits, so share it with your Startup Corps Instructor and your classmates for feedback. When you are happy with the document, post it to the blog so others can learn from your experience.
The Annual Report is the final action we require at Startup Corps. For large companies, an Annual Report provides an update to investors and the public about the progress of the company over the last year. It includes a letter from the CEO that explains why certain key decisions were made and the general direction the company headed. It also includes financial information, stories from the year and a report on whether or not the company achieved its goals for the year.
A Startup Corps Annual Report is very similar in that we ask you to compose a letter to your supporters that explains what happened throughout the year and where you plan to go from here. You will also include financial details about money you raised, earned and spent by sharing your Income Statement. Finally, you will explain the total social and environmental impact that your company made this year. This will include things like taxes, donations, social problems solved or addressed (include the data), who you employed, the effect of the materials you used to make your products or services on the environment, and the total impact you had on the world around you. Each of these will be on its own page, so 3 pages are needed plus a cover page (with your logo, company info, website, etc).
This document will most certainly require multiple edits and should represent everything you have accomplished for the year. This document can also serve as a college essay or attachment to an application that will be incredibly impressive to admissions officers looking for leaders who take initiative. Take your time to make it represent all your hard work and what you have achieved this year.
Action: Write an Annual Report for your company. The format should be a four page write up that includes…
(1) Cover page
(2) Letter from the CEO
(3) Income Statement
(4) Social and Environmental Impact Analysis
Once edited and produced, send it to all of your mentors, every visitor who has come into class this year and everyone else who supports you and your business. Also, obviously post it to the blog. Then, bask in the glory that is your business…but not for too long because now the hard work really begins. Now you have to deliver on all your promises and your ambitious vision! Let the fun begin!