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Teaching Lean Startup at University: an Experience Report



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Teaching Lean Startup at University: an Experience
Xiaofeng Wang
Free University of Bozen-Bolzano
Bolzano, 39100, Italy
Dron Khanna
Free University of Bozen-Bolzano
Bolzano, 39100, Italy
Pekka Abrahamsson
Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Trondheim, NO-7491, Norway
Abstract—Lean Startup as a methodology for entrepreneur-
ship becomes increasingly popular in recent years. It starts to
enter entrepreneurship education programs as a main topic too.
However there is little written on how to teach Lean Startup
at universities so that lessons learnt and good practices can be
accessible to educators who intend to introduce the topic to their
respective education programs, especially as university courses.
This experience report aims at documenting and sharing the
experience of teaching Lean Startup as a university course. Our
reflections on how to better organize the course and enhance
the active learning of the students can be valuable input for
improving future entrepreneurship education, both within and
outside universities.
Index Terms—Entrepreneurship Education, Lean Startup,
Learning by doing, Teamwork
Lean Startup [1] as a methodology for entrepreneurship
becomes increasingly popular in the past several years, evi-
denced by the dedicated conference 1and global Lean Startup
meetups2. As a result, it starts to enter entrepreneurship
education programs as a main topic too.
Due to the nascent nature of Lean Startup as a teaching
topic, there is little written on how to teach Lean Startup at
universities, even though it is beneficial that lessons learnt and
good practices can be shared among the educators who intend
to introduce the topic to their respective education programs,
especially as university courses. Based on this observation,
this experience report aims at documenting and sharing the
experience of teaching Lean Startup as a university course.
The paper is organized as follows. Section II describes
briefly what Lean Startup is and what entrepreneurship eudca-
tion entails. Section III presents the Lean Startup course taught
at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano (UniBZ). Section IV
offers the lessons we have learnt through our own teaching.
The paper concludes with Section V.
A. Lean Startup
The Lean Startup approach was inspired by lean concepts of
focusing on the efforts that create value to customers and elim-
inating waste during entrepreneurial processes [1]. However,
since the customers are often unknown, what customers could
perceive as value is also unknown. Therefore, entrepreneurs
should “get out of the building” to involve the customers since
day one. Lean Startup advocates to build the product iteratively
and deliver to the market for earlier feedback [1].
Lean Startup is essentially a hypothesis-driven approach [2]
which base entrepreneurial decisions on evidence and vali-
dated learning. To capture customer value, an entrepreneur
should start a feedback loop that turns an idea into a product
then learn whether to pivot or persevere. This can be done
by developing a minimum viable product (MVP) using agile
methods to collect customer feedback on the product [1].
The feedback becomes the input to improve the product and
validate the hypotheses. As the result, the startup might pursue
a new direction of the business or continue and scale it.
Figure 1 is a high-level representation of the Lean Startup
methodology and the basic outline for organizing the course
that is described in Section III.
Envision Build Measure Learn
Persevere Scaling
Fig. 1. Lean Startup Process Model [2]
B. Entrepreneurship Education
Entrepreneurship is important for the process of value
creation, job creation and general economic development [3].
Higher education institutions are expected to teach en-
trepreneurship and produce graduates with a broad set of
enterprising competencies and skills, and ambitions to become
entrepreneurs [4]. Teaching entrepreneurship at the university
level can also stimulate the research on entrepreneurship [5].
Entrepreneurship education is a deep, diversified, broad and
interdisciplinary field about which we just started to apprehend
as software engineering researchers. Entrepreneurship is taught
from various theoretical viewpoints. Moreover, educating ob-
jectives during the course and teaching approaches differ
notably. This is due to the fact that entrepreneurship is taught
within various faculties by academic with different back-
grounds and skills, to students with all kinds of educational
backgrounds [3].
Entrepreneurship could be taught following the two ap-
proaches: 1) entrepreneurship as a field of science, since
the content of the entrepreneurship program fundamentally
depends on the academic insight of what entrepreneurship
genuinely means [6]; and 2) entrepreneurship as a profes-
sion. These two methods should be signified in particular
entrepreneurship courses, depending on factors such as dis-
cipline of a student and educational level. Table I lists the
two approaches. The Lean Startup course described in this
report takes the second approach, teaching entrepreneurship
as a profession.
Academics level in Entrepreneur-
ship education
Focus: field
of science
(theory or
Focus: field
of profession
Major and PhD’s More Less
Minor (bachelor’s or master’s)-
business students
Less More
Minor and electives (bachelors,
masters or PhDs)- non business
Less More
With the increasing appreciation for the significance of en-
trepreneurship education and interest in teaching entrepreneur-
ship, various questions also emerge: could entrepreneurship be
taught, who are the students, why are the students taking the
course, what are the expected learning results, and how are
the entrepreneurship courses taught? [7], [8] Broad variety of
practices and studies provide various responses. Our experi-
ence is one way to answer these questions.
At UniBZ, the offering of Lean Startup course started in the
Computer Science Faculty in early 2012, and it was designed
to be open to the students from all faculties of the university
at all levels (undergraduate, master and PhD). This means the
students from Computer Science, Design and Art, Economics,
Science and Technology as well as Education. The course
offers 8 credit points. It lasts 12 weeks (6-hour per week up-
front interaction with the teaching team). The teaching team
is composed of 2 to 3 faculty staff. The major part of the
students are coming from Economics Faculty, followed by the
students from Computer Science and Design and Art faculties.
The course is project-based, problem-driven, and mainly
learning by doing. The students propose original business
ideas, form project teams based on chosen ideas, and develop
them into a business as far as they can during a semester.
Apart from the students and teaching team, another key player
involved in the course are mentors, who are experienced
entrepreneurs or work in the related domains, and volunteer to
help the students to develop their ideas. Based on the number
of enrolled students and the manner in which mentors are
involved in the course, the number of mentors could vary from
6 to 14.
There is a minimal amount of pre-conceived upfront lec-
turing and on-demand seminars on the topics that students
frequently inquiry or request. The structure of the course
has stabilised through the refinement of five editions of the
course. Following is how the content of the course is organized
Week 1: Introductory week
Provide an overview of the Lean Startup course. Illus-
trate what are expected from the students by showing
project and pitch examples of previous years. Discuss on
what it takes to be an entrepreneur. The focus of the first
session is to help students have the right expectation of
the course and to set up the right mindset needed to get
positive and active learning experience from the course.
Week 2: Identify startup ideas and team formation
Students pitch the ideas they want to develop, and form
the teams around the pitched ideas. A small lecture on
innovation, entrepreneurship and business presentations.
The focus of the session is to kick start the projects as
quickly as possible so that the students have sufficient
time to develop the ideas.
Week 3: Lean Startup basics and first video shooting
Introduce Lean Startup basics, e.g., Problem validation,
Problem/Solution fit. Teamwork focuses on idea elabo-
ration through video shooting and pitch preparation.
Week 4: Business Model Canvas and Minimum Viable
Introduce business model canvas, build-measure-learn
loop and Minimum Viable Product. Teamwork focuses
on identifying the first MVP they could build with the
help of business model canvas.
Week 5: Presentation of the progress
Introduce idea validation techniques. Presentation and
discussion of the progress made by the teams in the
past weeks in front of a panel of mentors and the whole
Week 6: Pivot or persevere?
Introduce the concept of pivot and types. Mentor guest
lecture. Teamwork and discussion to understand if pivot
is needed for their projects.
Week 7: Business Model
Introduce business model concept and types. From this
week on project teams progress with different paces and
decide their own focuses based on the progress they
Week 8: Building Entrepreneurial Teams
Introduce and discuss on how to build entrepreneurial
teams. Retrospective on how teamwork went for each
Week 9: How to get funding?
Presentation and discussion from the mentors on how to
get funding to support startup initiatives and particularly
how to do so in the local context.
Week 10: Teamwork continues
Check the progress of the team against the final set of
Week 11: Finalize the project
Teams finalize the project development deliverables and
rehearse for the final public presentation. The three
deliverables are:
3-min pitch presentation,
1.5-min promotion video, and
A0 project poster.
Week 12: Entrepreneurship Evening Event
The course finishes with a public event - Unibz En-
trepreneurship Evening, at which the students present
their projects to the general public, and get feedback
from expert judges and audience.
It is worth noting that the entrepreneurship evening is not
only an event at which the students could present their projects
to the public audience. It is also considered the final exam. The
exam results are based on the performance of the teams at the
event. The students do not receive individual scores.
The course ends with a retrospective session with each
project team, in which the students recall the journey they went
through with the facilitation of the teaching staff. The team
would talk about how they feel their project went. It is an open
session with the aid of so-called “mood chart” to facilitate
the conversations between the teachers and the students (see
Figures 2 and 3). The retrospectives serve multiple purposes:
a) for the teaching team to give better visibility to the work
and effort of each project team; b) for the teaching team to
collect feedback from the students regarding the course; c) for
the students to have an opportunity to reflect and enhance the
learning; and d) for the students to have a sense of closure
of the course and their project. Figure 2 represents a typical
chart of the lean startup project teams. The course journey
is a “roller coaster” emotionally for many teams if they take
the project sufficiently serious. Figure 3 came from a project
team that worked particularly well together, as shown by the
relatively smoother mood chart, even though the business idea
the team worked on has gone through significant changes
during the course.
In this section we highlight what we have learnt through
these years of teaching the Lean Startup course.
A. Course objective
When we started the course, we believed that the main
objective of the course was to help the students to realize
their business ideas by instilling the entrepreneurial knowledge
they need and provide the support as much as possible, such as
mentoring, missing skills, etc. Therefore the way we evaluated
if we were successful in teaching Lean Startup was how many
projects became real startups. The number was disappointing,
Fig. 2. Retrospective Chart of Student Project Team A
Fig. 3. Retrospective Chart of Student Project Team B
and we were confused of the role we played in comparison to
startup incubators and how we distinguished our course from
the local incubation programs and initiatives, such as local
Startup Weekend events.
With accumulated experience and interaction with students,
we came to the realization that the objective that is more
in line with the nature of university course and participating
students should be nurturing the entrepreneurial spirits in the
students, which would be beneficial in many ways in the future
no matter what they do and if they are going to start their
companies or work for others. The objective shift is not trivial
in the sense it would affect how the course should be designed,
students be guided and resources be used.
B. Learning by doing
Learning by doing is an attractive aspect of this course and
the students generally responded positively to this style, stating
during the retrospectives that this course was “completely
different as compared to other courses held at the university”,
and they have learnt a lot and enjoyed the course. However,
the learning outcome can be quite different for students
with different attitudes towards the course. As we always
communicated with the students, the learning outcome of each
individual highly depended on how motivated, committed and
proactive he/she was. Having said so, we could not leave all
the responsibility of learning to students themselves. Currently
we are exploring what we as teachers could do to ensure
and improve the learning that the students can obtain from
such courses. To properly motivate students and sustain their
motivation is a promising direction.
C. Team formation
We have advocated that an ideal entrepreneurial team should
be composed of members of different knowledge, skills and
background, based on the understanding that diversity is a key
attribute for innovative ideas [9]. Especially we encouraged the
students to form the team in such a way that the competence
such as design, software development and marketing is in the
team. Especially the important role of design in the Lean
Startup course projects has been demonstrated repeatedly in
various tasks.
However the diverse skills brought by different team mem-
bers should not define the types of contribution they could
bring to the development of a startup project. Too often we
saw that the project teams only used the skills of their team
members, but they were not benefiting from different perspec-
tives and ways of thinking enabled by different disciplines and
educational backgrounds. That was why we kept reminding the
teams that computer science students should contribute their
technical knowledge to their projects not just code, and the
designers were part of a team not just because they were good
at designing logos.
D. Mentoring
Mentors and mentoring are one corner stone of the course.
Students can get direct learning and valuable feedback and
guidance through interacting with different mentors. When
we started back in 2012, the involvement of mentors were
less defined. The mentors did not follow the development of
particular projects. They were giving occasional comments
and feedback to the teams whenever they were available and
present at the course. In the following editions we have exper-
imented different ways of involving mentors and ensuring the
quality of mentoring and come up with the following solutions:
after project teams are formed, a two-way matching
between teams and mentors is conducted to identify
which mentor helps which team;
each mentor takes the ownership of the project team
matched to him/her, and mentor that project during the
whole semester; and
to allow the whole class benefit from the knowledge of
different mentors, every week we appoint at least two
“Mentors of the Week” and for that week the appointed
mentors have the responsibility to mentor all the projects
and answer all the questions.
This arrangement got positive reaction from the students.
However one issue we are still struggling with is how to handle
the situations where different mentors have different levels of
commitment and engagement with the course, which affects
directly the learning experience of students.
E. Grading
To grade the Lean Startup projects and students has proved
to be a difficult task, both technically and emotionally. We
made clear to the students right from the start of the course that
each project team would get one unified score. No different
scores would be given to the members of the same team.
Our rationale was that this way of grading would encourage
teamwork which was crucial for project-based courses. It also
simulated the real-world situations where the team would
succeed or fail together. However, even though the students
would accept this way of grading without complaint, we were
aware that the students were not treated fairly from the point
of view of the grades they received, which may affect their
academic performance if undeserved low scores were given.
No complete visibility to the effort the teams put into the
projects was another reason that weakened our confidence with
the scores we gave to the project teams. Currently we are
working on a web-based course platform that can provide this
visibility to the teaching team for better assessment of projects
and teams.
In this experience report we described a Lean Startup course
taught at UniBZ, with the hope that our lessons learnt can
be valid input for those who would set up Lean Startup
teaching in their institutions. In future we will use our own
learning points as well as valuable experiences reported by
other researchers and educators (e.g., [10], [11]) to improve
our course design and implementation, particularly on how to
better teach key Lean Startup concepts such as MVP and pivot.
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innovation to create radically successful businesses. Crown Books,
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ship: the lean startup,” Harvard Business School Entrepreneurial Man-
agement Case No. 812-095, 2012.
[3] P. Blenker, S. T. Elmholdt, S. H. Frederiksen, S. Korsgaard, and
K. Wagner, “Methods in entrepreneurship education research: A review
and integrative framework,Education + Training, no. 8/9, pp. 697–715.
[4] A. Gibb and P. Hannon, “Towards the entrepreneurial university,”
International Journal of Entrepreneurship Education, vol. 4, no. 1, pp.
73–110, 2006.
[5] a. Fayolle and J. Kickul, “New and emerging perspectives for future
research in entrepreneurship education,” in Handbook of Research in
Entrepreneurship Education, A. Fayolle, Ed. Northampton: Edward
Elgar., 2007, vol. 2, pp. 1–10.
[6] D. L. Sexton and N. B. Bowman, “Entrepreneurship Educaion: Sugges-
tions for Increasing Effectiveness,Journal of Small Business Manage-
ment, no. 2, pp. 18–25.
[7] M. Brand, I. Wakkee, and M. van der Veen, “Teaching entrepreneurship
to non-business students: Insights from two dutch universities,Hand-
book of Research in Entrepreneurship Education Volume, vol. 2, pp.
52–83, 2007.
[8] P. Blenker, S. Korsgaard, H. Neergaard, and C. Thrane, “The questions
we care about: paradigms and progression in entrepreneurship educa-
tion,” Industry and Higher Education, vol. 25, no. 6, pp. 417–427, 2011.
[9] C. Post, E. De Lia, N. DiTomaso, T. M. Tirpak, and R. Borwankar,
“Capitalizing on thought diversity for innovation,Research-Technology
Management, vol. 52, no. 6, pp. 14–25, 2009.
[10] A. J¨
arvi, V. Taajamaa, and S. Hyrynsalmi, “Lean Software Startup An
Experience Report from an Entrepreneurial Software Business Course,”
International conference on software business, vol. 114, pp. 261–266,
[11] I. Aaen and J. Rose, “A Software Entrepreneurship Course Between
Two Paradigms,” in 15th Annual Interdisciplinary Entrepreneurship
Conference, St. Gallen/Z¨
urich, 2011.
... Some entrepreneurship courses teach emerging methodologies for startup development like Lean Startup [19,24,35] and Customer Development [9]. Fitzgerald and Stol [15] argue that these methodologies are consequence of the need of a closer integration between business needs and development. ...
... Case B. Four students, one from a Master and three from a Bachelor program in Computer Science from an Italian university participated in the optional Lean Entrepreneurship course taught by the third author. The setup of the course was project-based, following a learning-by-doing style (the course was described in a previous paper [35]). They developed a project based on the business idea of their own: build a platform to connect car owners keen to rent their cars to possible renters when they were not using them. ...
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The lean startup: How today's entrepreneurs use continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses
  • E Ries
E. Ries, The lean startup: How today's entrepreneurs use continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses. Crown Books, USA, 2011.