Harvard StartupMentor: The Pursuit of Opportunity With Regard to Resources Currently Controlled

by Stephen Elliott and Matt Noble

Despite the questionable stereotype that Harvard Business School lags other institutions (ahem...Stanford) in entrepreneurship, HBS and Harvard Business Publishing (HBP) have a wealth of resources, content and expertise in entrepreneurial management. We have been exploring how to deploy these resources and/or develop new ones to launch a web-based product for entrepreneurs and innovators. The vision for Harvard StartupMentor (HSM) would be to provide on-demand educational and tactical tools, as well as to ultimately cultivate a network of experts and practitioners.

At present, HSM is only an early-stage concept; it is not yet part of Harvard Business Publishing's product development pipeline. Our course project aimed to help HBP determine whether the concept is worth exploring further.

As an exercise in new product creation more than new venture creation, this task required us to engage simultaneously in customer development (to understand who our customers are and what they need) and partner development (to understand HBS/HBP’s resources and capabilities, and paint a picture of how they can leverage these). In the process, we learned some valuable lessons:

Customer Development

Hypothesis: HSM’s target customer is a functional manager within a startup who needs on-demand tactical resources that help with day-to-day challenges.

Core tools: Survey conducted in conjunction with HBR.org (600+ responses); persona development.


Create multiple opportunities

to prove/disprove key assumptions. 
We cared a lot about who our customers are and what kinds of resources they find most helpful, so we asked questions about those issues in multiple ways to be sure we got it. We asked a total of five questions about respondents’ roles, company sizes, stages, and past positions, and used free response answers to further flesh out personas.

To understand the customer’s needs, we asked about which topics are most important, where available resources are lacking, the resources respondents use most today, and what they might like to use in the future. On this last point, the importance of asking for the same information in multiple ways led to a second learning:

Build for what I do, not what I say. When we asked respondents in the abstract to rank proposed learning tools in order of usefulness, tapping into an online community was less popular than business cases, text notes, and several other options. However, when we described a real-life scenario for an entrepreneur with an immediate need, respondents overwhelmingly chose to tap an online community. Even for a non-immediate need, the community option was popular. 


      In the end, our thorough approach revealed that our hypothesis was a little off. The most engaged respondents were bootstrapped/early stage founders “doing it all.” They’re busy, and often feel isolated. “Do it yourself” tools were far less appealing than we had assumed; these founders want personalized answers, and they want them now, whether from a community or an interactive tool.

Partner Development

Hypothesis: HBS/HBP’s strengths are embodied in the case method: practical, process-based approaches to real problems. This syncs with the mission of HBR Group Learning to “translate ideas into execution,” exemplified by Harvard ManageMentor.

Core tools: Survey of HBS students pursuing entrepreneurship and alumni entrepreneurs (78 responses); meeting with HBP Product Council and individual product leaders.


Focus on your partner’s strengths. Like any organization, HBS and HBP have a sense of their strengths and competencies. We sought to focus on these strengths and through our survey of “product experts” with experience in the HBS program, pinpoint the best place(s) to jump off from on a product development roadmap. The graphic below, which emerged from our survey of students and alumni entrepreneurs, has helped to focus our conversations with the Product Council at HBP and has allowed us to frame the initiative as one that leverages existing strengths rather than requiring the development of new ones. This moves the conversation smoothly from what to productize toward the more interesting question of how to productize the most relevant resources. 

We have been able to compare this data to customer development survey responses about topic areas where current resources fall short, further sharpening our focus. The more general lesson we took from this was that parallel surveys of customers and partners can help paint a vivid picture of where product-market fit is likely to be found.

Partnership is a Curse Blessing Mixed Bag

Entrepreneurs are quick to point out the constraints that come with working alongside a large, established partner (HBP had $152 million in revenue in 2011). Along with valuable resources, connections, and brands often come organizational challenges, risk-aversion, and business model myopia. Throughout this project, we were conscious of the ways in which Harvard StartupMentor’s identity as an HBP product held us back or distorted our decisions – for example, launching our customer survey through HBR.org ensured that the primary respondent group would be, by definition, readers of HBR.org.

The less discussed flip side, however, is that while blue sky is alluring, there are benefits to constraint and focus. HBR.org readers who are early stage entrepreneurs make for a pretty good beachhead market segment. Further, since Harvard StartupMentor will not be HBP’s only product, there is less pressure than there might otherwise be to monetize users right away, as their presence drives engagement with the brand and may lead to purchases of other HBP products, like simulations or article reprints.

Professor Howard Stevenson famously defined entrepreneurship as “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” Because of the context of our project, we spent an awful lot of time thinking and talking about HBP’s resources: content, customers, brand, etc. This may be a key difference between intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship (and it certainly smacks of the innovator’s dilemma). However, we believe there’s more to it than that. Both intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs make decisions based on the resources currently controlled – it’s just that the resources that dominate for intrapreneurs tend to show up on the balance sheet, while the resources that dominate for entrepreneurs tend to be the more ethereal answers to questions like “what makes you the best person to revolutionize this industry?” In both cases, these resources can be both constraints and potent sources of competitive advantage.


Popular posts from this blog

Quiz Time 129

TCS IT Wiz 2013 Bhubaneswar Prelims

The 5 hour start-up: BrownBagBrain