Startup experience was one of the courses I was impatient to take at Aalto. Organised by Aalto Venture Programme (AVP), it is an essential part of the EIT Digital Master, a two years masters degree at leading technical universities in Europe developing the tech leaders of the future. EIT stands for European Institute of Innovation and Technology. During my exchange year at Aalto, I visited many courses offered for EIT students and they are some of my closest friends here. Startup experience was a new type of bonding for some of us.
I applied as a CEO with a concrete idea for smart fashion tech. As a CEO, I had the great chance to choose my teammates. I thought this is going to be easy since I have worked a long time in recruitment. Choosing the people I will work with for the next three months was different than I imagined – after screening skills and experiences, I realised how much more important for me is the motivation of the people to work with me, as cliche as it sounds. Startup experience is a mandatory course for the EIT students while for me is my own choice – this is already quite a difference in the motivation. I’m glad I was able to find brilliant people from diverse backgrounds and many hidden talents who liked my idea and were willing to get deeper into back pain for three months.
The twelve weeks course covers different theoretical areas about entrepreneurship and presents useful tools such as Trello, Canvas etc. But the dry theory is not the focus of it: we worked on our practical projects in eight teams. Especially valuable was the regular clash with reality AVP offered to invite to each of our pitches professionals from the field of Venture capital to give us valuable feedback on our work such as people from TBWA, The Disruption® Company, venture capital fund Inventure, student-run Venture capital fund Wave Ventures, and the social change think tank Demos Helsinki. A major part of a previous work position of mine was the research on innovation in the medical devices world including the major actors in it – startups and angel investors. I thought I knew something about it. But discussing the financing of our project with a professional investor showed me that basically “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”.
The six design sprints gave us different opportunities to develop our product. I can’t decide which is my favorite sprint: at the beginning, we did first user interviews and then an experiment in which we offered back massage to office workers. It led to much more fruitful results than just a questionnaire or a short interview at the gym. It helped us build a prototype which in the next sprint we tested with our colleagues. In between, there was a session in the textile workshops of Aalto as well as choosing a vest in the second-hand shop UFF. Seeing my teammates master technical problems I have no idea about and the prototype worn by others and their reactions to observing their position on screen was an unforgettable rewarding experience. We got positive feedback and new ideas about future development and target groups of customers we haven’t had thought about. In the later sprints, we learned more about planning our marketing activities, research the market and estimate our possible reach in different ways. Negotiating financing with an investor was the next challenge we went through as a team. In the fore-last sprint, we unleashed the creativity and shot our one minute video which can be seen here. In each sprint, we had to come up with new ideas and utilise all the skills we had.
Group work in the university context has almost always been a negative experience thanks different work styles, attitudes toward work, miscommunication – I can recall very few working groups with which I stayed in good terms after handing in the final deliverable. And I’ve heard the same from others. “Startup experience” was very different because one of the core aspects of it is the reflection. It started with the difference between a “group” and a “team”, easily explained in this video:
At the end of each design sprint, each of us recorded a video reflecting on the own contribution and learned lessons. In addition, there was a coaching session for the COOs leading the team in each sprint. AVP offered to CEOs additional coaching sessions to reflect on the experience as a team leader. This support helped me a lot – different than in any other course there was this space and time to discuss team dynamics despite the drill of deadlines and deliverables. One interesting observation I could make at our first CEO meeting was about the differences in attribution (theoretical concept for how we explain the world) – some of us were worried if we’d be good enough CEOs, others if the team would work or would it be lazy free-riders. It made more aware that the tendency to internalise would prevent me from success. The mid- and the final exam were also such a conversation and reflection on our work and development. As the teacher said in the first lecture: pain + reflection = learning.
If I got you curious about the ways of teaching about entrepreneurship at Aalto, check out the summer school offered by AVP! Applications are open now!