Building a Syllabus for your Startup

I remember the days in college when you’d show up on that first day of the semester and get handed your syllabus for the semester (I know, I’m dating myself as now those get published online and emailed out.) But that first day of the semester was really a way to frame out the objectives of the course – what you needed to learn, what you were prepping for and when you’d be expected to show off what you’d learn.

This made it pretty simple to drop the key dates and assignments into your calendar and prepare for the four months ahead (so you’d hopefully ace that final exam.) Recently as I was preparing a syllabus for a class I was teaching at Georgetown, I realized that this process of creating my course syllabus was actually really applicable to starting a business. Eureka – the startup syllabus.

For those of us in the “starting up” phase of the business, the reality should be that you are focused on learning – figuring out what you know, what you don’t know and what you wish you knew. And much like a college course on Milton, Astro-physics or Leisure Studies, it can be very helpful to map out what you want/need to know so that you can create a plan to learn it.

Seems easy enough, right? Sadly, I often find myself racing to do rather than focused on what I need to know. And that’s why I decided to create my own syllabus – a weekly set of questions I’d like to answer with a plan associated with each to help answer that. I’ll admit it’s a bit different that your typical syllabus because as you learn something, it might affect the next thing you want to answer – but still it’s a rough schedule to follow.

Here’s how I went about writing my own syllabus.

  1. Do this with a partner. It’s great to create this “syllabus” yourself, but if you can do this with a business partner, advisor or your spouse, you’ll each push the other person to really nail the questions you’d like to know. For me, I found a group of Georgetown students willing to go through this with me – and it’s been amazing to have a smart group to talk to weekly and map out the questions and the answers.

  2. Write out a list of questions. It can be general knowledge about your sector or more specific regarding user acquisition costs from a particular channel. But basically you are laying out a key list of questions. I’ve found the Business Model Canvas to be a helpful guide to help focus the questions on what’s useful or key for the business – but it doesn’t really matter, just use something to help frame the questions you’d like to know. You can start with an open white board and brainstorm the questions.

  3. Assign a question to a week – and limit this plan to 45-60 days initially. You need something to focus on because you can’t just dive into every facet, so rank your questions by most important or most interesting to least important or least interesting. Then assign them to that week. Write this down in your calendar. We used Roman Voting to decide what was most interesting and when to tackle it – and crafted an 8 week plan.

  4. Come up with a plan to answer the question. This may seem difficult or challenging, but turns out if you can ask the question, then there is probably someone who can answer it. Find those people and get time on their calendars. Or run an experiment using a survey, an A/B test or whatever. Just figure out how to give yourself some insights into that question. My group has started with an overall “what do we need to do to answer this” and then broken it down among the group. Divide and conquer…

  5. Present the findings weekly to someone. Again, this doesn’t have to be something formal, but more the act of presenting it can be incredibly helpful. My spouse Allison is incredibly thoughtful and pushes me beyond the obvious – so I use her to run things by. But again, this can be an advisor, a friend, a business partner or anyone you trust. The key is cadence – regular and routine makes you feel like you are checking off boxes and getting closer to an answer.

It’s hard to figure out what to do next, when to do it and how to keep moving forward. But I’ve found that a startup idea is very similar to a college course – you are trying to discover answers to open questions. So simply imagine your startup idea or business concept is a class – where you are responsible for learning everything you need to get an A at the end. If you structure your time and your energy around answering the key questions you’d want to know for a course, you’ll find that it helps focus you and give you a clear path. I’ve found scheduling a weekly meeting with a few core people – just as if this was a class – helps you stay focused and on task each week.

Build your startup syllabus. It’s been a huge help for me. Anyone else had any luck with that approach?

Side Note: There are more formal programs out there like the Lean LaunchPad, NEXT powered by Startup Weekend or Lean Startup Machine. Those work great as well and in some ways utilize similar principles. For those people that don’t have access to those formal programs, this is a great alternative to consider.


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