Friday, January 7, 2011

Launching Tech Ventures: Part II, Class Sessions

This is the second of four posts about Launching Technology Ventures (LTV), a new MBA elective course I'm developing at Harvard Business School to explore lean startup management practices. Part I provides an overview of concepts covered in the course. Part III lists a set of tools and techniques that I think any MBA working in a tech venture should master. Part IV lists recommended readings for the course.

[Addendum, Apr. 10, 2011: if you are interested in lean startup concepts, you should also check out the LTV course blog. Students write blog posts instead of taking an exam. They've done terrific work.]

Here’s a preliminary syllabus for the 15 class sessions of LTV, which will start in late January and run through early March.

  1. Dropbox. Accel/Sequoia-backed Dropbox offers a cloud-based service that allows users to synchronize and share files across PCs and smart phones. We’ll use this case to introduce several course concepts, including product-market fit, user-centered product development, customer conversion funnel optimization in a ‘freemium’ SaaS context, and business development challenges for early-stage ventures negotiating with large corporations.
  2. IMVU. Guest: Eric Ries, IMVU co-founder & former CTO and HBS Entrepreneur-in-Residence. We’ll discuss how he and his colleagues pioneered lean startup principles at Menlo Ventures-backed IMVU, which offers an instant messaging service built around 3-D avatars. Eric will also discuss how lean startup concepts have evolved and whether the concepts are applicable beyond info tech startups.
  3. Triangulate. Trinity Ventures/angel-backed Triangulate offers a Facebook-based dating service. We’ll explore how this startup has used lean startup principles to guide product development through several pivots.
  4. Cake Financial. Cake was a website for consumers seeking to improve their investment portfolio performance. Although this TechCrunch40 finalist raised $9 million in venture capital and got press accolades, it never achieved strong product-market fit, and Cake’s assets were sold to E*Trade last year. The case explores whether this outcome was inevitable given market conditions, and what, if anything, the team might have been done differently.
  5. David Skok, General Partner, Matrix Partners. David will share insights on SaaS economics, customer conversion funnel optimization, and how to build a sales and marketing ‘machine’ in an early-stage venture.
  6. Rentjuice. Angel-backed Rentjuice provides web-based tools for rental real estate agents. Building on Skok’s ideas, we’ll explore issues in building direct sales capabilities in a SaaS-based early-stage venure.
  7. Aardvark. Aardvark, backed by August Capital and subsequently acquired by Google, is a social search service. We’ll focus on Aardvark’s use of ‘mechanical Turk’ product development processes. To learn about customers’ needs, the company substituted human operators for algorithms in routing beta users’ search queries to parties in a social network.
  8. Mochi Media. Mochi, backed by Accel and subsequently acquired by Shanda, developed a three-sided platform, connecting Flash game developers, sites that aggregate these games, and advertisers. We’ll use this case to explore the applicability of lean startup principles to platform-based businesses that harness strong network effects, along with the challenges of a ‘middleware’ business model that shares a large fraction of value with platform partners.
  9. Fred Wilson, Managing Partner, Union Square Ventures. Fred will discuss the new investor ecosystem that is evolving to serve capital-efficient startups (e.g., “super angels,” seed-funds, etc.), along with his perspectives on the tradeoffs between lean and “fat” strategies for building startups. He will be interviewed by Jeff Bussgang, Flybridge Capital General Partner & HBS Entrepreneur-in-Residence.
  10. Predictive Biosciences. Flybridge/Highland/NEA-backed Predictive has developed accurate and non-intrusive (‘pee-in-a-cup’) cancer diagnostic tests. We’ll explore the interplay between customer requirements and product development priorities in a life sciences context, and ask whether lean startup principles are applicable .
  11. Aquion Energy. Aquion is developing a low-cost, long-lasting, sodium ion battery suited for grid-scale energy storage. We’ll discuss product and customer development priorities for an early-stage venture confronting the clean tech ‘valley of death,’ i.e., the challenge of raising more equity capital than VCs are typically willing to provide under conditions deemed too risky for debt financing.
  12. Chegg. Kleiner-backed Chegg dominates the emerging textbook rental business. We’ll examine pressures that the company encountered as it grew explosively, and how management is responding to scaling challenges.
  13. foursquare. Union Square/Andreessen Horowitz-backed foursquare offers location-based services. We’ll use this session to explore the applicability of lean startup principles to platform-based businesses that harness strong network effects. In particular, in such businesses, is it possible/advisable to achieve product-market fit before you identify a monetization strategy?
  14. OPOWER. Accel/Kleiner-backed OPOWER helps electric utilities improve efficiency by delivering reports to consumers about their energy use. We’ll focus on how the company introduced formal product management processes.
  15. Course Wrap.
LTV has four modules. The first six company cases (Dropbox through Aardvark) examine challenges confronting early-stage ventures as they search for product-market fit. The last three company cases (Chegg, Foursquare, OPOWER) plus Mochi Media explore issues that tech ventures encounter when scaling, after achieving product-market fit. A third module consists of sessions on Predictive Biosciences and Aquion Energy, in which we’ll test the applicability of lean startup principles beyond info tech in capital-intensive, science-based ventures. The fourth module consists of  sessions with two venture capital partners who will address topics of general relevance to early-stage ventures.

The cases won't be available through Havard Business Publishing until the spring. If you are an academic and you want access to a case sooner for use in your course, contact me and I'll try to expedite availability.

In the meantime, I'd be grateful for feedback. Next year, I'd like to add a case about a big tech company (e.g., Google, Amazon) launching a new product. What else is missing? Can you suggest other case studies that would complement these?


  1. How about a case study on a high tech startup in an atypical geographical location?

    My personal motivation for this suggestion is that I come from Australia, so often a lot of advice, especially legal and infrastructure, is specifically applicable to companies operating primarily in America.

    I'm not sure what demographic your course is targeting, but if I were one of your students I think I would benefit from the contrast provided by such a case study.

  2. It would be interesting to do case study of a tech venture started by non-technical founders.

  3. If you are not privileged to attend LTV, you can hear a lot of the same amazing speakers recorded at Stanford at and on iTunesU.

  4. Tom, when are you putting up the podcast of your classes?

  5. bootstrapping in b2b and enterprise sectors

  6. John: Thanks for this suggestion. The course is indeed light on B2B and enterprise. Rentjuice and OPOWER offer B2B services, and my cases on science-based startups (Aquion and Predictive) sell to business customers. However, all the other cases involve B2C startups. I'll aim to fix that next year. In the meantime, if you are interested in cases on enterprise software (especially the sales and marketing challenges they face), Mark Leslie has written a big batch of great cases (available at for a course he teaches at Stanford.

  7. Naveen: sorry for the delayed response. We have policies -- sensible, i think -- that preclude taping classes. Half of students' grades are based on class participation, and we want them to feel comfortable taking risks with their comments. Videotaping classes would pose a problem in this regard. For more on this topic, see this discussion on the Boston Innovation blog about "opening HBS's API":

  8. I notice you mention Chegg. Very smart company strategy from what I have heard and read about them. I went to College way back in the 80's and we did not have these places, I guess without the Internet it was not such a possible thing...
    At that time our only way of getting any money back from our textbooks was to resell them to the book store. Unfortunately they did not always take them and that was pretty much the end of that, but with places such as Chegg a student has better chances of selling their books because if their college is not needing that book, another might be. A good way for students to save on buying too.
    Good blog, enjoyed