Pages Navigation Menu

Course Review – Udacity’s Building a Startup

from mdanys via Flickr


Steve Blank is on a mission: to get entrepreneurs (and would-be entrepreneurs) to stop thinking about their ventures as smaller versions of bigger companies and instead look at startups as a unique kind of entity that follows a different set of rules than do traditional businesses.

Editor’s note: This guest post is from Jonathan Haber over at Degree of Freedom, who is tracking his progress in trying to learn in just twelve months everything he would if enrolled in a four year liberal arts BA program and using only free resources. Along the way he is writing reviews of courses he completes, some of which he generously allows us to republish here. To get all of Jonathan’s MOOC reviews, and more, be sure to sign up for the weekly Degree of Freedom Newsletter.

Blank is one of those fellows with feet planted in both business and academia who you encounter frequently when you immerse yourself in the world of MOOCs. A Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur with eight startups to his credit, Blank has turned his experiences into a set of beliefs and procedures that he now teaches to students at major universities (including Stanford, Berkeley and Columbia), through lectures (including many available on YouTube), traveling road shows, books and his own web site.

What this means for those considering enrolling in his Udacity course is that they will be provided systematic access to highly polished material that transfers extremely well to an online classroom environment.

The core of Blank’s philosophy is that startups are different in almost every way from traditional, established businesses. For while established businesses rely on process and structure to create scale and stability (their ultimate desired “product”), a startup (by definition) has no scale; just ideas, energy and potential. And while stability is a plus for large, dominant companies (at least until their industry gets disrupted), it represents death for a new venture trying to locate or create or discover a market.

And — according to Blank — determining this market, or developing customers (Blank’s program is called the “Customer Development Process”) needs to be priority one, two and three for startups. While this might seem like a trite observation, focusing on customer acquisition is a major challenge for new companies whose founders often tend to zero in on perfecting their product before determining if anyone wants to buy it. (As someone whose own startup publishing business began with the printing of 10,000 books, after which I discovered who might be willing to pay for them, I can attest to the limitations of the typical “build it and they will come” strategy)

“Stop!” cries out Blank, who urges entrepreneurs to avoid the trap of becoming obsessed with what they are making and start spending time with the people they are making it for as early and as frequently as possible (even during that stage when one’s product is nothing more than a set of PowerPoint slides).

“Get out of the building,” is the mantra for the Customer Development Process, and it involves the founders of the company (not newly hired sales and marketing executives, not third party consultants) going out into the world and vetting their ideas with genuine users, people who can alert them early if their brilliant idea is the next big thing or hopelessly impractical. And it must be the founders who hear this message from the public since only they can change a company’s course on short notice without having to sell such a realignment to a leadership structure above them.

Building a Startup is constructed around a framework called the Business Model Canvas, the filling out of which becomes the basis for the course.

Building the course around this type of diagram is actually a good fit for the Udacity training platform which uses the online whiteboard as the basis for a bulk of their short videos. (Anyone enrolled in one of their courses spends a lot of time watching hands and pens flashing across a screen.)

The course is supplemented with footage shot at one of Blank’s bootcamp programs, giving you a peek at real, live students in the midst of chasing their own dreams of wealth and freedom.

While this course is no substitute for an MBA, too many MBAs in the mix might actually be a negative for anyone thinking of taking advantage of the current low barrier of entry to the startup world. In contrast, every minute of Blank’s Building a Startup course will prove invaluable.


Jonathan Haber (19 Posts)

Jonathan Haber is a Boston-based writer and educational specialist whose Degree of Freedom project is experimenting with whether it's possible to learn everything you would get from a four year liberal arts degree in just twelve months using only free educational resources. You can follow his progress at