“We just signed a contract with our second retailer!”
“Business isn’t my field, but I feel like I finally understand the terminology and environment!”
“I accidentally found an Angel investor while searching for a CTO, and he’s providing $100,000 in funding!”
Welcome to the McGill Lean Startup Program.
Every Thursday night this semester, eight teams forming a total of 19 aspiring entrepreneurs, gather with the goal of transforming their innovative ideas into a viable business. From a last-mile delivery service to a line of healthy desserts, the ideas are brilliantly creative. The inverted format of the course is as entrepreneurial as its content: students watch free lectures on an online sharing platform at home, while using class time to pitch and give feedback to one another with the help of guest speakers and mentors.
Sitting in the class as a fly on the wall, I’m consistently inspired by the insight of the participants, the vast improvements that they make each week, and the real results that they achieve. Each class begins with “shout-outs,” where we hear about the retail contracts, Angel investments, and other updates from each team. Following this, a guest speaker and mentor from a successful startup, established company or VC gives some insight on an important aspect of the entrepreneurial process.
Then begins the bulk of the three-hour class: the eight teams take turns presenting and the floor is open to questions and feedback from their peers and mentors. The presentation content alternates between their business pitch and business model canvas every week. The discussions are constructive and varied, as expected given the diverse class composition. Not only do the pitches and business models slowly shape into a viable, professional presentation, more importantly, these early-stage entrepreneurs develop their confidence, interact with ideas outside of their field of expertise, and build a strong business sense along the way.
The course content and format is modelled upon serial-entrepreneur and professor Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad course at Stanford University and UC Berkeley. The free online classes, which are taught by Steve Blank himself, can be found here on Udacity. Titled “How to Build a Startup”, the videos provide insight on the Customer Development process, which is hailed as the launchpad of the Lean Startup methodology. As Blank lectures about developing and testing the business model through customer and marketplace feedback, the LaunchPad students are pushed to apply these methodologies in practice as they conduct interviews and pivot in response to feedback. On average, McGill Lean Startup program participants dedicate over 20 hours a week to their course and business development.
To complement Blank’s curriculum, the brightest of the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship lead the course: Renjie Butalid, the main instructor, is an experienced entrepreneur who has worked with startups in Waterloo, Toronto, and New York City prior to becoming Marketing and Operations Advisor at the McGill Dobson Centre. Helping him are Camille Simm and Maher Ayari, the VP Strategy and President of the McGill Dobson Student Executive Team (SET), respectively.
Additionally, each class features a different guest speaker who briefly speaks on an integral part of their startup experience and gives advice throughout the student presentations. Previous speakers and mentors have included Kevin Han and Randeep Singh, the co-founders of 3D printing startup aon3D, as well as Christopher Thierry, President of Cimpl, one of the 50 fastest growing technology companies in Canada. The experiences of these speakers and mentors are reflected in their comments and helps set the tone of the class.
Lastly, the most integral part of the program is the participants themselves. This year alone, the class is composed of McGill PhD’s, graduate students, undergraduates, and McGill alumni from various fields, including engineering, nutrition, management, the sciences, and arts. As we near the end of the course, their ideas and pitches are becoming more concrete and polished.
Knowing their drive and intelligence, I’m excited to see the final products. Already, past participants have demonstrated the viability of their projects: Kiffen Eats is running a thriving catering service in Montreal that reflects their healthy and affordable, minimal waste philosophy, as reported in The Globe and Mail. Other guest speakers who have visited the class this semester are successful graduates of last year’s program, including Sarah Aladas from Key2Access and David Morris from CoLab.
At the end of ten weeks of individual and business growth inside and outside of the classroom, the startups are finally ready to share their ideas with the public. In February 2017, these teams will also be competing in the McGill Dobson Cup 2017 where over $100,000 are up for grabs to McGill startups across four tracks: Innovation Driven Enterprise, Small & Medium Enterprise, Social Enterprise and Health Sciences.
However, if you’re eager to find out more about these new ideas, the entrepreneurs will pitch their businesses at the McGill Lean Startup Final Presentations on Monday, December 5th, 2016. The event is open to all, whether you’re a McGill student, faculty or alumni, Angel investor, Montreal VC, or just a curious individual. Just remember to RSVP here. Prepare to be inspired by brilliant ideas and brighter people!