Starting the 7th year teaching lean startup in NUvention Web

7 years of teaching lean startup!

As Many of you know, I’ve spent a fair amount of my time since leaving Microsoft teaching at Northwestern University in Chicago. I taught software engineering my first year; and then at the urging of the dean of engineering, Julio Ottino, I worked with the director of the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship to develop the NUvention Web course. Our mission was to create a multi-disciplinary course, that mixed grads and undergrads from different schools who would work on teams to define and develop a software product concept over two quarters. We’ve had over 300 people take the course; and while not an explicit goal, the course has spun out a few startups over the years. Most notably, Adaptly, started by Nikhil Sethi in our inaugural year; but also Groovebug,, Waddle, and Sweetperk—all of which raised rounds of funding or attended good accelerator programs post class. More importantly, the feedback we have is that the experience had significant impact on how they approached their careers and helped them establish initial mentor relationships with each other and with alums and our advisory board that have persisted at whatever ventures students did next. I’m teaching again this year along with Mike Marasco, Chris Riesbeck, Rich Gordon and Rich Padula. A few years ago we added Medill journalism graduate students to the mix to think about content oriented startups (and content marketing) and renamed the classs NUvention Web+Media. For this year, we have done a complete revision of the curriculum.

How we taught the course in the past

Our initial curriculum was a mash up of Steve Blank’s The Four Steps to the Epiphany (recommended by me when doing customer development for the class with a then new alum Alex White who founded Next Big Sound) and a software engineering curriculum Chris Riesbeck and I put together. Entrepreneurship education has evolved rapidly in the last 7 years. The most significant event being the establishment of NSF iCorp and the leanlaunchpad curriculim supported by VentureWell, which was developed by Blank and Jerry Engel; supported by a good udacity course, Launchpad central software, and the excellent Startup Owner’s Manual and Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers. We have taught the course using the straight leanlaunchpad method, after experimenting with approaches like Ash Maurya’s Running Lean.

Starting immediately after our 6th class ended last June, we began an overhaul of the class based on lessons from those first six years. We consulted with Blank and Engel, where we shared some of our reactions in our experience of teaching the course and using some of the leanlaunchlab material. Steve rightly pointed out that because we have the luxury of two quarters; we go a bit beyond customer development; in fact in recent years, most teams have users they are serving and even actual revenue with their products by the time the class ends. Also, critique hasn’t worked as well for us as it has for Blank and Engel. It’s a very important part of the course, still the center of what we do, but for us we decided we want to use more tools in the teaching toolbox.

NUvention Web 2016 Curriculum

As we put the curriculum together, we sought to address a number of goals:

  • Better ideation more grounded in user needs. An important lesson for our students is going from the notion of their startup dream, which is usually grounded in a solution, to identifying specific customer audiences of sufficient size and identifying the high value problems that the team can address.
  • Increase the software engineering depth as well as the business customer development depth. CS students who take our class can do so as part of a software project requirement. Our goal is to have them exit the class with grounded experience in architecting and writing software as a team. We also wanted to develop a better community of developers who could help each other. We were doing ok on this; but felt we could do better.
  • Increase class engagement. This was to address issues we found with class wide critique mentioned above as well as working with the multiple disciplines. Our feedback was that business people to a certain extent would tune-out some of the software development topics; and hackers would tune out the business pieces. The benefit of the class is clearly exposure to both working in their team. We thought we could do better.

We also wanted to build on many aspects of the class that worked:

  • Pushing teams to launch products to real customers before the end of the class
  • Using four panel storyboards and scenario canvases to drive MVP development and backlog prioritization
  • Using the business model canvas as a framework for thinking through the business.
  • Linking to an advisory board of entrepreneurial practitioners to strengthen student networks and provide a source of ongoing feedback and coaching beyond the teaching team.
  • Pushing teams to deliver from the first class to accelerate learning and team bonds.
  • Using participatory teaching techniques that drive class engagement.

Changes from leanlaunchpad model

Teaching technique: call and response

We have been moving to a situation where there is more ‘call and response’, something we stole from Chris Riesbeck. For classrooms with good internet connections (note: this method did not work for me when at Ashesi because at the time connection and reliability of the internet was too unpredictable), googledocs live editing is a revalation. Essentially, we introduce a concept, provide a google docs template for teams to explore it specific to their business/product, have them work on it in a single consolidate deck (students learn from seeing live what other teams are doing); and then doing spot follow up when complete. Time wise, this takes about 4x the time of just presenting the material but I would assert it is also more than 4x effective. It’s also less time than a traditional team by team critique.

Critque Optimization: Split class

If you have more than 6 teams in a class, a combined critique consumes most of a three-hour class. Class wide critique has value for sure; but we found doing this every week gave us lower marginal return over time. We are blessed with the luxury of a large faculty team (4) and often have advisory board guests that help out from time to time. If you have 4 faculty and 10 teams, you can split into two rooms and cut elapsed time in half. Mixing combinations of teams helps broaden team learning and in our experience keeps it fresh. Lessons learned across rooms can be shared once the class is brought together.

The new NUvention class now has four five week phases:

NUvention Web 2016 4 Phases for doing lean startup

Using Dan Olsen’s product market fit pyramid: From customer needs to value proposition

This summer like usual I searched for techniques to help us fill the identified gaps in the class. I came across Dan Olsen’s The Lean Product Playbook: How to Innovate with Minimum Viable Products and Rapid Customer Feedback. The book is an excellent guide for product managers in organizations of all sizes on developing and testing your value proposition. We connected with Dan (He’s a Northwestern Alum which was a bonus), and added his book to our reading list. He’s going to come talk in our class and join the advisory board. We are centering the early phase of the class around the bottom of the period that addresses identification of a customer segment and a set of user needs. This gets teams focused on identifying a key need/pain point. From there we focus teams on developing a scenario canvas that lets focuses the teams on developing their initial product slice as part of development of their Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Then students in parallel flesh out key personas and work on sizing the market.

Customer Needs with Pyramid Lean Product Playbook for Lean Startups

Once these steps are complete, we move to creating a hypothesis business model canvas and analyzing the competitive landscape. Teams iterate over this concept while developing the MVP in the second half of winter and the first half of spring; at which point they launch their product into their initial market.

Separate customer development and software engineering tracks

We usually open our 3-hour class with either a critique or a specific topic we cover using another teaching method. This year, we decided that sometimes we would split out the ‘product development’ and ‘customer development’ groups. We did this to cover some topics in more depth. Many are meant to then be taught by student peers to the other parts of the team. On the product development side, it lets us go more in depth technically without losing the rest of the class. For example, on Tuesday we went into more depth on the pros and cons of different starting architectures for web apps in a startup. In the customer development section, we talked in more detail about how to interview. We used some material from Running Lean in addition to our own experience,

New Space

The garage space for entrepreneurship at Northwestern
The class is a 3 hour block of time. We work to give each team some time that they can use to work through the team issues while the faculty wander between the tables to give feedback and offer assistance. Another terrific thing that’s happened since we started in the creation of the NU garage space. This gives our teams a meeting place they can use that is in a single open layout where we can interact with each of the teams.

Our first session went well, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the teams evolve.

A great thanksgiving in Ghana

It was a different Thanksgiving for us this year.  Ruth, Rachel and I are in Ghana as I have discussed in previous posts.   Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday here; but Thursday and Friday illustrated all the things to be thankful for this Fall.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to teach entrepreneurship at Ashesi

We had our second to the last entrepreneurship class today.   The students presented their lessons learned presentation based on the Steve Blank Lean Launchpad curriculum.   It’s really been a blast teaching entrepreneurship with my co-teacher Sena Agyepong; and it was great to see how far the students had come.   In particular, it was great to see some of the pivots to new product areas based on what was learned in customer development.  For example, we had a team that started with an idea for a culinary school.   They could never find a strong enough need to be able to serve a market profitably.  During the process of researching this business however, they found out that catering is a highly fragmented market in accra; and that managers of catering businesses have not figured out how to leverage the internet.   The team was started by a major in MIS, and so they have pivoted to a self serve site that enables caterers to use the web to market themselves.   When they tested the concept, caterers were immediately willing to pay—a sure sign of a need.

I’m thankful Marcia Grant is provost at Ashesi, and that we’ve gotten to know her.

Thursday was Marcia Grant’s 75th birthday.  I’ve talked about Marcia before; and it has been a delight getting to know her; and we are grateful that Rachel has been able to stay with her.   Being her neighbor and colleague has truly been one of the pleasures of teaching at Ashesi.   She gave a great talk on Wednesday night about her lessons of 75 years.  The Warrens first met Marcia during the Ashesi campus inauguration a few years ago.   Like Patrick, Marcia had received an honorary doctorate from Swarthmore; and also like Patrick, she had been a significant player in the founding of not one, but two universities—one in Saudi Arabia and one in Pakistan.   Marcia has been a professor, a diplomat, and an educational entrepreneur.   She has lived in 12 countries.  Patrick was able to recruit her to come out of retirement to act as Ashesi Provost.  She is an amazing lady, and it was a pleasure celebrating her birthday; and having turkey at her party.


Sena, Rachel Warren, Araba Botchway, Ruth Warren and Ruth Kwakwa at Marcia’s Party

I’m thankful for Ashesi Milestones

On Friday, it was just another work day on campus; but an exciting one.  I attended the local college board meeting (I serve as the chair of the Ashesi University Foundation board in the US).   The board just added some new members (all female), and in an important milestone; an alum from our second graduating class, Yawa Hansen-Quao, has joined the board.

I’m thankful we’re starting engineering at Ashesi.

We also have progress on our engineering program, scheduled to start next year.  The building is proceeding nicely, and the curriculum is also making good progress, proceeding with reviews with affiliating universities and accreditation boards in Ghana.   Ashesi made a pledge earlier this fall to work toward gender balance in engineering; so I am excited for this program to get underway.  I then rushed off from the board meeting to a meeting with Sena, who is leading development of the freshman curriculum combining entrepreneurship and design.  We had a great session discussing how to introduce both pieces to freshman, with an emphasis on team work.   I think it’s going to be a great way for our freshman to meet customer needs, be productive in groups, and understand the relationship to business.

In fact, now is the time to help engineering get your name on the donor wall by visiting this link we are more than 85% of the way there. You can see the engineering building behind the main campus in this aerial view.
aerial view of campus

I’m thankful for the impact of Ashesi Students and Grads:  Adesua Ye graduation

One of my entrepreneurship students, Sela Agbakpe, a few years ago helped start with Leonard Annan a community service project, Adesua Ye.  Adesua Ye means ‘learning is beneficial.   It is a program focused on adult literacy in the village down the hill from Ashesi, Berekuso.   More than 35% of Ghana is illiterate; and this inspired the creation of the program.  The founders have been recognized as Dalai Lama fellows; and just recently won an award from Tufts.    The graduates had worked up to two years for the advanced program; and in fact two of the graduates are now running for assemblymen positions with their new found literacy and confidence.  See the video below from the Tufts competition (the video was shot by a software engineering student of mine)

Of course, I’m thankful for my family and my own health; and even though my Thursday and Friday were not as relaxing as a Thanksgiving in the states; the experience was extremely gratifying none the less.

Teaching Entrepreneurship at Ashesi

It’s hard to believe Ruth and I are entering our last month at Ashesi in the Fall, and so I’m late in writing a post on teaching entrepreneurship at Ashesi.  We’ve been using a modified version of the Leanlaunchpad curriculum developed by Steve Blank, Jerry Engel, and others.   I’m lucky to be co-teaching with a fulltime professor here at Ashesi, Sena Agyepong, who will continue with the students over the next semester.   We have 12 teams and about 60 students total; majors in MIS and Business Administration all seniors.   The course was inspired by the work I do with the Farley Center at Northwestern in the NUvention Web class.
Sena and Students

Working with Sena (Center, surrounding by some of our students) has been one of the great pleasures of being at Ashesi!


Unlike NUvention web, the class is not focused on a single sector like software; and more like the industry generic courses run using the lean launchpad curriculum at Berkeley and Columbia.  As a textbook, we are using Steve Blank’s Startup Owner’s Manual.   We are also using the videos from his Leanlaunchpad Udacity Course; as well as the excellent tool for tracking your business model canvas, Launchpad Central.    Below is the course outline posted on slideshare:


Special Thanks

I want to say a public special thank you to Steve Blank and Bob Dorf, who generously donated copies of the Startup Owner’s manual to our course in West Africa; and also to the crew at LaunchPadCentral for giving access to their excellent software.   Both have really made the difference here, though our intermittent internet connectivity and power make using LPC live a bit of a challenge!

Deviations from LeanLaunchPad

We have made a few deviations from leanlaunchpad in the curriculum.  In particular, from teaching NUvention web, I found that students often would misunderstand the business model canvas as they focused on their ventures.   Additionally, with a typical leanlaunchpad derived course, team formation happens exogenous to the class.  For a number of reasons we were unable to do this.   We therefore spent the first several weeks of the class introducing the business model canvase.   We had students on the first day watch a video about a succesful ventre in ghana, Koko King and build the business model canvas in teams after a short lecture on its structure.   We then had them two additonal case studies designed in part to help them develop a map of potential opportunities and various business models. Student presented the cases back to the class.  The first set of cases focused on global startups that were disruptive or had a unique take on their spaces (for example AirBnB or RocketInternet) while the second focused on African startups found on

While leanlaunchpad declares the old-school business plan dead; critical thinkng and writing are at the center of the Ashesi Mission.  Indeed, after meeting him over coffee in Seattle, and reviewing John Bean’s work, which is central to much thought at Ashesi, We’ve supplemented the critiques and canvas updates in launchpad with writing around the business.  At midterm, teams were required to prepare a paper that explains the business model of their venture and the current hypothesis.  Teams are currently developing a brief that describes the revenue and cost model and it’s underlying assumptions and hypotheses to test.This has been a good addition in terms of helping us understand whether teams have a current and coherent view of the overall business.

We are also borrowing some successful aspects of NUvention web, in particular, the development of the value proposition using the character, context, problem, payoff framework.   I also used this with much success in software engineering; and it warrants a post if not a paper in it’s own right.  We focus on this first because my experience is the canvas is overwhelming at first to students; and without clearly defining the customer segment and the problem solved (value proposition) the other elements are of small amounts of value in the beginning.  Perhaps this is why Osterwalder is working on the value proposition canvas.   There are pieces of that I like and the recent post from steve was insightful ; but the big thing it misses is the idea of payoff.   A business can’t just address a pain or gain—that’s necessary but not sufficient.  A business must provide a payoff to its customers beyond the solution.   The payoff is the differentiation beyond competitors and existing solutions.

Getting out of the building

I was worried about implementing this aspect of the Lean curriculum at Ashesi.   We are in a pretty rural area, a bumpy 45 minute ride from the main city.  Happily, the students have risen to the challenge.  Knocking on doors, and talking to potential customers and suppliers.  Indeed, our recorded number of interviews is as strong as any class I have taught (and the lauchpadcentral folks have told us that the Northwestern teams have been quite strong on interviewing).

Student Teams

Our twelve teams are developing a variety of different businesses.   One was an existing business already—Saam’s Pizza—a Pizza delivery service focused on college campuses.   Saam’s is an idea with a page taken straigt from Rocket Internet’s playbook.   While there are pizza restaurants in Ghana, Saam’s is focused on the college opportunity; with a focus on fast service and delivery.   They have the model working serving the Ashesi community and are using the course to take what I term their ‘minimum viable pizza’ into a plan to replicate and scale the model in other communities with colleges to build a bigger business.

Other teams are typically focused on opportunities that arise from a growing middle class in Ghana and many local specific problems.   Hygiene, especially for food is a big issue.  Unlike in the states, it is hard to get pre-washed vegetables and fruits.   We had a team that was focusing on this opportunity, but have evolved their model based on interviews and analysis to some market specific packaged and partially cooked foods, like pre-seasoned kelewele and yams, ready to be cooked.   Another local specific opportunity is looking at a device to help people determine the level of their Polytanks.   Centrally provided running water is rare in many developments in Ghana.  Often, a home or business will have their water delivered by truck and stored in a tank.  Most of these tanks do not have an easy way for people to find the level of water.  One of the teams is working on an inexpensive solution so that you can know whether you have enough water for that last shower.

Advisory Board

We have been able to draw a good set of advisors for the class.  Like NUvention web, we pair teams with advisors who are themselves entrepreneurs or who have experience in the team’s target domains.   We had them pitch at Mid term to the judges; they were appropriately tough; and teams have been in the process of doing more research and pivoting to better models.  I hope to do another post on where the teams have landed; and what their progress has been as we wrap up the class in the next 5 weeks.

A new course in software engineering at Ashesi University

How Did I come to teach software engineering.

I got my start in teaching by leading a software engineering course in 2001 at Northwestern University.   At that time, I was the General Manager of Microsoft Project; but had been working in software for about 14 years.   I hadn’t taught before, but the chair of the CS department, Larry Birnbaum took a chance on me; and even more helpful, he paired me with another NU professor Chris Riesbeck, who has been an excellent teaching mentor ever since.    Chris had me look at agile and other methods; and so the course that resulted—which I jokingly call “How to be a Microsoft Program Manager in 9 weeks or less” was a hybrid of some waterfall techniques we used at the time at Microsoft (Setting a Vision Statement, Writing Detailed UI Specs), Contextual Design, and then the at the new method of eXtreme Programming.   I was skeptical of extreme in the real world; but intrigued with using it to teach because it emphasized some practices that I knew would be new for students, like unit testing, pairs, running iterations, estimates, and continuous integration.  I still keep in touch with a few of the students of that class—and over the years, I’ve lost the list—if you were in it, please contact me via LinkedIn.

I returned to Microsoft and stayed for 8 more years; doing a number of fun things for at least 6 of them, until I lead the Windows Mobile 7 project, which was both a disaster and able to squeeze the fun right out of software development for me.  I have no love for large scale waterfall at this point; and question whether it makes sense for any single software project to have 1000+ engineers as it had when I left.  After leaving, I re-taught the same course at Northwestern, and that transitioned into teaching NUvention Web where we have a simply amazing faculty team, which includes Chris Riesbeck.  In that class we combine entrepreneurship and software engineering.  Chris has continued to teach software engineering; and both classes have influenced each other.

When I decided to come and teach at Ashesi, it became clear that it made sense to teach separate software engineering and entrepreneurship courses; and I was excited to rethink what I had done more than 10 years ago; as well as incorporate some of the cool stuff happening now and a lot of the things Chris has been doing in his 394 course.

Course Objectives

When I took software engineering back in the 80’s at Northwestern, it let me come to Microsoft with a kit of useful techniques that I applied on my first projects, in particular, writing the first UI specs on the programming languages team (CodeView for Microsoft C 5.1 and MASM 5.1).   My overall goal was to make sure students would bring a set of useful techniques to whatever software team they were a part of.  So the course objectives are:

  • Develop an understanding at the survey level of the motivations, methods and practice of software engineering techniques including waterfall, agile, and open source style product development.
  • Understand the foundational techniques for better ‘personal software engineering’ practices, including test-first design, estimation, unit and end to end testing, and modern source code control. Students will also learn how to take your knowledge of general CS principals and apply them to a new language, new coding environment, and new set of problems.
  • Become a product designer who can implement a novel solution for a currently unmet need or unsatisfied pleasure for a group of users by developing a minimum viable product, getting feedback, and iterating it successfully.
  • Become a product designer who can communicate effectively with a client, understand related constituencies, and conceptualize a minimum viable product that delivers on  their core needs, iterating that product to meet their highest priority requirements in the time allotted to the task.
  • Become a better product developer who can work effectively in teams, and who can better understand how to scope, prioritize, and estimate development work.
  • Present product designs and intermediate product implementations in a way that maximizes feedback and reduces resource and time risk.

Three phases of the course:

The course has three main phases; and we are in the middle of phase 2 now.  Further articles will talk about those:

  • A personal software engineering section focused on pair programming, test first, source code control using git and, and an introduction to model/view/controller frameworks using AngularJS.  I’m going to write a few other post on this; and I would say the module was not wholly successful, but I see ways to iterate it to work better.
  • A team software product section focused on team selected and directed software product, usually web or mobile web developed of 5 weeks.   Structured like a ‘startup’ teams work to develop apps targeting other students.
  • A software project for a client.  In this case, many of the clients will be Ashesi IT, but we may also have some others outside the university.   Part of the lesson is how to work with and communicate with an external client around the software development process.

We are ending the 2nd week of the second project, so stay tuned for more posts about how it’s gone so far.

Living in Ghana for the Fall

I’m reactivating the blog after some time away, having written both on Forbes and focusing on some other activities, like my work at Divergent Ventures. The principal reason is that this fall, my wife Ruth, my daughter Rachel and I are living in Ghana and working at Ashesi University.

I’m teaching Software Engineering and Entrepreneurship—splitting apart and expanding the curriculum I use with Mike Marasco, Steve Olechowski, Chris Riesbeck, and Rich Gordon for NUvention Web.   I will do further posts that talk about each course, and add some detail on the curriculum and the students progress.

I haven’t stopped my ‘day job’ which is as a partner at Divergent Ventures; but am certainly less active.   My terrific partners at divergent, Kevin Ober and Rob Shurtleff are helping out, especially with our portfolio companies where I serve on the board.

As for the other members of the family here, Ruth is focusing on a project with the founder of Ashesi, Patrick Awuah.   Rachel is working as a Faculty Intern in the computer science department, having just completed her CS degree at Wesleyan.   She is working with me in Software Engineering as well as acting as a Faculty Intern for the amazing head of the CS department here, Dr. Ayorkor Korsah for programming 2 (intro Java) and algorithms.   Shameless plug for Rachel Warren:  We will be returning to the US at the end of the year; and she is looking for interesting CS oriented opportunities in the Bay Area.  My son Sam, who is not over with us, is in southern California attending Pomona college.

In addition to talking about our work over here, I know a lot of our friends, colleagues, and family are interested in what it’s like living in Ghana, and for those who are familiar with Ashesi, what our students, faculty, and campus environment are like.  The rest of the post will give an overview of that.   If you are more interested in what I’m teaching, follow the software engineering category underneath Ashesi, and the corresponding one for Entrepreneurship.  For the ‘lifestyle’ stuff see the “Living on Campus Fall 2014” category.

I’m slow getting this blog started so here is a bit of a recap.  Ruth and I arrived about a month ago, and classes started on September 1.  It’s been super busy getting settled and starting teaching.  Part of this is I’m teaching a different software engineering curriculum then when I last taught developing software product at Northwestern.  Learning how to navigate the school and country culture has also been new.

For those who are less familiar with Ashesi, here are some basic facts.   The school is an undergraduate institution with a liberal arts core, slightly over 600 students as of this writng, and majors in computer science, business, and a combination of the two, Management Information Systems.   Ashesi’s mission is to educate the next generation of African leaders, and has 10 sets of graduates doing amazing things all over Africa.   Through generous donors like the MasterCard foundation, Ashesi is also drawing from across Africa.  For the last few years, we have been on a residential campus in a small village, Berekuso, outside Ghana’s largest city Accra.  It’s about a 45 minute ride to the city from campus; though it’s not really very far; the problem is that the road is simply terrible; a real spine rattler.   Many of the faculty and staff commute from Accra to the campus; and the university runs a bus service for students, staff, and faculty commuting.   The 3 of us are happily living on campus.  Ruth and I in a visiting faculty apartment, and Rachel in a room with our amazing Provost Marcia Grant, in Leonard House, an on-campus residence just a few steps from my and Ruth’s apartment.

Ashesi Visiting Faculty Housing
This is where Ruth and I are living. It’s a duplex, and the Buchele’s live in the other half

In terms of living n campus, most people expect to to be hot; but since our arrival in August, It’s been cool; and where we are up in the hills, the temp is in the high 70s/low 80s; but very, very humid. Many mornings we are sacked in with fog.  The shower towel doesn’t dry unless you can put it out in the sun; and one has to be careful to prevent mold from growing on your clothes in the closet, etc. It’s supposed to start to warm up as we get to November (into the 90’s) and get dry as the Harmatton starts. I wish we had a weather underground station here so we could monitor things locally; because the Berekuso village weather is much different than the Accra city weather.  In any case the humidity is such that the “real feel” is in the 90’s even though the temp is in the 70’s.

There are 6 staff who live on campus; us Warren’s make up half the number, but in the adjoining apartment to ours Steve and Suzanne Buchele live, and Marcia Grant in Leonard house with Rachel.  You can see Suzanne and Marcia’s bios here.   We are really enjoying our little community.   There are also the students of course.

Kofi from Ghana Bike with his children
Kofi from Ghana Bike with his children
Ruth riding on a mountain bike through a grove of palm trees near Aburi
Ruth riding on a mountain bike through a grove of palm trees near Aburi

For fun we rented mountain bikes from Kofi at Ghana Bike.   This has been terrific. We can ride to a bigger vegetable market at Kitase; and also explore the large number of small foot paths in the hills around campus. It’s fun to go down some single track all of a sudden to be in the middle of a small set of rural farmer family’s compound. It’s also neat to ride through cocoa, palm oil, and banana patches; but the pineapple patches have leaves that cut your shins; so we are avoiding those.


Loudspeakers in the village of Berekuso
Loudspeakers in the village of Berekuso

Berekuso is rural, and as inferred in the previous paragraph the grocery pickings are slim.  Excellent tomatoes, fresh eggs, some very hot peppers, bananas and plaintains.  Sometimes lettuce or eggplant.  I can also get beer from nana’s.   Ruth talks about this on her blog here:  While rural; it isn’t without noise.  On a walk recently we saw why.  The village is at the bottom of the valley; but the announcements are read about 5am over the loudspeaker.  The people here are also very into all night singing and prayer vigils; and college students of course, are also not known for being early to bed, early to rise.   As Steve Buchele says, it isn’t a party in Ghana without feedback.

From Idea to Product Insight: Making the Most of Interacting with Customers

In NUvention Web, we have students build a list of product hypotheses (product ideas) and start talking with customers. Based on my experience in building new products and in teaching software engineering and NUvention web, after you have the initial product idea, I recommend the following process to validate your concept and initial value proposition before building an MVP.   The research also helps flesh out development of a product’s business model canvas. For business model canvas, I’ll reference what we are using in NUvention 2012, Ash Maurya’s excellent RunningLean.   Ash has put together a variant of Osterwalder’s canvas focused on some of the key elements facing a web based business.  This discussion on product insight actually comes out of an email exchange with Ash and discussions with the NUvention Faculty Team (Chris Riesbeck, & Michael Marasco) While the process I’m describing is primarily geared toward new products being developed at a new company; they work equally well on established products or larger teams with a few modifications. My recommendation is to validate the product hypothesis by having the product and customer development team do the following three steps:

  • Have open ended discussions with “experts” in the target customer.
  • Conduct a· 360 degree competitive analysis (something I will elaborate on in a future post; but think of it as building on the Michael Porter 5 forces framework)
  • Do Ethnographic research, using a technique like Contextual Design, on the customer segment and its related actors to discover latent needs and very specific opportunities

This post will primarily elaborate on the third; and I will have a brief discussion of the first, which we do as a pre-assignment in NUvention web.

Ethnographic research has its basis in anthropology and is widely used in product design today. It borrows many anthropological techniques.  In fact, when I worked at Microsoft, Donna Flynn, who managed user research in the Windows Mobile design group when I was there, is a PhD in anthropology (from Northwestern!) and used the techniques extensively. The method I prefer is based on another PhD in anthropology’s work—Karen Holtzblatt—who started to apply these techniques while she was working at Digital Equipment Corporation in the 80’s. Holtzblatt has published many articles, and has two books on using an ethnographic research model she calls contextual design:

We use the rapid book in our class; but the CD book is more complete. Additionally, we have had LUXr  (Janice Fraser) do a workshop for the class last year. In a presentation she did she had a useful pruning of customer interview techniques see starting at about slide 40; and look especially at the slides starting with 55. We haven’t used these in NUvention web; but as we evolve the class, I’m thinking about the best way to pull all of these together.

A bunch of things are super useful from rapid CD:

  • Watching work to infer needs vs. asking a user a specific leaded question or showing them the product. Users are generally pretty bad at giving a product builder a useful critique of something. If you watch them work, you can usually see where they REALLY need help and what you can do for them (i.e. latent need). CD interviews have you watch the end user do related stuff and you take notes. For example, in class this year we used as an example a team that is looking at software for food trucks. This team was able to look at all the activities of the order process from the person in the truck’s point of view, as well as the customer’s point of view. They also learned a lot of these trucks have a coordinator who helps with social media and doing other tasks. They could enumerate those tasks to understand which ones would be valuable to automate; as well as what the orders needed. The technique has you do a two person de-brief; which is good because the person who wasn’t on the interview can ask a bunch of questions to get data.
  • When you do this kind of interview, in addition to the roles of the different actors, you see a bunch of core processes (in our food truck example:  taking and fulfilling a pre-order, managing the credit card process) as well as important adjacencies (finding a legal place to park or at least one where you can avoid the cops!). If you see the order taking at a few trucks for example, you can abstract the sequence of tasks into something you can automate or at least come up with potentially fruitful feature ideas (location services to let you know whether or not you are within 200 feet of a restaurant–a legal requirement for food trucks in Chicago).

In a full CD (models in the CD book not the Rapid book) other things can be very helpful in the early going. There is a model called “culture” that helps you understand influences relative to your product proposal. While the “culture” model rarely results in specific features, it helps teams understand the environment dynamics that can affect your business model (who are the influencers on a decision? How is the budget determined around a particular product area? What are the barriers to getting a new solution adopted? For example, in the food truck case, there is the influence of local regulations on their industry; as well as parking. From the customer point of view, in an office, it turns out there is usually one person who knows about the food trucks (this would be at Microsoft what we would call an “Influential End User” or is now often called a Net Recommender. There is also one called flow where you look at information exchanged between people in various roles. This can be very good for collaboration oriented services. For example, one of our teams is looking at software to help assist producers and directors in running a shoot for movie, commercials, or TV. A flow model would let you know how and what info they exchange and build an abstraction across a few interviews (8 to 10 is the sample generally needed).

We currently have teams build an “affinity” which is a collection of random facts across interview organized by subject (each interview generates between 50 to 100 factoids) but the minutiae is not that interesting; it’s the abstraction that’s interesting and that takes a fair amount of effort to build. We’re not sure how useful that really is in the long run, other than getting a product team on the same page about the customer, and helping build a persona (a persona is the next level of detail for a customer segment, i.e. how do you characterize a particular person with the segment? Alan Cooper is the guy credited with inventing them, but a quick google showed this to be the best overview link What are their average demographics relative to the product (e.g. in an email product, how much email do they have), what are their top tasks, what are their constraints. We used personas a lot when I was at Microsoft. I found they were often abused; though Donna’s team in tandem with the product team on Windows Mobile did some excellent in depth ones that were tightly linked to an extensive quantitative segmentation our product managers did.

In addition to personas; we have the students do storyboards. A storyboard is a task flow that includes “out of system” things like user intent (e.g. what was the motivation that led the user to the scenario in the product) as well as system behavior (e.g. what data needs to be entered at each phase). It’s rough sketched, which I think is the right level of detail at this phase of the project; but it does include some functional detail about the construction of the UI. It’s not a complete functional description, and while we don’t do a complete functional description in NUvention web, I’ll talk about the kinds of functional description I find useful.

I’ve noticed an issue with contextual design and lately rapid contextual design as we’ve used it in the class I will caveat here. The issue I think we have with the CD processis that it has a lot of relatively formal models that are of varying usefulness. The big thing in our class that people struggle with is getting to a useful and focused scenario to build and test for their first MVP, that’s grounded in enough research that its not a complete myth to reduce the total number of iterations. Rapid provides a good way of structuring the data from the interviews; but the goal should be for teams to focus on what they need from the technique, rather than technique for its own sake.

Other problems are these techniques tend to find “pains” as opposed to “joys”. We had Ben Huh ( ) talk in NUvention web a few weeks ago; and failblog and icanhascheezburger were all about creating joy and engagement; not really around alleviating a pain (other than distraction from a busy and mundane world). There, it was really the quantitative growth of both memes that the internet enabled that was the key website; and that people would think captioning cat pictures was fun. I think CD CAN help find where a disruptive technology can intervene; but they won’t help you pick which technology; just figure out what pain to shoot the technology at.

The other challenge that sometimes comes up is the Steve Jobs defense of not doing research. It quotes Steve Jobs, as he talked about in this fortune magazine interview. The defense goes that steve didn’t do market research; so why should I do it. Well, I will quote another UI great, Don Norman. In our first year, he told our class “Steve Jobs is a genius. He doesn’t need user centered design. Most of us aren’t Steve Jobs, we need the method of user centered design. The other reality, even in the interview, is you see Jobs talking about critical examination of products in the category (cell phones in this case). This is part of something I call 360 degree competitive analysis. CD even has a way of doing this—there is a technique called a “reverse user environment” that’s about deconstructing a product to its core UI principals. It also has one for looking at manual processes and abstracting them—consolidated artifact analysis. My experience is very talented UI folks can intuitively do this—the way some people can do 3 digit multiplication in their head—but the rest of us need to learn how to carry the 1 and offset by 10 and add for the 10’s and 100’s place.

NUvention Web 3.0

On Wednesday night we had our first class for NUvention web in 2012.  It’s our 3rd iteration on the course.   The faculty team did an extensive rework of the syllabus, changed our readings, and restructured assignments.   When I worked at Microsoft, the feedback was we never got our products right until the third version.  Hopefully, this will be the best one yet.

Structural Changes

We made several structural changes to the course.  In particular, we worked to get students gelled into teams faster and ideating quicker.   To facilitate this, we had a pre-class assignment for the teams that they completed this week.   Each team provided a set of concepts, providing a description “The X that does Y for Z”, a target set of customers, and a motivating user sceanrio.   We asked teams to do interviews with at least 5 subjects.   I would say this was successful in getting them started with the course, and provided a reason for them to get together sooner.   We critiqued the concepts live, with an emphasis on pushing them toward really understanding end users, economic buyers, and decision makers; as well as investigating competition.

In the past, we have also received feedback that in the first quarter, students have difficulty understanding how to connect the dots between customer development, value proposition creation, contextual design, minimum viable product, and agile development.  We created a case study using groovebug, a team from last year who has continued.   Contact me if you are interested in reviewing the case.   The groovebug team was on hand to elaborate, and Mike Marasco did a great job of leading it.

We are also pushing development faster, and are asking teams to have a landing page in their target development tool set for their product concept by the 4th week.

Finally, we don’t assign formal “roles” in the team until the 3rd week.    The goal is to get teams to really engage collectively on customer development; even as a few folks start developing the initial software and architecture.

New Texts

Steve Blank’s Four steps to the epiphany set the original structure for the course; and customer development is still central to what we are doing.   That said, students found the book poorly edited and a bit obtuse.   We evaluated several books, including Eric Ries Lean Startup; but ultimately chose Ash Maurya’s Running Lean.   It is more practical than Ries book, and integrates agile.   There is still room for improvement, as hopefully I will explain in an upcoming post.   We kept Holtzblatt’s Rapid Contextual Design: A How-to Guide to Key Techniques for User-Centered Design (Interactive Technologies); but I also think some work can be done to better link it to agile and lean startup for students.   I like contextual design because it provides a great framework for digging deeply into your customer data to build insight.  Last year we used the Osterwald Business Canvas from Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers ; and this year it’s a required text.   We have to rationalize Running Leans version of the canvas with Osterwald; but that was a price we thought worth paying.

Integrating twitter

Relatively minor; but we asked students to use twitter during lecture to share insights, using hashtag #nuweb2012.   This was really fun so that we as instructors could see what was resonating with students and what they are thinking.  Sandeep Paruchuri, our TA put together a twitter list of people past and present involved with NUvention Web.

So Far so good!

Technical Resources for NUvention Web 2012

UPDATE:  I’ve incorporated peoples comments into a final document: Technical Resources for NUvention Web FINAL

On Wednesday evening, we start version 3.0 of NUvention Web.   In this 2012 edition, we will again have 8 teams across Northwestern Schools (Primarily from the McCormick School of Engineering and the Kellogg School of Management.   We’ve made a lot of great changes that I will detail in upcoming posts.   In getting ready, I put together a list and personal commentary on technical tools based on what students have used in the previous two years and what we are recommending.  NUvention Web Advisory Board member Steve Olechowski (twitter @steveobd) retweeted this post from Sachin Rekhi titled Reflections on the Technology Stack for Connected that is also worth reading.  For anyone reading this, I’m interested in your feedback and advice.  It’s written with the class in mind, so if your not in NUvention web, I can’t really help you with things like getting support from Google, Amazon, and Microsoft:

Technical Resources for NUvention Web

As teams start to work on their projects, here is a list of useful technical resources for people developing applications in NUvention Web. The list is based on information previous teams have used as well as new resources we are encountering that are successful in developing web and mobile based applications. Of course, feel free to use others and bring them to our attention.

Basic Project Management Tools

· Thinkfuse is a required tool for creating and disseminating status reports to your own team, faculty and stake holders. In NUvention Web we require it to be used once a week. It’s used by teams at Techstars, and was itself a techstar company that I advised.  I’m also an investor in Thinkfuse.

· 37 Signals Basecamp. Basecamp is a simple way to keep track of and assign tasks to members on your team.   We used a simpler tool last year we built ourselves; but teams preferred basecamp generally.   I personally find the feature set a bit too spare, and prefer more full-fledged bug and issue tracking systems like those found in Assembla and GitHub.

· Github is the preferred method this year to do source code control and issue tracking. Github also provides a wiki for the team to document their repository as they go. The “micro” paid version should be sufficient for most teams, and we will reimburse. Issue tracking also lets you group things into milestones; so for example the issues can be assigned against a landing page or MVP milestone for you to manage. We are fine with a team using github issue management instead of basecamp.

· Assembla has been what we have provided to teams in the past once development begins. It’s issue tracking is much more robust than basecamp; and it also includes either Subversion or Git to do source code management of your project. Especially as you get into the process of writing/testing/deploying software, we find that assembla’s issue tracking works well. In fact, a best practice amoung well performing teams in the 2nd quarter of NUvention web is to drive team meetings out of active issues in assemblat. We recommend Git over subversion to do source code management.

· Google docs and dropbox. These are good for general collaboration. Dropbox provides a nice way to share unstructured files with other members of your team (e.g. Microsoft Office Documents) Google Docs you are probably familiar with, but provides a simple way manage shared spreadsheets and do simple web forms that can be emailed to small audiences. The faculty team especially likes using google docs for collaborating during a phone conference to group edit a document. For larger surveys, we recommend things like survey monkey or qualtrics. Most Kellogg students have access to qualtrics, and it provides excellent and sophisticated tools that I think are better than survey monkey.

Web Hosting Environments, API’s and Development Tools

Development Tools

NUvention teams in the past have used a broad spectrum of web based development tools. Tool choice should depend on what your team feels best prepared for and most interested in. In the past, the following Web Development environments have been the most popular:

· PHP with mysql. This is a very approachable and good environment to start with. There are numerous frameworks with different plusses and minuses (joomla, wordpress, drupal) for getting a site up and running. There are good environments for templating. Mysql is quite affordable and has good function to start. PHP download info is available here: and Mysql is here: see also hosted environments.

· JavaScript (ECMAscript) and jquery. Most modern websites use a fair amount of JavaScript and use a library called jquery that provides numerous helper functions, especially with ajax and ways of abstracting multiple browsers.

· HTML 5 / CSS 3. This is pretty obvious; but also when coupled with things like the phonegap framework provide an interesting environment for mobile and tablet as well as desktop targeted software products.

· A new, hip development tool some are using that exploits JavaScript at both client and server is node.js. I only recommend this in NUvention web if you have previous experience with JavaScript.

· For development environments for PHP and HTML/JavaScript I prefer eclipse ( Eclipse is also the environment for developing android applications as well.

· For web design on windows, I also like using Microsoft Expression Web. It provides a decent basic visual designer as well as syntax directed editor.

· Ruby on Rails is an extremely popular development tool used by many teams last year; and integrates a very nice framework for creating data driven applications. It also integrates nicely with unit test tools like rspec and source code control like Git. Ruby is a pretty easy to learn language for those who are familiar with Java, C++ or C#. the ruby development environment is easier to use on Mac or Linux than on windows because it is extremely shell heavy. That said, I use it primarily on windows and its fine.

· Python and Java are also very popular and teams in both prior years of NUvention web have used. Some have used google’s app engine environment for this and others have used generic hosting.

· A team the first year used .net for their server side development. I personally love C# as a language, and it’s great for windows desktop development, but think especially because of sparse coverage for important web apis, like Facebook; a poor unit testing environment and some performance issues with dealing with formats like json; I recommend against it in NUvention web unless the team has extensive experience with it already.

· Unit Testing. We talk about agile development, and recommend that teams consider using a test first development approach and unit test framework. Ruby provides a built in one, but I have had better experience using rspec, which encompases so called behavior driven development. For other development environments, I like the variants of the original junit framework (i.e. xUnit. This wikdipedia article offers exhaustive information on the various ones out there), like PHPunit. Doing unit tests in a web environment is tricky; and we will talk about this as the quarter commences.

Web Hosting Environments

There are a lot of these, and this is not meant to be exhaustive. Some environments provide specific functionality that targets a particular development tool, others are more generic:

· Heroku. This is the recommended environment for doing ruby on rails development. It’s easy to get started and use. It’s free to start. I’ve had good luck with it as have teams in prior years.

· Bluehost provides vanilla web hosting. For 2010 and 2011 NUvention we provided a Bluehost account as standard. In our evaluation of vanilla web hosting for the criteria of the time we thought Bluehost was the best value. That being said it was only marginally better than some others. Bluehost is best for PHP, with good support for most of the PHP frameworks as well. It also supports Python.

· PHPFog. PHPFog is essentially Heroku for PHP. A tailored environment for PHP developers to get things done quickly. Like Bluehost it has good support for the popular PHP frameworks.

· Amazon Web Services (AWS). Much more than simply a hosting service, Amazon is the market leader in providing cloud based services. They provide generic environments; as well as lots of specific services for email, checkout, even outsourcing manual tasks. Last year for example, we had students use Mechanical Turk as a way to do consumer market research. Chris Riesbeck has given us feedback that generally student projects outgrow the AWS microsite. Since NUvention Web has a few alums at AWS, if you wish to use this let us know and we can work it with Amazon.

· Microsoft Windows Azure. We have not had a NUvention team use Azure, but I have worked with startups who have had good experiences with it. As I said before, based on my experience teaching CS395 with ASP.NET where we developed Facebook apps; it’s hard for me to recommend it; but Azure has some very nice database tools for sql and blob storage, and they have changed the Facebook SDK from when I taught before, so hope springs eternal. They also recently announced support for development with node.js in addition to .net, php, and Java. Microsoft in general provides good support to both students and startups.

· Google app engine has support for Python and Java, and some interesting API’s. I have heard from some startups it is not as scalable as AWS; but it is probably more than sufficient for projects in NUvention Web.

Mobile Development

· PhoneGap/Apache Cordova provides a cross platform HTML 5 based mobile solution using JavaScript for mobile development. Chris Riesbeck recently taught EECS 394 using the PhoneGap project, which is being folded under Apache under the name Cordova (I guess the clothing chain didn’t like the other name..). Chris says the google group at is quite active. All cross platform frameworks have their frustrations, but this appears to be the best attempt so far; and is likely a good choice for developing an initial prototype/ concept.

· iPhone Development. iPhone has far and away been the most popular mobile platform NUvention Web teams have targeted; due to the large install base, effective app store, and consistency of hardware. Native development needs to be done in Objective C and the Cocoa Touch framework. Objective C is a strange brew of Smalltalk and C syntax without such modern conveniences as garbage collection. For NUvention web, teams need to enroll themselves in the iPhone developer program (at the university level we found the terms of the educational program onerous); and development must be done on a Mac. Apple provides us little or no special support. I guess that’s what it means to be a market leader.

· Test Flight. Test flight is an essential tool for iphone app development, used extensively by NUvention teams in the past for iPhone and iPad applications. Test flight enables distribution of pre-production, pre-app store iPhone applications to team members and potential users.

· Android Development. Many teams in NUvention web have developed android versions of their applications. While Android has the highest number of devices in the market at the time of this writing, the lack of hardware consistency, and the heavy modification done by handset OEM’s and mobile operators makes it a fragmented target. The SDK and toolset is very good, plugging into eclipse and supporting Java. Extensive api’s give access to a rich array of platform functions. Java programmers will find it very straightforward. Google provides us phones and good support; so contact the teaching team for more information.

· Windows Phone 7. Not much market share (MS’s market share has decreased from about 18% in the windows mobile days to under 2% today), but the product, 7.5 “Mango” is really quite excellent. Development can be done with Silverlight; and is also supported by Azure. Microsoft is also providing the class plenty of resources, including phones and support. Trial with users because of the lack of market may be difficult.

· Mobile development often requires a database. CouchDB is well regarded among people I have talked to who require a replicated database for mobile development. I recently talked with a former member of the Lotus Notes development team who is using CouchDB, and really liked its approach to help build replicated database applications across phone and cloud. High praise indeed.  The learning resources are a bit opaque. The faculty team has also heard people using as well for NoSQL mobile database development

Support and Learning Resources

Again, not an exhaustive list. I always start with Google, but here are some other good pointers for getting started:

· Stackoverflow. A Q and A site, stackoverflow is the best place for software development questions of all kinds; and often a top result in google search results on a particular issue will turn up a stackoverflow thread. Get an account as soon as you can.

· Learning PHP, MySQL and JavaScript: Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Dynamic Websites. An O’Reilly book that provides a great step by step tutorial to building websites with these three tools.

· Michael Hartl’s excellent Ruby on Rails 3 Tutorial: Learn by Example is provided online with a series of screencasts and also as an Addison-Wesley Book. This walks through the use not only of Ruby on Rails using heroku; but doing unit testing with rspec as well as using github for sourcecode management.   Because he combines all three it can be a bit slow going; but it’s worth it.

· For learning iPhone development, I like the Big Nerd Ranch guide iOS Programming: The Big Nerd Ranch Guide (2nd Edition) (Big Nerd Ranch Guides). It’s fairly complete and comprehensive.

NUvention Web: Update Since Inception

Today I presented at the Northwestern University McCormick School of Engineering advisory board on NUvention web.   I had the amazing opportunity to follow Ed Voobril, the chair of NUvention Medical, the first of the 3 courses that have been run out of Northwestern (NUvention Medical, NUvention Web, NUvention Energy) that take a unique approach with multi-disciplinary teams focused on making real world companies and products sponsored from the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship at Northwestern.   The series was honored by Inc. Magazine last year as one of the 10 best entrepreneurship courses in the country.

It was very well received by the advisory board, and independently, was featured as part of the latest Northwestern strategic plan as a model for multi-disciplinary, experiential instruction.  

We’ve just completed acceptance of our class for 2012, selection 64 students from over 120 applicants from all over the university.  Its an especially strong class and I’m looking forward to a great year!   Here’s the slideshow below:

NUvention Web Final Presentations for 2011!

Sweet Perks pitches at NUvention Web Final
Sweet Perks pitches at NUvention Web Final

Yesterday we had the final presentations for NUvention Web 2011, our second year running the course.   The course had 54 students from all parts of Northwestern:  The McCormick school of engineering, the Kellogg business school, Medill School of Journalism, the Weinberg college of Arts and Sciences, and Communications.   The students worked in 8 teams on defining a startup concept and building it over two quarters starting in January.   Many launched on the web a week or two ago before presenting to an advisory board from industry on Tuesday June 7, 2011.    Here’s a short summary of the teams.  I’ll have some other related posts as well, as I’ve been using a few of these apps over the last several weeks.   Many are getting ready to broaden their betas; so feel free to go to the team’s sites and request access.


Waddle ( twitter @waddleapp). Waddle is a mobile app for intimate and immediate group photo journaling. By creating a private space, any member of a “Waddle” can post location-aware photos and messages, Waddle captures the group’s story in a contextual, visual, and conversational way.   The combination of real-time group picture messaging combined with a private photo journal is compelling.   I’ve enjoyed using this app in beta.

PeerPoints (twitter @peerpoints). Peerpoints is a mobile application to help small businesses create custom deals, measure their effectiveness and increase loyalty among their customers at low cost. It uses an electronic mobile version of a punch card like system, where customers get a reward after they buy a certain number of items. Peerpoints bridges encourages loyalty by increasing customer engagement. The application enables customers to invite other friends and participate in deals where they can combine their purchases with those of their friends to unlock unique group based rewards. This way, loyal customers can become ambassadors and promote their favorite businesses to friends who in turn become new customers.   This team did a NUvention web first.  In addition to great customer testomonials on why the app was compelling to a business, the owner of CoffeeLab in Evanston came on stage to talk about how its unique ability to leverage and generate referral captured his imagination.

Suggenda (twitter @suggenda) Suggenda helps people organize events with friends. It allows friends to collaborate online and vote for time and location options. Suggenda offers a compelling advertising platform for restaurants and other venues to attract great customers at the right times.   It’s a great concept to support organizing people, times, and event meeting places for less than 30 people.   It lets advertisers customize offers to party sizes and times that fit their capacity needs.   The site has a great design, is easy to use, and integrates with the contact information you already have.

AlumSocial (twitter: @alumsocial). AlumSocial is a tool that makes it easy for alumni to stay connected. AlumSocial provides a single platform for alumni to access, search and conduct everything related to the alumni community.   For schools it helps them disseminate information based on affinity within a school and stay in touch with alums.   Additionally AlumSocial has the capability for alums to gain a badge that verifies them as a certified alum of the school.   It integrates social networks like Facebook and twitter.

ShareOnIt. ShareOnIt is a craigslist for hyperlocal communities, like dorms, apartment buildings, and condo associations.   In its initial roll out at two residences and a fraternity at Northwestern, has gained traction as a way for students by buy, sell, and borrow things and services from people they trust.  Rolling out a new community is completely self service, and membership can be managed by the community.   The teams experience is that it quickly gains traction versus using less trusted services like craigslist or more noisy methods like email listservs.

MassiveStart (twitter @massivetv ). The students who formed at Northwestern, a site for sharing of the best creative work by students at the university, built a product caled MassiveStart, which makes it easy for producers of video to get detailed quantitative and demographic feedback on their work before rolling out to a larger audience.  Looking at the experience of young film makers, MassiveStart gives filmakers easy ways to get immediate feeback on their work.   Integrated with FaceBook, MassiveStart lets users quickly disseminate information to social networks and understand how viewers perceive the work.

Groovebug (twitter: @groovebug): Groovebug is the iPad companion to your music library. When you open the app, Groovebug scans your music, compiles content based on the artists you love, and slips it beneath you fingertips in the form of a personalized, interactive magazine. Groovebug aggregates images, videos, biographies, and news from the blogosphere. The last page of each artist section displays an array of similar artists allowing the user to keep exploring the interconnected world of music. For artists and record labels, Groovebug offers a way to reach fans as they listen to their music or music by similar artists.  I’ve been using this app in beta and it is thoroughly addictive, and was a big crowd pleaser at the final presenation.

SweetPerk (twitter: @sweet_perk): SweetPerk builds custom mobile apps that make it easy for consumers to find and redeem promotions from local merchants. The service drives foot traffic to shopping districts.  Shopers use the app on iPhone or Android to browse offers (Perks) and redeem them by scanning a unique QR code at each store. Merchants can create new promotions online and see their new offers show up almost immediately on consumer’s smart phones.  This is available now in the app store; and I used it last week to get 10% of dinner.   75 merchants are signed up just in the first couple of weeks on the market.  If you visit Evanston, download it now.

In general, the quality of the work done by the teams went up this year.   Teams did a better job both of building a solid product, identifying a pressing customer issue, managing through their concept pivots, and, importantly, getting out of the building to engage with there target market.   Sweetperk, Peerpoints, and Groovebug were particularly effective in getting early customer traction.   Peerpoints having a Q and A with a customer on why it was compelling live as part of their pitch was a new achievement for a Northwestern NUvention Web Team.

Please contact me if you are interested in getting connected to any of these teams or viewing an archived stream of their pitches online.   Congratulations to all our students for the terrific work they have done since the beginning of the year; and good luck to those teams who intend to continue.