Class was canceled on 2/9/17 on account of a blizzard in New York City. Given that we were requiring students to complete more than the 100 interviews that are usually required for a Lean LaunchPad course, we didn’t require any work the week of 2/9/17 and allowed them to enjoy the snow!
Between, this class and last class, we also saw Team ReAct disband due to some of the members needing to drop the class. Fortunately, the team members that wanted to continue to participate in the course were able to join Team AggregEn. We now have five teams participating in this course.
We started class by discussing the concept of Minimum Viable Product. In PowerBridgeNY and I-Corps, we encounter many entrepreneurs that feel they need a finished product to show their customer to determine if it is viable. The students in the Hacking for Energy class are no exception. Many of them have discussed the need to develop their prototype before or during the interview process. We stressed to the students that the Minimum Viable Product does not need to be perfect. If an entrepreneur develops a final product before customers see it, they could discover that they have wasted unnecessary man-hours by building a product no one wants. A Minimum Viable Product should intentionally be sparse, with just enough features so that the customer understands what you are trying to create, and can provide feedback on its relevancy to them. Through an MVP, the students should be able to gather whether their proposed solution has value with their intended customer, and whether that customer is willing to pay for it.
Student Presentations - Week 5
This week, we asked the teams to delve into their customer archetypes and identify each archetype on separate slides of their presentation.
Here are some highlights from week 5:
Some of the teams struggled with the customer archetypes. A teaching team member stressed that the students should “remember that you are always looking to make your customer archetype as specific as possible.” The more specific the archetypes, the easier it will be to map out the value drivers.
One team kept mentioning that reducing emissions would save money for their potential customer. An entrepreneur instructor pushed on that, asking multiple times, “How are they saving money on emissions?”. After a back and forth, the student clarified that the clients would save money due to fuel economy and that emissions reduction was a positive (non-monetary) side benefit. The exchange was a great example of how instructive this course can be, because the entrepreneur instructor, through the back and forth questioning, guided the student to more to more accurately describe the value propositions for their solution.
Here are this week’s presentations:
First on deck was Team Li-ionNYU. They had eight interviews this week, and defined two customer archetypes: universities and big delivery companies. It was nice to see the team expand beyond universities, and they did a nice job of outlining how universities and big delivery companies differ in their buying decisions. However, the customer archetypes they presented were still too broad. Customer archetypes need to be individuals (i.e. CFO, facilities manager, etc.) who have specific jobs to accomplish and not (as this team presented) organizations.
This team also had a revelation this week by figuring out that they might not be selling their product directly to a university but an intermediary that sells to universities. Their plan for next week is to interview green vehicle vendors to see if their solution would be of value to them. We were happy to see this team think outside the box beyond their original Industry Host and perceived customer. It is a sign that they are taking the LLP methodology to heart.
Next up was Team AggregEn. As we reported last week, this team did a major pivot with their customer segment, deciding to see if their solution would be of value for the financial industry. This week, they dove into testing this hypothesis by interviewing individuals who look at energy pricing data, including investors and pricing professionals at utilities. They learned that much of the pricing data that exists is not segmented by location, and they have a potential opportunity to provide more granular data for investors. What they are still determining is what segment of the financial industry would find their data most valuable (they learned this week that it would not be useful for equity traders) and they will continue conducting interviews to narrow their customer archetypes. We were impressed with how much they have learned from their interviews, but still felt like their Business Thesis was still not quite there.
Next was PowYorker. They did 8 interviews this week. Last week, this team figured out that they needed to expand their original perceived single customer, utilities, to include other contractors that sell to utilities, such as sensor aggregators. They presented engineers and electric utilities, water utilities, and sensor aggregators as potential archetypes, but we felt that they were still throwing lots of ideas on the board and hoping one sticks. We also saw that they are still focusing too much on their technology and we strongly suggested that they think about it less, and spend more time narrowing down who their customers are and understanding their needs.
Next was Sustainable Catalyst Group. They had a strong number of interviews (17 in 2 weeks) giving them the highest interview count for this week. The team presented that their solution would be for a two-sided market - both distributed generation owners and producers. Then they classified their archetypes based on those two markets, identifying 3 archetypes under the EV Users bucket and 3 archetypes in the energy producers. We were impressed with the level of detail they used to describe their archetypes, but we mentioned to them that we still felt like the primary customers (EV Users and energy producers) seemed too narrow and they might not be able to make a profit with such a small number of customers.
The final presentation of the day came from Team EVE. This team did 10 interviews this week, and presented very detailed slides about the customer archetypes, breaking them down into two main categories: Institutional (the installer of an EV charger) and the secondary (the user of an EV charger). Though we were happy to see a lot of detail in these CAs, we could tell that this team is still trying to figure out what their Value Proposition and Business Thesis are. One insight they learned in their interviews is that, when a commercial entity buys and installs an electric vehicle charger, they need to contract with multiple vendors: one to install, one to fix, one to maintain. They learned that this was a definite pain that their solution could potentially help solve.
Energy Lecture: Week 5
This week, as the teams learned about how to build customer archetypes and determine how those customers make decisions, Prof. Bradford taught the students about how some decisions are made by companies in the energy industry. Some highlights from the lecture:
Lessons Learned from Class 5:
We held our 3rd H4E class last week and we can safely call it The Week of the Pivot. Prior to class, the 6 teams conducted 53 interviews and, with this handful of interviews under their belts, a few of the teams modified their business theses and BMCs based on the new intel. In our experience running PowerBridgeNY and teaching NSF I-Corps, we have seen that it is around this time that teams experience their first pivot, and will pivot a few more times before the end of their 100 customer interviews. Pivoting indicates that an entrepreneur is taking seriously the feedback that they are getting from their interviews and is responding to those lessons with an adjustment to their business model.
In addition to the interviews, we asked the students to dive a little deeper into the Customer. We had them read about customer segments and then create a diagram for each customer segment relevant to their project, visualizing how they work and make decisions. To help them think through who their customers are and why they care about their solution, all the teams created a value proposition canvas for each of the identified customer segments. You can see the results of this exercise in the student presentations below.
Student Presentations - Week 3
Some highlights from Week 3:
Here are this week’s presentations:
We kicked things off with Sustainable Catalyst Group. This team did a major pivot this week, based on interviews between last week and this week, deciding to focus on homeowners as a customer and have moved away from utilities. The entrepreneur instructors, though happy this team is learning from their interviews, cautioned that the team may not have enough data to be so confident with their pivot and recommended that the team do more customer discovery to validate the change.
Next up was Li-ionNYU. This team heeded our advice last week and changed their customer segments from organizations to people, but the customer diagrams they developed were simple, and the entrepreneur instructors recommended that the team spend time putting more detail into them. What we do like is that this team is learning a lot from their interviews and taking those learnings seriously. For example, after speaking to sustainability officers for education institutions, public agencies, and private entities, the team started to see how each type of organization may have different priorities when looking for EVs.
After Lion-NYU was Team EVE. Team EVE also did a pivot based on their customer interviews, changing their business model to a service business focused on the O&M of EV charging infrastructure. The teaching team was really impressed with EVE this week. They did a nice job outlining their customer diagram with specifics and showing what hypotheses they were testing in their slides. They now need to test whether their newly identified customer segment, charging infrastructure owners, have as big of a problem maintaining the chargers as they think they do.
Team Re-ACT was up next. This was another team that did a nice job explaining their business thesis. It is great to see the students refine how their solution solves the problem at hand. This team did 10 interviews this week and also made their own pivot, deciding to switch from the residential market to commercial. We thought this was a logical move, since the “smart homes” seemed like a potentially small market, but we are curious to see what challenges they may find in this new segment.
Re-Act also got a tip from another team’s mentor in the room. When describing their desire to make their solution user friendly to the building managers, the mentor interrupted the team to say “Our engineers don’t get bored with the Building Management System because it is their job to monitor the BMS.” This was a great piece of insight - the students need to understand how to find the true motivation and value for a customer to use their product.
Team AggregEn was this week’s penultimate presenter. The first thing we noticed is that they added a Team Slide with photos of the team members, which we were happy about (!) because it made the deck, as well as the company, look more professional.
AggregEn also pivoted from last week by narrowing their focus to the financial industry. They also have a new MVP: a pricing model that investors can use to assess distributed energy resources (DER), We were happy to see them formulate a new MVP and focus on this Customer Segment, but validating this hypothesis will require the team to take a crash course in how the financial industry works and if they will find value with their product.
Our final presentation came from Team PowYorker. This team conducted 8 interviews this week to better understand what role their company and product would play with utilities. Through customer interviews with ConEd, the team learned that any kind of manhole sensor needs to have a battery that will last for 8 years, but the batteries for the sensors would not last if they increased their sampling rate from once a day (what it currently is) to every 15 minutes (what Con Edison wants). However, the team realized that using current power harvesting techniques, providing that much power would be impossible. Therefore their product is not going to be the immediate solution to stop manhole events entirely, but they can reduce their frequency and help workers be better prepared to handle them when they do happen. . However, with some energy harvesting, they might be able to increase the frequency that the sensors report data, which would still be valuable to Con Edison even if it is not ideal. They want to talk to the individuals who are servicing utilities, as they might be a better path to getting their technology into the hands of the utility.
Energy Lecture - Week 3
Professor Bradford provided and overview of electricity regulation in the United States, and how that may influence who might be the “customer” for the student teams’ solutions.
Lessons Learned - Week 3
We held our 2nd H4E class last week and the students are still figuring out the Lean process. That being said, many students are extremely receptive to feedback and are working hard to understand the concepts - that is important for us because the willingness to learn is the first step to mastery. This class was the first session where we kicked off what will be the format for this course going forward: Part 1 is Lean LaunchPad style Q&A and Part 2 is lectures from Travis Bradford. Unlike our inspiration, Hacking for Defense, we decided not to have any entrepreneurship lectures except for Customer Discovery on Day 1 (See the Class 1 Blog for an overview). Instead, class time will be devoted to the Q&A and energy lectures, while students learn the concepts of Lean LaunchPad by watching the Steve Blank videos on LaunchPad Central (these videos are also on Udacity). It is a great free resource that can help anyone better understand how to build a startup.
Prior to this class, the students watched the LLP videos on Value Propositions to learn more about what they are and why they matter. Our comments and feedback about their presentations focused on their VPs. We did to check and see if absorbed the learnings for the online lecture, or if they even watched it at all.
Team Presentations: Week 2
Before this class, the 6 teams spoke to 56 customers, a solid start of getting out of the building. We are really happy to see that the students are really embracing the interview process, even if they are just learning the concepts and interview techniques.
Some highlights from Week 2:
Many of the students are still focused on figuring out what data to gather. That is understandable given so much of academia is focused on data analysis.
The teaching team, entrepreneur instructors, and mentors used this week to again stress the importance of understanding what the customer wants. A solution without that in mind is likely not a solution at all.
Here are this week’s presentations:
We kicked things off with Team PowYorker. They are trying to figure out if there is a way to better monitor Con Edison’s electricity and gas underground infrastructure assets.
What we liked about this presentation: The team presented their mission as solution agnostic, which was great to see. They are willing to let the process guide in figuring out a solution
What we told them to work on: We suggested the team should spend more time figuring out their Value Propositions. They were falling into the common trap of thinking “features” are VPs.
Next up, Sustainable Catalyst Group, who is determining how SolarCity can best build a “Shared Solar” model for their customers.
What we liked about this presentation: The team has gotten some impressive interviews and is starting to realize that they cannot solve everyone’s problems. They have some time to decide where they should focus (possibly California EV owners), but they recognize the need to narrow down their customer segments.
What we told them to work on: The team seems to be very solution-oriented and needs to be more open about discovering what the problem really is before diving into a solution. They will have to be ever-vigilant about confirmation bias.
Team EVE followed, this team is helping GE to better match EV infrastructure with customers that need to charge.
What we liked about this presentation: We liked that they included social (non-monetary) value propositions. Many teams tend to focus on the quantifiable VPs like time and cost savings without realizing that emotional and social VPs such as reducing “range anxiety” can be just as important. We also thought their presentation was very open-minded. It was great to see that they are not jumping to any conclusions this early in the interview process.
What we told them to work on: The team needs to better understand the problem. Yes, GE provided a problem statement as a jumping off point, but there are many different facets of the problem that the team needs to investigate before they can be confident that their MVP is needed. For example, do all EV owners have problems finding charging stations or only some of them? How big of a problem is a lack of infrastructure for current EV owners?
Next was Team ReAct, who is building an analytical app with EPRI to better connect users to their smart devices.
What we liked about this presentation: The team learned that there are a lot of home automation solutions that can save energy, but some customers feel that there is not an easy way of controlling all of them from a single interface.
What we told them to work on: We told the team to reframe their business thesis, it should be 1-2 sentences that states what you can do for the customer, and not about what the technology does.
Team AggregEn is working with IBM to study the aggregator pricing model to see if it could better allow for the bundling, buying, and trading of energy assets.
What we liked about this presentation: The team is still figuring out the scope of their project, but they are starting to get empowered to go where the customers say their problems are rather than being forced to stay in the confines of the original problem statement.
What we told them to work on: The team presented their customer as organizations, not as titles/roles (i.e. people). This is a common mistake in the early stages of customer discovery, and we told them that. They need to think of their customers as people, because it will help better personalize the problem that they are trying to solve.
Our last presenter for Week 2 was Team Li-Ion NYU. The team is aiding NYU’s Office of Sustainability as they transition their vehicle fleet to electric vehicles.
What we liked about this presentation: The team has done an impressive job of getting in-person interviews (9 out of 10 this week). By going to different universities in the local area, they are quickly realizing that each university has their own priorities. They are still learning about what drives fleet operators decisions on converting vehicles to reduce carbon emissions. One issue is that the impact of such a change may be relatively small compared to other changes the university could make elsewhere.
What we told them to work on: The team could not fully articulate the hypotheses they were testing. We reminded them as well as the other teams to make sure that they have specific hypotheses that they can validate or invalidate in the interviews rather than wandering aimlessly through the conversations.
Energy lecture: Class 2
The class dove right into Travis Bradford’s lecture on the energy system. Prof. Bradford is fully embracing the entrepreneurship part of this course and actually organized his lectures so that they matched up with the concepts taught in the Udacity lectures. Since Week 2 was focused on Value Propositions, Travis presented an overview of the energy industry in terms of the industry's value propositions.
Some highlights Prof: Bradford lectures:
Lessons Learned from Class 2: