8 Essential Startup Lessons From Steve Blank


steve blank

Steve Blank is an icon of entrepreneurship, the founder of the “Lean Startup” movement, and the author of two books, “The Startup Owner’s Manual” and “The Four Steps to Epiphany.” A list of this humble man’s accomplishments, won by a college drop-out without formal education, could easily make up one of the longest and most impressive resumes in the history of Silicon Valley.

Recently, at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, Steve Blank sat down with his self-proclaimed “stalker-fan” Harry Smith, the legendary TV journalist, for a fireside chat about entrepreneurship vs. innovation.

Here are key lessons and advice from this startup veteran and the inspiring thought leader:

Here are key lessons and advice from this startup veteran and the inspiring thought leader:

  1. Entrepreneurship is not a job; it is a calling. According to Mr. Blank, a person cannot simply apply to be an entrepreneur as if it were any other job – he or she must be willing to dedicate substantial time and resources to make their entrepreneurial dream come true. Blank likens entrepreneurship to creative vocations, such as writing or painting, which require passion, talent, and much hard work.
  2. Aspiring entrepreneurs should seek out an apprenticeship. Steve Blank encourages anyone contemplating entrepreneurship to seek a formal apprenticeship, or a role in a startup that would allow them to closely collaborate with and learn from the startup’s founders.

During the fireside chat Blank described his own apprenticeship in Silicon Valley early in his career. For the first 10 – 15 years after Blank arrived in Silicon Valley, he worked at companies alongside “brilliant minds,” learning invaluable skills and soaking up as much knowledge as he could. Blank believes apprenticeships help budding entrepreneurs to:

  • develop pattern recognition skills which enable them to distinguish good ideas from bad ones and recognize the “magic” behind successful startups,
  • gain the experience needed to become a successful founder, and
  • get paid while learning!
  1. As the founder of a startup, an entrepreneur should expect to essentially run a science experiment from day one. Steve Blank explains that at a startup every decision made is mostly a guess. From the beginning, the founder of a startup must be in search mode. Blank suggests considering the following before deciding to work for or launch a startup:
  • There is no known process in a startup. As Blank explains, “If one of the experiments you tried did not work, try something else.” A new founder should expect to go through a number of experiments until they find what works.
  • There are no real job titles in a startup. One’s title will never reflect exactly, or only, what he/she is doing.
  • The level of uncertainty and chaos in startups is very high. If a potential entrepreneur feels that they would rather stick to something more tangible and consistent, a job inside a larger company might make more sense.
  1. A startup founder must learn to deal with uncertainty and be prepared for change. A successful entrepreneur always has plans B through D in case Plan A does not work out Blank says.
  1. Failure and redemption are inevitable. “Our last name is Blank. We cannot even change it,” said Steve Blank’s mom, a Russian immigrant to the U.S., when he called to inform her that his company, after having received $35M in funding, had failured. As Blank explains about Rocket Science Games, “It was the hottest video game company in Silicon Valley that never made a game.”

After going through all the stages of failure and redemption, brilliantly described here, Blank received funding for his next startup idea, E.piphany, which was a success. Blank says failure is an inevitable part of the startup experience, and that successful founders learn from their failures.

  1. Growing up in a dysfunctional family can help a potential founder thrive in the startup environment. According to Mr. Blank, his childhood was quite chaotic and he never knew what was going to happen when he woke up in the morning. He had to operate in “survival mode” but explains that this is the type of environment that exists at most early-stage startups. Knowing how to survive in the face of chaos is crucial at a startup, where the course of events does not often have a predictable pattern.
  1. Startups require their own distinctive set of tools and processes to survive. After he retired and started teaching entrepreneurship, Blank noticed that business schools taught only how to use the tools and follow the practices meant for success in large companies. The common thought was that startups were nothing more than small versions of larger companies, a mindset that doomed most of them to failure.

Blank developed the Lean Startup Methodology, which includes the Customer Development process he developed, along with agile engineering and use of Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas, a tool that helps founders strategize and think through all the multiple variables that go into building a business.

“There are no facts inside of your building. Get outside,” says Blank, referring to the customer development methodology he pioneered. When a founder is developing a product or a service, they are not the audience who will be buying the product or using the service. Thus every founder needs to get out and speak to the people who will be their target audience.

  1. Entrepreneurship is a team sport. “If you think you are the smartest person in the room, you are mistaken,” warns Blank.

About the author: Lesya Pishchevskaya

Lesya is the Director of Account Management at 4C, a data-science and technology company pioneering the intersection of social and television advertising. She has extensive experience managing major Fortune 500 clients and identifying opportunities for growth. Lesya’s previous experience includes media and account management roles at Facebook, Noosphere Ventures and Validas. She is a recent graduate from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a cofounder of a the non-profit group, Nova Ukraine, which assists and promotes social and economic programs for her native Ukraine. Lesya also volunteered for Silicon Valley Open Doors, FSHN Magazine, and Startup Monthly as a reporter and communications manager.

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