The importance of getting out of the classroom

Paul Straub
Paul Straub

Blue PillarOne of the toughest challenges for a startup is managing through a growth phase while still keeping an eye ahead to a strategy for the next phase. For the past few years I’ve enjoyed enlisting teams of Duke students to get out of the classroom and help company’s in our portfolio with a bit of market discovery. This year’s team just finished a project with Blue Pillar and described the experience in a blog, but I thought I’d add a few things.

A challenge for schools offering entrepreneurship courses is translating the theoretical into the messy, unpredictable first-hand experience of ambiguity, frequent rejection, and discovering actual customer needs. The projects I’ve done with Duke students provide sufficient interaction with Claremont Creek and a portfolio company for the team to establish some context for the existing product and market, but the experience very quickly shifts into an externally focused set of interactions. I explicitly ask students not to try and prospect or think they are in a sales mode, but to aggressively seek out as many constituents in an industry as possible and try to understand what needs and problems are actually important. This year’s team conducted dozens of interviews across several market segments which helped them continually refine a thesis around potential customer segments to prioritize. There were check-in points during the work with the company and our team at Claremont Creek Ventures.

The results from my perspective were terrific and the company’s executive team agrees. The team came back with a rich, market-driven perspective that it used to deliver some very compelling ideas around a next potential customer segment to prioritize. They were able to serve as an extension of the team to scout, analyze and prioritize opportunities. And the consequence is that Blue Pillar should be able to more quickly expand its business to new customer segments and aggressively pursue some large opportunities ahead.

Here’s more from the team themselves: Assessing the Microgrid Market: Fuqua students get “out of the building”