Getting it Off the Ground


By: Martha Rush; Chief Educator-in-Residence

Tales and Tips From the Front

Last fall, I led a two-day intensive workshop on teaching the lean startup process at the University of Minnesota. Near the end of our session, one of the teachers—who has run a very successful Shark Tank event at his school—asked this question: How do you get students to actually launch their ventures?

He followed up, explaining that many of his students are excited about ideating and planning for a business, and they’re pretty good at pitching to a panel of local judges, but they’ve never actually gotten a business past the idea stage. They’ve never produced a product or made a sale.

It’s a great question.

Why is it that teenagers (or any would-be entrepreneurs) get stuck at this critical point?

What gets in the way of turning a great idea into a great venture?

And how can we help our students get past this barrier?

So much of the learning in entrepreneurship comes from actually creating a real product and getting it in customers’ hands. You just can’t simulate that in a classroom, laboratory, or computer.

Only by launching their ventures can students find out if their ideas are viable, if there’s a product-market fit, if there are revenue streams, and if those revenues will cover the costs of production. Only by launching can they learn about sales, managing stress, and teamwork. And it’s only by launching do they risk failure, which is one of our most effective learning experiences.

Since that workshop, I’ve given this question some thought. My students have been launching real ventures since 2013, and although they are not always successful, they are always valuable learning experiences.

#1 Treat students’ ideas as serious venture ideas from day one

This one is hard for teachers, because students’ ideas often seem ridiculous. (Just being honest here — see my blog post on bad ideas.) It’s not up to us to decide if the ideas are sensible or viable or profitable. Take them seriously. Set high expectations. Use questions like How will you manufacture it? and Where will you get your initial funding? to guide students toward the end goal: a product with sales. Last year, one of my students made his own 3-D printer to help develop the team’s product — I never would have thought that was possible. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut. 

#2 Know the process

Try launching your own startup, so you can internalize the experience and all of its frustrations. If not, talk to some young entrepreneurs, and dig deep into their experiences. The lean startup process is just that, a process. It’s not magical, and it doesn’t require genius. But it does require understanding and perseverance and the ability to see around corners and know what’s coming — and which questions to ask.

#3 Help students connect to support, advice, and mentoring

It’s not enough that we, the teachers, take our students’ ideas seriously. They know we get paid to do that. Connect them to local mentors, graduates, bankers and business people who will also take them seriously. Nothing is more motivating to students than having an outsider, someone who “gets” the business world, treat them like an actual entrepreneur. I’m lucky to have a graduate, Will, who advises kids the same way he advises adults in his consulting business. He never talks down to them, and he never treats their ideas as make-believe.

#4 Suspend bias

This is worth repeating. No matter what students propose, as long as it is safe and legal, encourage them to pursue it. Don’t prejudge students’ ideas.

#5 Build a culture

Whether you are teaching entrepreneurship in a classroom or club, create an environment that promotes creativity, collaboration, customer discovery and student leadership (see blog post #1). The first year, it’s really difficult to convince students that they need to get out in the community and talk to people and do real work, but once you’ve built that expectation, last year’s successful students will become role models, and the culture will perpetuate itself.

Students have the ability to create and launch their own ventures. We sell them short if we let them stop at the idea stage. My advice: Set high expectations, and get out of the way.


Martha Rush

Martha, founder and CEO of NeverBore Education Consulting and author of Beat Boredom (Stenhouse, 2018), is a nationally recognized teacher with 25 years of classroom experience. She has worked as a professional curriculum writer since 2011 and a workshop consultant since 2013. She founded NeverBore in 2015 with a mission to provide teachers nationwide with hands-on strategies to overcome boredom and improve student engagement and motivation. She now serves as Chief Educator-in-Residence at Quarter Zero and has compiled the QØ Teen Startup Handbook.