My name is Alexander Haque and I am — or I guess, was — the program manager of McGill University’s first-ever Lean Launchpad program. So what is the Launchpad anyways? That’s a great question I have been asked quite a bit over the last few weeks.
One I perhaps did not answer, given the fact that the program was a pilot project and I was focused more on developping the inner-working of the curriculum and experience, rather than marketing it.
But it’s time that McGill, Montreal and the world learn about the phenomenal rocketship that was built and took off just recently.
The McGill Lean Launchpad is based on Steve Blank’s startup methodology from Berkeley. Essentially, it is a program built to help early-stage ideas get off the ground, out of the building and testing their ideas. The framework treats startups like science experiments, meaning, every idea a student may have about who their customer is or what value they bring them, is merely a hypothesis that requires further testing. Love it or hate it, the framework is one of the best I’ve been exposed to. It relies heavily on an increasingly popular tool called the Business Model Canvas, which allows startup teams to break down their core ideas about who their customers are, how they reach them and what their product is and should be.
While designing the program, we made the internal decision to make it a selective process so teams could understand what entering our other two (later-stage) programs, the McGill Dobson Cup and McGill X-1 Accelerator, were like. Over two weeks we received 60+ applications from students and interviewed all of them to see who would be the best fit.
Ultimately, 6 teams (13 people) made the cut for the first cohort and for 10 weeks we had them learn about one of the sections of the canvas, fill in their hypotheses and get outside to speak to 10–15 real customers. Each week students would come back, pitching in front of CEOs and startup professionals from the community, telling the class about what had happened. It was a refreshing wake-up call for every single startup: building a company is really tough work and more often than not, a lot of people simply don’t care about what your product or service is.
Today, I’m happy to share what the program looked like and give a re-cap of the awesomeness that was the McGill Lean Launchpad.
Week 1 — Ice Breakers
Teams were excited and nervous to be meeting each other for the first time. I did not take it easy on the teams. As an “ice-breaker” I had them pitch their ideas to one another and give each other feedback. Thinking back to their pitches from this moment and to where they are now, is an incredible feeling. The evolution has been more than tremendous in only a few weeks.
Next, we played a game I learned from the Venture For Canada selection day process, and one that is inspired from Peter Thiel’s book ‘From Zero to One”: Asking students what is one fundamental truth they believed in that they think no one else believes, or would have trouble agreeing with.
Answers ranged from students being convinced the pyramids were built by aliens to more philosophical reflections such as believing that human beings were more animalistic than they liked to lead on.
Week 1 had no mentors as it was an introductory class.
Week 2- Value Proposition
This week teams had their first 5 minute presentations due and our first mentors joined us to give feedback and flesh out how students were developing their core features and benefits a.k.a. the value proposition.
It was clear that teams were raw and needed a lot of direction based on their presentations. The team ‘Waiting Room’ composed of Ariana Aimani (Computer Science) and Rishabh Tandon (Engineering) received perhaps the most pertinent feedback from Laurent Mascherpa , who ended up both destroying and saving many hours of work for the team, as they learned about recent startup in Montreal who had attempted a similar idea and did not succeed.
Week 3 — Customer Segments
Perhaps the second most important week in terms of content for the Launchpad. Starting a startup (or any business for that matter) is really about finding the match between what your value proposition is and who your customers are. I fundamentally believe this is how truly great businesses (and not merely just good) are created.
This week we had the following mentors give feedback on how to find the right target customer and delight them:
- Daniel Drouet, Montreal investor turned entrepreneur
- Anthony Somos, McGill Engineering Alumni
- Beth Thouin, Digital Marketing Consultant, Thunkr Consulting
Week 4 — Channels
The core of the class touched on how to best reach your customer, now that the first hypotheses about who their customers were, had been developed. Students were encouraged to build a landing page to act as a “mothership” to lead traffic back to. Whether this strategy was effective or not, was up for debate — which is why they were equally encouraged to use an analytics engine to measure how successful their campaigns were.
This weeks’ mentors included:
- Emma Williams, Program Manager, FounderFuel & Real Ventures
- Beatrice Couture, Director, InnoCité MTL
- Gabriel Sundaram, Platform & Investment, Real Ventures
Week 5 — Customer Relationships
Teams’ pitches were starting to look better but the ‘Trough of Despair’ had hit many of them. I gave my best leader-speach possible to try and drag the teams out but ultimately it was the one-on-one and heart-to-hearts I had with each team, that encouraged them. This was a trying week and I’m proud to say, we made it out alive.
The wonderful mentors included:
- Daniel Drouet
- Étienne Pageau-Crevier
- Danica Meredith
Week 6 — Revenue Streams
How do you make money from your idea? How much will customers pay? How will they pay?
These are all the questions we attempted to answer in this week’s course. It was a loaded course with a staggering amount of mentors:
- Avery Rueb, CEO, Affordance Studios
- Danial Jameel, CEO, OOHLALA
- Domenic Durante
- Pierre Pilon, CEO, Jumpsmart Brands
- Firas Ali, McGill Engineering Alumni
Week 7 — Partners
The final teams had finally made it out of the trough of despair. The City of Montreal was getting colder, exams were piling on, and the crispness of Fall was turning into Winter frost — it was clear students were running slightly out of steam. However, they remained poised and optimistic. Pitches and business models were improving, but nowhere near the quality they needed to be for Presentation Day.
Mentors for this week:
- Cheryl Tom, CEO, Vain Pursuits
- Thibaud Marechal, (New) Program Manager, FounderFuel
- Gregory Cerallo, Co-Founder, Sidekick Interactive
- Pierre Pilon
Weeks 8–10 — Intensive Pitch Workshops
This is where we really cranked the program into high-gear. Students had spoken to over 80 customers each. Many had done the fateful “pivot” and changed the direction of their businesses entirely, or had changed a component entirely.
The format of pitching changed to an all-out prep for Presentation Day — and I’d like to thank Ruby Zhang, Cheryl Tom, David Nault of Inovia, Jay Ferst of Ferst Capital, Jason Tsoukas and Cindy Ho of DS Avocats for generously offering their time to mentor the teams on their pitches an business models.
Who the The Teams Were
- Rodrigo Trespalacios and Ariann Suarez of Project23
- Ariana Aimani and Rishabh Tandon of CronicaMed
- Natasha Alani and Aaron Fetherston of Celeri and Tiffin
- Alex Bhandari-Young and HP Truong of Sparkfish
- David Morris of CoLab
- Sarah Aladas and Sophie Aladas of Key2Access
This was a diverse cohort, with students representing the faculties of management, engineering, science and law. Several participants were not from McGill, which also made the program exceptional since it broke so many of the traditional academic rules at the University. We had students from both the undergraduate and graduate levels, working together and exchanging ideas.
I am proud to say that I was part of such life-changing experience, with such incredible and inspiring human beings. I am positive they will each contribute to the betterment of our society in a meaningful way. I know many of them are thankful for what I did for them but I really believe my job was the easiest part. They were the ones who came in every Monday, for three hours from 6:00–9:00. It was also due to the tremendous outpouring of support from the entrepreneur-mentors, whom I cannot thank enough.
I leave this cohort feeling passionate, inspired and speechless at Montreal’s strong, diverse and relentless startup community. And as I leave to join a startup, Retinad, of my own (having caught the bug Emma refers to, my wish is that a talented individual(s) carry the torch in my place.
Mille fois merci!