Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

‘Messy Startup’ class gives undergrads real-world business experience

Avi Stopper talks to students in the Messy Startup class. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Undergraduate students at the Daniels College of Business are getting a very real look into the hectic world of startups, thanks to Avi Stopper, founder and CEO of online youth and college sports network CaptainU. In the new Daniels class The Messy Startup, which launched spring quarter, Stopper gives students the benefit of his entrepreneurial experience as they launch their own apps, products and businesses.

“There are any number of goals for the class, but empowering people to understand how to build products with the skills that they have is really the main one,” Stopper says. “One of the big problems with the startup environment right now is that everyone thinks you have to build some piece of software, and there is a very limited number of people who can actually build quality software. One of the coolest things about what’s going on right now is that there’s an abundance of really powerful inexpensive tools that if you have the right methodology and the right process, you can use those tools to really test the concept.”

The Messy Startup has its origins in a new intro-level Daniels course called Gateway to Business, which gives first-year students an overview of business fundamentals through the process of creating an app. The best ideas are presented to a panel of investors, who award a cash prize for further development. Daniels Professor in Residence Stephen Haag and Stopper, who was one of the investor-judges, saw a need for a class that took students even further into the process of starting a business.

“From the students’ point of view it was, ‘OK, I have an idea, some people have looked at it, some angel investors and some other entrepreneurs have said, “Yeah, this has got merit,” what do I do now?’” Haag says. “That was the Messy Startup.”

Students in the class move fast, dividing into teams and working through concept, design, testing, marketing and analysis, all in the course of 10 weeks. Among the ideas being tested in the spring quarter were Fashion Ducks, a company that connects customers with online fashion consultants; MyUSA, a subscription service that sends customers email updates on legislation considered or passed by Congress; and ChatterU, a website that lists all campus events of interest to students. ChatterU founders Grant Wilkinson and Bryce Quigley originally envisioned the site as a Facebook-style social networking platform for college students, but Stopper convinced them to simplify.

“He’s really taught us through this class that you can take your idea and you can strip away all the fancy stuff about it and just try and get something really primitive and basic out there,” says Wilkinson, who was part of a winning Gateway to Business team that started selling its app in May. “You can do it for little or no money and put it out there and see how people like it, and then say, ‘OK, now that people like it and we’re generating sales, we’ll slowly add the other stuff.’ That was the biggest takeaway, that you don’t need much to get started.”

Haag says the Messy Startup and the gateway course are just the beginning of the Daniels College’s new focus on entrepreneurship. Both will continue in 2013–14. The school has hired an entrepreneurship director and an entrepreneurship professor, and plans are in the works for students in classes like the Messy Startup to collaborate with students from the School of Engineering and Computer Science to build apps and products that can hit the marketplace before the students reach graduation.

“It’s the recognition that you don’t have to have four years of traditional business education in order to launch your own business,” he says. “You need a lot of that stuff eventually, but you don’t have to have four years of business education to write a business plan.”






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