A Day Inside the Lean Startup Machine

Grace Ng, co-founder of Lean Startup Machine, has a habit of tossing her students out onto the street during workshops.  Between guest speakers, and brainstorming and planning sessions, Ng tells startup teams to leave the building and test their ideas on customers. It’s a directive supported by other Lean Startup Machine mentors.

“You’ve got to get out on the dance floor,” says Nik Rokop, workshop mentor and Managing Director at Knapp Entrepreneurship Center at Illinois Institute of Technology. “Don’t be afraid to get out of the building, explore the neighborhood, and talk to new people.”

The Lean Startup workshop, held in various cities worldwide, came to Chicago this September. Unlike other weekend workshops, where the end goal might be mastering the art of the pitch for funding, Lean Startup Machine focuses on customer validation, where founders learn, in 48 hours, what works and what doesn’t.  The end goal: a must-have product or service.

This weekend, at Inspire Business Center, four-dozen workshop participants  begin with 50-second pitches. Ideas tossed around include a crowd-funding platform, a rent-a-dog company, college recruitment, ad monetization, and a company to make health data more accessible. Participants, gathered into teams of four or five, will spend the rest of the weekend formulating these pitch ideas into companies.

“I’m looking for creativity in these companies,” says Joshua Karp, founder and CEO of Kumbuya, and one of the workshop’s mentors. “I’m looking for teams that are not afraid to push the envelope.”

Time is set aside to work out ideas on validation boards and test assumptions by talking to potential customers on the street.

As always, there is judgment in the end — the positive kind. The workshop culminates in a competition for the best startup company before a panel of experts from startup accelerators, established startup companies, and venture capital firms.

First place went to SalonStarter, a business service for startup salons.  Second place went to ShareMyCare, a platform for friends and family to manage care for the seriously ill.

Interviewing customers and pivoting your company to meet their expectations was the most difficult part of the workshop, according to Balu Kadiyala, who pitched ShareMyCare and won second place with his team.  The work was well worth the time and effort, however, “I never thought I could go out to the street and interview customers,” said Kadiyala “but I now know I can.”❒

[Photos of the Lean Startup Machine workshop in Chicago by Dabney Lyles. © Blackline Review]

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