Understanding the Human Element of Startups: Inside NCIIA’s VentureLab


Written on the whiteboard on the first day of my entrepreneurship class at Tufts was a sobering statistic: 80 percent of startups die in their first four years. There exist a variety of factors that can kill a business. Luckily, Boston is full of programs and organizations designed to help entrepreneurs navigate through the startup process. The National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance’s Sustainable Vision VentureLab, led by James Barlow, is a five-day intensive incubator program for companies doing business in emerging markets (it ran August 26-30). I initially thought that it would be an abbreviated version of a conventional business class curriculum, somewhat similar to what I had experienced in the five-day boot camp organized by MassChallenge: what are the best ways to structure a company, to manufacture, distribute, and market product X in market Y, and how to go about getting VC funding?

On the contrary, it is a back-to-basics introspective program that emphasizes the human element of a business, such as being able to communicate your value proposition in an effective and clear manner. This may sound elementary. The reality is that this is the foundation for any business. James compared it to humming a song in your head. When vocalized you can clearly hear the tune and the words, even though the person across from you may be shooting you a puzzled look. This is a problem many entrepreneurs unknowingly struggle with. Having become so familiar with the intricacies of their businesses, they have lost the ability to break it down into its simplest and most coherent forms. When hearing these entrepreneurs pitch, the listener finds himself unable to understand the core of their idea, akin to listening to a hummed song.

Oftentimes, the founders themselves are confused and are unknowingly in disagreement about what the value proposition of their businesses is. Even if they are aware of the value proposition, they are unable to translate it in a way that speaks to the wants and needs of their market. That is why the VentureLab program focuses so much on deconstructing the human element aspect of your business. This is often a tricky process because it requires you to examine your business in a manner in which you are unaccustomed to and uncomfortable doing. At Roof For Two, we looked at all the factors that could sink our company and discovered the need to connect with different influencers in our product market. It became an exercise in stitching together our business and value proposition in a manner that resonated with each one of these individual actors. For example, our company provides a motorcycle weather accessory for riders in India to shield themselves from the monsoon rains. It saves them time in their commute and increases the efficiency of businesses whose employees lose time when seeking shelter from the downpour. When we started looking beyond our end user and examined other people potentially impacted by our product, we began asking ourselves very different questions from the ones we had originally posed. We had initially asked: What do Indian motorcyclists look for in a product? How will our product affect their lifestyle?

However, during VentureLab we looked beyond the commuter towards businesses, institutions, and society. We asked ourselves very different questions: What businesses stay open during the heavy monsoon season? Would small businesses have incentives to subsidize our product for their commute sensitive employees? How do we best communicate our value proposition to both the commuters and the businesses that depend on them?

Besides the introspective portion, part of the learning process in programs such as VentureLab comes from the interaction between participants who can help one another, despite operating … Next Page »

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Maxime Pinto is co-founder and chief marketing officer at Roof For Two, a Boston-based startup focused on the Indian market. Follow @

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