The Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization (CEO) at Illinois Tech hosted the final installment of its Lunch and Learn series on Monday, April 16. This final iteration featured Nik Rokop, Coleman Foundation clinical associate professor of entrepreneurship at the Stuart School of Business, who led the discussion on a concept known as the startup business model canvas.
Rokop began his presentation with a case study example on the West African country of Burkina Faso. A landlocked country, Rokop stated that Burkina Faso is primarily agricultural and is greatly lacking in many of the resources and infrastructural elements that more developed countries have, mainly the internet. In addition, Burkina Faso is a diverse country, with population subsets that speak French, Mossi, Bissa, and Dioula. Amid this backdrop, Rokop cited the example of a group that saw a problem arising from these communications issues: farmers that do not know the market value of their food and oftentimes end up selling their wares for much lower prices than market value.
He then stated that an intrepid group of entrepreneurs sought to address this communication problem in Burkina Faso. However, instead of immediately thinking in terms of large technological solutions and immediately prescribing fixes, this group applied the concepts of design thinking. A core tenet of this approach is to base actions off users and direct observations. Thus, this group went from village to village across Burkina Faso. What did they find? Farmers were much less concerned about communicating about prices than they were about communicating about a much more important factor in their everyday life: the weather.
Thus, the focus of this group shifted entirely due to direct user input; they instead focused their efforts on equipping these farmers with the means of communicating about the weather. Given the infrastructural climate of Burkina Faso, a large technology-based solution was out of the question. Instead, this group enacted a much simpler system. A single control center where one person with a computer and internet access would read on the latest weather forecast and record a voice transcript of the forecast. Farmers across the country can then call this center and hear the pre-recorded forecast - no giant social network, no major upset to the country’s infrastructure or way of life.
Rokop used this example to illustrate the problem he sees in many startup groups: immediately trying to jump to solutions. If the group in question here had done this, they would have been approaching the wrong solution in the wrong way. Design thinking and successful entrepreneurship require a solid understanding of the target audience and the problem at hand. Direct observation and conversations with end users are the way to go for this approach. In addition, Rokop also stressed the importance of working on something that is personally meaningful. In his words, “if you find something meaningful to you, you’ll be passionate about it.”
Later in his presentation, Rokop then introduced the central concept of the business model canvas. Originally a one-page description of an existing business, this model has also been adapted for budding startups. The business model canvas for startups focuses on customers and the accompanying problem and solution. Both of these sides flow into an overall value proposition. Empathy and the use of personas or archetypes are vital for the first half of the canvas and developing a genuine understanding of the customer or end user. Then, the underlying problem has to be understood at its core. Researchers will need to dig deep, use the practice of asking the “four whys,” and actually talk to people to understand their plights. Only then can a solution, product, or service be created. This deliverable should be prototyped, revised, and remade as many times as necessary, with user feedback shaping it the whole time. From here, an overall value proposition with a pitch and headline can be created, alongside channels, partners, and market research, as well as a revenue model.
A core tenet that Rokop stressed in this brief introduction of the business model canvas was the unfair advantage of a startup. Comparable to an existing company’s competitive advantage, what is it about the project that sets it apart from existing solutions? Why would customers or users value this particular entity? What makes it unique? Questions such as these and approaches such as design thinking and the business model canvas are all just some of the existing ways that Illinois Tech entrepreneurs can attempt to make their difference in the world and its markets.