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Sarah Qiao

Designing the Startup Curriculum

When I first began working with entrepreneurs in a large, private university back in America, a well-regarded professor and entrepreneur told me that “Teaching entrepreneurs is like herding cats”.  Over the years, this continues to be a thought-provoking comparison; the independent personality that embodies the typical entrepreneur of today often clashes with the demands of community-based learning that accelerators offer.

There’s a tension between what accelerators want the entrepreneurs to do versus what entrepreneurs want to do. This often manifests as a time problem. Take for example when accelerators require their startups to participate in events or workshops; what an accelerator thinks is best for their entrepreneurs may conflict with what an entrepreneur thinks is best for herself or himself. The pitfall is when entrepreneurs think their time is being wasted, or their needs aren’t being met. This poses a unique challenge for anyone in the business of coaching entrepreneurs.

Setting startups up for success in an accelerator requires a unique formula to create the “right conditions”. It requires accelerators to thoughtfully piece together the right internal mechanisms and external ecosystems for entrepreneurs. Though hard to do, the “right conditions” can be achieved if you follow some key principles.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned through the years as I’ve worked on developing curriculum for entrepreneurship, which I think are unique to successful accelerator programs.

Emphasize “Doing”

When it comes to entrepreneurship, there is nothing more important than the act of “doing” and “testing” to understand the product, customers, and business model. At Rockstart, we are conscious of how much theory we introduce to entrepreneurs versus how much time we give them to work on achieving results. Teaching entrepreneurs theory is inevitable — it is important to understand context — but we make sure that every theory comes with a framework or a tool that entrepreneurs can use and develop over time to achieve their goals. These tools make powerful theories actionable. Once they’re introduced in our program, we make an effort to revisit them during the program over and over again, in the best spirit of lean startup methodology, so we make sure we are helping the startups drive progress and results.

One size does not fit all.

Too many accelerators assume that we can group startups together, put them in a classroom and expect them to learn from the same speakers, workshop instructors, and peers. In practice, it’s a little trickier. I quickly learned that each startup has specific needs depending on the stage they’re at and the products and/or services they are offering. Some might still be trying to discover product/market fit while others are ready for growth. I’ve seen people try many ways and it is clear that it doesn’t always make sense for startups to all go through the same curriculum together.

At Rockstart, we approach the curriculum with a blend of group work and 1:1 support to bridge theory with practice. We start with group work to help introduce startups to general ideas, important concepts or applications of scientific thinking (i.e. developing hypotheses, experimentation, and iteration) on solving problems. Then, we get more specific during 1:1 sessions with our Program Directors so we personalize help and set relevant metrics for each startup. The key is to not only teach startups content but also to individually coach them through their obstacles so they can achieve their target goals. That’s why we emphasize tracking the right metrics because we know metrics will help startups get to where they want to be. (For more on metrics, check out my colleague’s blog on hero metrics.)

Prep Entrepreneurs to uncover opportunities.

Accelerator networks are one of the most valuable assets for entrepreneurs, once they know how to harness opportunities in the right way. In addition to setting up the right conditions, such as inviting key people, having the appropriate event setup and prepping guests with information, accelerators have a unique opportunity to set up safe places where people can learn, practice, and make mistakes with essential communication, presentation, and relevant soft skills.

Preparing entrepreneurs for these external-facing events is crucial. It allows them to recognize and take advantage of potential opportunities. At Rockstart, we make every effort to ensure we give our startups the right support before every event so they can shine. We know that “fail fast, fail often” can be scary, so we deliberately make havens for our startups to “fail” safely. Our program is designed to pick founders back up and encourage them to continue persevering. In a world where success is so dependent on how startups look and what they say, accelerator curriculum can do much to raise the level of confidence entrepreneurs have before they meet with investors and potential partners.

Develop Flexibility

I’ve worked in entrepreneurship long enough to notice that you can’t predict week on week what will happen. External factors often influence priorities, deadlines, and startup needs. Pre-programmed curriculum often finds itself obsolete if it is planned too far in advance.

At Rockstart, while we make the most effort to give entrepreneurs a sense of structure, we also developed a system for flexibility so the programs can adapt to change. For example, we survey entrepreneur needs on a weekly basis to learn and iterate on our programming. Are companies stuck on developing a business model? Do they have problems with growing? The feedback collection process has been an invaluable part of our programs, allowing us to deliver either group sessions or targeted 1:1 help for unforeseen startup needs. We make it a point to learn with our startups.

Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together

The work accelerators have is often a complex formula involving content, targeted events showcasing startups, and many stakeholders. It’s like preparing the puzzle pieces before you put the puzzle together; accelerators have to create the right conditions so that the right information is paired with events at the right time to drive progress and open up opportunities for independent-minded entrepreneurs. It’s up to the entrepreneurs to put things together to turn these puzzle pieces into leads.

It’s not an easy task, and teaching entrepreneurs might be sometimes more difficult than herding cats. By combining best practices with a willingness to learn alongside the startups, accelerators can guide willing entrepreneurs in the right direction, no matter what path startups choose for themselves.


Sarah Qiao is part of the product development team at Rockstart, specializing in entrepreneurial learning. She has been a member of the Rockstart team since 2016. Before joining Rockstart, she worked as a program manager for a tech accelerator at the University of Pennsylvania. If you would like to continue the conversation about startup curriculum, you can contact her at sarah @ rockstart dot com.

Photo credit: Rockstart Answers Barcelona 


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