Startup Founders crash course.

12 mins read

Startup Founders and Failure

After a break of thirteen years, I finally agreed to teach the Startup Founders and Failures Crash Course in the full 12 week format at Habib University this year. The course uses a failure based framework to teach startup founding teams how to fail quickly and move on. Using failure as the core point of reference allows us to understand that as founders the one thing we have to really get good at is failing.

Sprinters sprint, writers write, actors act, founders fail.

So what do founders really do? Founder form hypothesis around a product, test and experiment and fail. What can we teach aspiring entrepreneurs in three months that can help them excel as founders if and when they decide to work for themselves? We have to teach them how to fail.

The course tries to teach the “Try, build, fail, repeat” cycle of taking an idea all the way from inception to commercial reality in a 15 session format. The idea is to get students to pick and choose a concept, build it up to a presentable level and then pitch and present it to the world. Students are encouraged to experiment and explore themes that are not just limited to technology and commercial ventures but also create social impact. All ideas in the course pass through an instructor filter. To the best of our abilities we try and focus on things that our students really care about and that we think may change society in some shape and form for the better

We view failure not as an issue or a challenge or an obstacle but simple a process that we need to undergo to validate our assumptions about how our idea is actually going to work. The faster we fail, the faster we can move forward with really implementing our plans.

Here is a short sampler of recorded lectures from the course courtesy of Covid-19. This set was delivered in April 2020.

First session for the course was on 27th January; second on the 3rd of February. The next class is scheduled for 10th of Feb.

I ran the first version of this course in the fall of 2003 in Karachi for a group of final year computer science students at SZABIST – which is how I met Adnan Haider, Adeel Chaudhry, Abdul Majid, Rabia Tirmizey and Khalid.  That batch of students also led to the first edition of Reboot (then known as the blue screen of death).

Between 2007 and 2015 I ran evolving versions of this course to EMBA students at the SP Jain campus in Dubai for 8 years.  EMBA students worked six evenings to produce a youtube pitch that encapsulated their idea of a dream they had wanted to explore seriously as professionals. They also helped improve the course dramatically by asking difficult questions and doing all the hard work.

For the last two years we have run a significantly shorter version of this course for the founding teams at NESTio as part of the founder bootcamp. Side by side with teaching this course I have run through the build fail build cycle for four ideas. Two of these ideas are still live and pay my bills.  I also volunteered as a mentor and guide to a number of startup teams on and off the PASHA platform – the technology industry association.  Between SP Jain students, the PASHA Platform, the Asia Pacific ICT Awards team Pakistan pitching and judging experience the course has come a long way from it’s original humble beginning.

Updated slide deck on Pitching Lessons for Startups – for the Karachi Startup Weekend – March 2017.

Updated slide deck on – Founders, Startups, Failures and Dreams crash course – PASHA NESTio Startup Bootcamp – 2017.

Updated slide whiteboard scratch pad – Jawwad Farid – PASHA Nestio Startup Bootcamp – 2017

Updated recommended reading list – If you read one article on the many referenced on this page that will change your thinking – please read You don’t get it. You are not…

Updated podcasts – Reid Hoffman – Masters of Scale.  

Typically when I teach this course the primary focus is on building for profit ideas up from scratch to commercial reality. This time on Habib University’s request the focus is on both “for” as well as “not for profit” teams.

While there are significant differences in teaching approaches between the “for” and “not for profit” world, the fundamental themes remain the same. Both worlds need to pay their bills. Both need traction with stakeholders, clients and end users. Both need to lock in a steady, reliable source of funding for their product or services roll out and build up.  Both begin with a dream to change a small corner of the world. Both tend to fail and disappoint on a regular basis.

The course focuses on six key elements that one needs to understand to successfully run and build a new business.

  1. Strategic Thought – The smart way versus brute force.
  2. Product Development – Mapping features to customer needs.
  3. Bootstrapping – Building up with zero capital.
  4. Execution – Delivery.
  5. The process of startup – What do you do when you startup?
  6. Failure and entrepreneurial mindset – Thinking like a founder.
  7. Selling and investing in a transaction versus relationship based selling model.

Translate the above into stages and we end up with seven stages of building a startup. The idea is to help students teams walk through the stages of building up a business from the ground up. Not as passive viewers but as active participants working on concepts close to their own hearts. 

Class and Session outlines

Hours Session Session Title Learning Objectives
3 1 Understanding Failure

Lecture Summary – Failure

Founders and Failure Framework

Dissecting the startup failure process. Differentiating between Type 1, Type 2 and Type 3 failures. The relationship between innovation, trials and failures.
3 2 Bad Ideas Understanding competitive advantage. The power of substitute products.  Scale and IP versus captive customers.
3 3 Customer Personas A first look at personas.  Understanding value creation for a given customer segment.  Price versus value.
3 4 The art of the start Guy Kawasaki – Art of the start – video, review and discussion. The startup process.
3 5 Business Models The business model canvass. Models, partners, value, resources and features.
3 6 Roadmap to credibility Building credible pitches. Traction, validation, assumptions, testing and roadmaps.
3 7 Pitch perfect A first look at pitching. Pitching to customers, partners, employees and investors.
3 8 Product features and customer needs Matching features with customer pains. Prioritizing product features based on the feature evaluation grid. MVP versus Differentiation.
3 9 Market sizing Estimating market sizes and reach. Data sources, transaction drives, price points.
3 10 Basic Financial modeling From a transaction to a business. Putting together a simple financial model.
3 11 Speaker session Where the rubber meets the road. Everything you ever wanted to ask.
3 12 Project and Group presentations Pitch your heart out.

The thickest piece here is understanding and implementing the transaction versus relationship driven sales model. As founders and startups we traditionally are focused on building products and features and our client and customer discovery process starts only once the product is ready. The core shift required is the ability to move discovery to the beginning of the process. Start with exposing your core idea, the link to your customer’s pain and product fit map to customer needs and then build a product around that. If you could do that you would be refreshingly different than all other product or service focused companies out there. The sequence is simple.

Customer Pain ==> Customer Need ==> Product Feature ==> Build Priority ==> Release schedule ==> Marketing communication

Text Book and Reading materials

Text Book and reading  – To be distributed in print or electronically

Reboot,  3rd Edition, Jawwad Farid

(In addition to chapters under the case study for book one, please especially read Hindsight and why failure chapters before our next session on the 10th). Download Reboot, 3rd Edition. If you prefer a kindle version please drop me a note on my email address and I will send it over to you.

The course has a very heavy analysis and reading load and is not intended for the light-hearted.  The audience is individuals who are serious about striking out on their own. Course grade will be determined by the quality of your pitch and presentation, class participation, a product development exercise, a functional and viable executive summary and its presentation using YouTube and Vimeo to a remote audience of judges and peers.

2018-2019 Updates

Additional reading materials written in 2018 and 2019 for students in this course.

  1. Building startups – the five themes that founders need to master.
  2. Modeling revenues
  3. Kelly’s Criterion, Founders, Startups and Bet size
  4. Venture investors guide for founders
  5. Unit economics for startups
  6. A pricing guide for founders
  7. Products versus Services
  8. Value driven pricing models for software products
  9. GEMS School System, A private equity case study
  10. From a wheel chair to a half marathon
  11. Pakistani Technology Industry Update – 2019
  12. Pakistani Technology Industry Update – 2018
  13. Pakistan Technology Industry – Past, Present and Future

Grading outline

There is no final exam. That is the good news.

A large part of your grade will be based on your final project presentation. Your opportunity to convince and persuade the world that your dream is credible, real and worthy. How you convince the world is up to you. The final submission will be a youtube video that you will use to achieve stardom for your idea (not for yourself).  Your grade will be a function of not just the quality of your submission but how far does your message reach and how may relevant timelines does it show up on.

A core reason why new ideas fail is because we don’t understand how to sell, market and promote. To get a passing grade in your project, you need to ensure that your YouTube video crosses 10,000 views in ten days, post launch. That sounds easier than it appears. All you have to do is find something that you are a few hundred thousand people in the world are passionate about, present that in a captivating engaging fashion, reach out to your audience, convince them to view your work and you are done. As long as you have picked your ideas carefully and you understand the customer development process, this should not be a problem. Please note that for a 3 – 5 minute video 10,000 views should generate at least 30,000 minutes of viewing time.

In addition to idea generation, development and buildup you would need to understand and master storytelling, pitching, presenting, traffic generation and conversion optimization. The reason why this course is a hard course is because acquiring each of these skills takes a lifetime. To make things more interesting we are not interested in testing you academically on the skill set; we want you to show us that you can put the skills to work in a real life setting.

Because you are all really sharp and bright younglings and you have an outstanding teacher you should be able to wrap it up in four months. So start reading up and don’t be shy when it comes to asking questions, seeking clarity or requesting help.

In addition to the final submission, your grade will include credit for a number of interim assignments and in class projects and activities.

  • Final submission – 50%
  • Interim projects and assignments – 30%
  • Class participation – 10%
  • Quizzes – 10%

If you are really serious about the idea you should also consider aiming for both the PASHA ICT Awards (Summer 2017) and the Asia Pacific ICT Awards (December 2016). So don’t pick something to throw away, pick something that you can build on over the next few years.


Participate in the Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition (LKYGBPC), organized by Singapore Management University’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

This biennial competition, named after Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, aims to draw inspiration from his indomitable spirit of innovation. The competition provides a global platform for student innovators around the world to showcase their ideas on how to address some of the biggest challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. The last competition was held in 2015 and had attracted participation from 140 universities representing more than 40 countries.

This year, the competition welcomes students to propose Smart City Innovations in the areas of Health, Living, Mobility and Services.

During the competition week of 11 September 2017, shortlisted teams for the finals will be invited to visit Singapore on an all-expenses paid trip. These teams will participate in intensive startup workshops, attend events featuring prominent entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in Asia, have direct access to acclaimed mentors and visit key innovation hotspots in Singapore. Winners of the competition stand to receive up to S$1 million cash, investment and in-kind prizes.

LKYGBPC is now accepting applications through 16 June 2017.
Finalists will be announced on 14 July 2017.
The finals, including an awards presentation, will be held on 15 September 2017.  

Check out:

Additional Reading

The brain dump resource. I have written a great deal over the years, often as a response to a difficult question in the class. So a bulk of the resources you will see here are my ramblings. I will also continue to dig out old gems from other friends, mentors and guides and will add them here. Think of this sections as a literature review and resource guide. Some light, some heavy reading. As we move forward with this section will grow and acquire a life of its own.


Relationship based selling an introduction to the mindset.

  1. Relationship based selling zero – building relationships – realtalk
  2. Relationship selling one – the journey – you don’t talk about marriage on the second date.
  3. Relationship selling two – Build that relationship
  4. Relationship selling three – Selling versus consulting

It is not enough for you to understand and care about someone. They have to feel understood and cared for. Remember these words.

Guy Kawasaki – The art of the start – TIECON 2006

The Guy Kawasaki video is the first video you should watch on starting up. Guy does a great job of summarizing the art of the start process in under 39 minutes. In terms of engagement, delivery and presentation, there is a great deal you can learn from not just the content but also how guy structures his conversation.

Steve Blank – The customer development framework

A short 2 minute introduction to Steve Blank’s customer development framework. This is the framework we will use for developing customer personas and identifying assumptions that we need to test and test them.

Steve Blank – Surviving First contact with customers

A word about business plans, planning and first contact with customers.

Books, reading assignments and class questions

As if you don’t have enough to read. Keep watching this space. Just when you least expect it, you will see this list grow and grow and grow.

Assignment one – Trends and context

I know it is a lot to ask and I know you are already close to a nervous breakdown but I would really like you to read the two 2014 and 2016 reports below and answer the two following questions:

  1. KPCB Internet Trends – 2014
  2. KPCB Internet Trends – 2016

Q.1 What is the most striking shift you have noticed between 2014 – 2016? One paragraph.

Q.2 Where do you think is the real opportunity in 2017 onward for technology focused startups? One paragraph

There are eighteen registered students in the class. I would like to see eighteen separate and distinct opinions and answer. In case of overlap both offenders will score a zero.  Please come prepared to defend your opinions.

Submission deadline -Wednesday midnight. 15th Feb 2017. Grading scale – binary – black and white.

Assignment Two – Founder Persona

Please watch Jobs the movie (the Fassbender version). The film revolves around three product launches. The Macintosh, Next and the original iMacs. The first and last were retail products, the one in middle aimed at academic institutions. The product launches serve as the backdrop for conflict.

Using the film as your primary source, build a personality profile and customer persona for a technology founder. The assumption here is that you are building a product or service that will ultimately be sold to technology company founders. What are the common themes that link technology company founders together. How do they think? What drives them? Why is perception and presentation so important to them? How are you different?

The persona cannot be larger or longer than a single page and must focus on personality attributes that can be useful during a sales interaction. Submission deadline – Thursday, 23rd Feb,  8 pm.

On a side note, why do you think the movie ended on this specific note.

I’m gonna put music in your pocket.A hundred songs. A thousand songs. Five hundred songs. Somewhere between five hundred and a thousand songs. Right in your pocket. Because I can’t stand looking at that ridiculous Walkman anymore. You’re carrying around a brick playing a cassette tape. We’re not savages. I’m gonna put a thousand songs in your pocket.

Assignment Three – Signals and Customer Persona’s

Read the following articles.

The data that helped Trump win – Motherboard and No big data did not win the US election. Then browse through Dr. Kosinski research and publications. Then read the car you drive for a broader commentary on car models other than Honda, Toyota and Suzuki.

Q. 1 For your prospective customer list make a list of signaling attributes that you can use to piece together a customer profile and persona and a strategy to approach, convince and influence them accordingly.

Q.2 Remember Facebook likes, cars your drive, the clothes you wear, the way you react to specific arguments are all signals. Some conflict, some reinforce your personality type. What do the signals you broadcast tell the world about yourself? Who are you as a person? Do your signals reconcile with your personality type or conflict?

For supporting evidence and additional commentary on personality types, generational fit and car buying choices also see the Next Generation Car buyers study by Auto There is a reason why our parents preferred Toyota throughout their lives and across the world. It’s not just desi parents who loved Japanese brands.

Please answer both questions.

Even if you don’t want to be a founder at the end of the course, decoding personality types from publicly shared signals is already changing the world, from the US elections to calculating car insurance premiums. 

Submission deadline – Thursday, 23rd Feb, 6 pm.

UpdateWe had already discussed in the class the possibility of the Motherboard piece being a case of sophisticated marketing placement by Cambridge Analytica and team. While there was no evidence to support the thesis, based on our own original testing with Kosinski’s Facebook post assessment it appeared that the original model wasn’t really that accurate. Here is the first article that suggests that same – Read Blow up Billionaires by Vicky Ward to get an alternate view on the motherboard piece. Still anecdotal evidence and lots of conflicting point of views but a strong suggestion that CA took credit where possibly no credit was due. 

Assignment Four – Virality

Take a look at this list of YouTube videos that have all amassed more than a billion views. Are there any patterns or trends that you can see or highlight across these videos. What are the common themes? Which videos are the ones that break those themes? What about Passengers video? How did it make it to the list? Given the fact that it doesn’t fit into any of the other categories or types?

For additional context also see –


Posts – Musings and ramblings 

Stage I –  Think like a founder.

  1. On rational thinking – rationality is overrated.
  2. Model Building – Non traditional actuarial careers.
  3. 50 seconds before 50.
  4. Confessions from a hotel room at the stroke of midnight. 
  5. Slower than the Flash. Bigger than a duck.
  6. Startup Weekend Karachi March 2017 report

Stage II – Bad ideas.

Bitcoin bubbles – a visual review

Stage III – Personas.

  1. A business school student – customer persona sample
  2. Painting your Mona Lisa – customer persona background
  3. A guide to building personas

Stage IV –  How will we pay our bills?

  1. Where do valuation multiples come from – The MSFT – LNKD transaction
  2. The Zen of building risk models – Balls or Barrels?

Stage V – Influencing, Persuading, convincing the world to lend a hand.

  1. Social Champ – A user review
  2. Building marketing videos – a case study
  3. 7 Million twitter impressions – a case study
  4. Pitching video course – YouTube series
  5. PASHA APICTA Pitches – 2011 YouTube videos
  6. Sample pitches from the SP Jain EMBA Batch
  7. Can you change the world with US$10,000
  8. Even more SP Jain Pitches
  9. A gift of wings
  10. Landing page design

Stage VI – Putting it all together.

Early stage startups – a guide

Stage VII – Launch – Liftoff.

Estimating Maximum supportable WordPress traffic on AWS Servers

YouTube Resource

  1. How to rank a video on YouTube
  2. Decoding the YouTube algorithm