Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to A Successful Startup

3 August 2016 | “Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to A Successful Startup” by Bill Aulet – Managing Director, Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. Publisher: Willey, 2013.

Six Themes of the 24 Steps

1. Who is your customer?
2. What can you do for your customer?
3. How does he acquire your product?
4. How do you make money off your product?
5. How do you design and build your product?
6. How do you scale your business?

Step 0: Getting Started
Three Ways to Start a New Venture
How to Go from “I Have a Passion” to “I Have an Idea or
Finding a Founding Team: Entrepreneurship Is not a Solo Sport
Where You Go from Here

Step 1: Market Segmentation
In This Step, You Will:

  1. The Single Necessary and Sufficient Condition for a Business
  2. Create a New Market That You Will Dominate
  3. When “Paying Customers” Lead You Astray
    Complex Paying Customers: Primary Versus Secondary Customers and Two-Sided Markets
  4. How to Do a Market Segmentation
  5. How Long Should I Spend on Market Segmentation?


The market segmentation process identifies multiple potential market opportunities. Once you have a list of potential markets, direct market research-based analysis on a finite number of market segments will help you determine which markets are best for your idea or technology. The goal of the research is not to provide a perfect solution, but to present a wide spectrum of market opportunities as you start to think about where you will focus your business. Primary market research, which involves talking directly with customers and observing them, is by far the best way to identify good market opportunities. This research will help you select a beachhead market in the next step.

Step 2: Select a Beachhead Market
In This Step, You Will:

  1. How to Choose Your Beachhead Market
  2. Your Beachhead Market Still Needs to Be Segmented Further


Choose a single market to pursue; then, keep sigmenting until you have a well-defined and homogenous market opportunity that meets the three conditions of a market. Focus is your ally.

Step 3: Build an End User Profile
In This Step, You Will:

  1. Why Target a Specific Demographic?
  2. Does Your Founding Team Include Someone in the End User Profile?


Your analysis of your target customer is nowhere near complete, but the End User Profile points you in the right direction for future steps. The journey is only beginning, but you are starting off with the right focus—a well-defined target customer. This is a critical step in your search for specificity and starting to make your customer concrete and very real. It is also a critical part of the process to help ingrain the mentality that you should build the company around the customer’s needs, not based on your interests and capabilities. The latter does matter, but it is secondary to how you should think about your business.

Step 4: Calculate the Total Addressable Market (TAM) Size for the
Beachhead Market
In This Step, You Will:

  1. Bottom-Up Analysis
  2. Top-Down Analysis
  3. From “How Many End Users?” to “Show Me the Money”
  4. What Should My Tam Be?


The TAM is how much annual revenue you would accumulate if you achieved 100 percent market share. This is used only for your first beachhead market. A bottom-up analysis, where you can show how many potential customers you have identified from your primary market research and extrapolated to the broader market, will give a more accurate picture of your market. Complementary to this, but much less compelling on its own, is a top-down analysis where you are working with market analysis reports and extrapolating without direct interaction and validation. Often, very important subtleties are missed in top-down analyses, so you need both.

Step 5: Profile the Persona for the Beachhead Market
In This Step, You Will:

  1. How to Choose and Profile Your Persona
  2. The Persona Is more than Just an Exercise
  3. Should I Create Multiple Personas? If so, When?
  4. The Persona Helps You Focus on What to Do—and What Not to


The process of developing a Persona provides specific details about the primary customer within your beachhead market. You are now selling not to some “end user profile,”but to a specific individual. Your whole team should be involved in this process to ensure everyone is on the same page and truly understands the Persona, so they can maintain a customer-based focus. An important detail to understand about the Persona is his or her Purchasing Criteria in Prioritized Order. You should really understand your customer and what makes them tick, not just at a rational level, but at an emotional and social level as well. The better you understand your Persona’s needs, behaviors, and motivations, the more successful you will be at making a product and a new venture to serve them. Once you have made a picture or visual of your Persona and fleshed out the fact sheet, make it all visible within your business so that everyone works toward the same common goal.

Step 6: Full Life Cycle Use Case
In This Step, You Will:

  1. What to Include in a Full Life Cycle Use Case


Creating a visual representation of the full life cycle of your product enables you to see how the product will fit into the customer’s value chain and what barriers to adoption might arise. Just showing how the customer uses the product (the typical definition of “use case”) will not provide an accurate enough picture to fully understand what obstacles will come up when trying to sell your product to your target customer.

Step 7: High-Level Product Specification
In This Step, You Will:

  1. Creating a High-Level Product Specification
  2. Then, Make a Product Brochure


Visually laying out your product will allow your team and your potential customers to converge around an understanding of what the product is and how it benefits customers. Staying at a high level, without too many details or a physical prototype, allows for rapid revision without investing too much time and resources this early in the process of creating your new venture. Building a visual representation of the product will likely be harder than you think, but will get everyone on the same page, which will prove extremely valuable going forward. A brochure with features, function, and benefits to the customer further clarifies your product offering and is a great complement to the pictures you create.

Step 8: Quantify the Value Proposition
In This Step, You Will:

  1. Aligning Your Value Proposition with the Persona’s Priorities
  2. Keep it Simple: The “as-is” State Versus the “Possible” State with
    Your Product


The Quantified Value Proposition is framed by the top priority of the Persona. You first need to understand and map the “as-is” state in a way familiar to the customer, using the Full Life Cycle Use Case. Then, map out the “possible” state of using your product, clearly indicating where the customer receives value based on the Persona’s top priority. A visual, one-page diagram is best, because the customer can easily see the Quantified Value Proposition and can show it to others for validation. When done well, this will be of immense value to you throughout the process of launching your business, so extra effort spent to get this optimized is well worth it.

Step 9: Identify Your Next 10 Customers
In This Step, You Will:

  1. How to Complete This Step
  2. Is the Current Persona Valid?
  3. Dealing with Negative Feedback


Identifying and interviewing your Next 10 Customers now ensures that your Persona description and other assumptions hold true for an array of customers. If you have completed this step properly, and made modifications to the other steps from what you learned here, you should have great confidence moving forward to build the plan for your new venture.

Step 10: Define Your Core
In This Step, You Will:

  1. A few Examples of Core
  2. How to Define your Core
  3. What about Intellectual Property? or Culture?
  4. Core Is Different than Competitive Position
  5. First-Mover Advantage Is not a Core
  6. Locking Up Suppliers Is Typically not a Core


Defining the Core is the first step where you spend a lot of time looking internally, in contrast to the strong customer focus of many of the other steps. The Core is what you have that your competitors do not, that you will protect over time above all else, and that you continually work over time to develop and enhance. Once you agree on a Core, it should not change without a great deal of thought; instead, you should continually make your Core stronger. If it changes often, this is a bad sign because it means you are likely not building it effectively. However, it can change as you discover what your customers value most and what you do best. Defining your Core is not easy and may seem abstract, but it is an essential step to maximize the value of your new business.

Step 11: Chart Your Competitive Position
In This Step, You Will:

  1. The Toughest Competitor of all: The Customer’s Status Quo
  2. How to Chart Your Competitive Position


Defining your Competitive Position is a quick way to validate your product against your competition, including the customer’s status quo, based on the top two priorities of the Persona. If you are not in the top right of the resulting chart, you should reevaluate your product, or at least the way you are presenting it. This will also be a very effective vehicle to communicate your qualitative (not quantitative) value proposition to the target customer audience in a way that should resonate with them.

Step 12: Determine the Customer’s Decision-Making Unit (DMU)
In This Step, You Will:

  1. Primary Roles in the Decision-Making Unit
  2. Additional Roles in the Decision-Making Unit (DMU)
  3. How to Determine the Decision-Making Unit


Having determined how you create value for the customer, you must now look at how the customer acquires the product. To successfully sell the product to the customer, you will need to understand who makes the ultimate decision to purchase, as well as who influences that decision. The Champion and the Primary Economic Buyer are most important; but those holding Veto Power, as well as Primary Influencers, cannot be ignored. B2B situations are easier to map out, but the process is still important in a consumer situation; large consumer goods companies like Procter and Gamble have been doing this process for many years.

Step 13: Map the Process to Acquire a Paying Customer
In This Step, You Will:

  1. How to Map the Process
  2. Budgeting/Purchasing Authority
  3. Time Is of the Essence
  4. Consumer Versus B2B


Determining the Process to Acquire a Paying Customer defines how the DMU decides to buy the product, and identifies other obstacles that may hinder your ability to sell your product. From elongated sales cycles to unforeseen regulations and hidden obstacles, selling a product can sometimes be far more difficult than simply meeting the Persona’s needs. This step makes sure you have identified all the potential pitfalls in the sales process.

Step 14: Calculate the Total Addressable Market Size for Follow-on
In This Step, You Will:

  1. How to Calculate Broader Tam


The Calculation of the Broader TAM should be a quick validation that there is a bigger market and should reassure team members and investors that your business has great potential in both the short term and long term.

Step 15: Design a Business Model
In This Step, You Will:

  1. A Business Model Is not Pricing
  2. Key Factors When Designing a Business Model
  3. Free Is not a Business Model
  4. Generalized Categories of Business Models
  5. Think Outside the Existing Categories


The business model is an important decision that you should spend time focusing on. The decisions you make here will have a significant impact on your profitability, as measured by two key entrepreneurship variables: the Lifetime Value of an Acquired Customer (LTV) and Cost of Customer Acquisition (COCA). Do not focus on pricing in this step, as your choice of business model has a far larger influence on profitability than your pricing decisions. Once you have established a business model, it is possible but generally not easy to change to a different model. Therefore, choose a business model that distinguishes you from competitors and gives you an advantage over them, because they cannot easily change their business model to match yours.

Step 16: Set Your Pricing Framework
In This Step, You Will:

  1. Basic Pricing Concepts


Pricing is primarily about determining how much value your customer gets from your product, and capturing a fraction of that value back for your business. Costs are irrelevant to determining your pricing structure. You will be able to charge a higher price to early customers as opposed to later customers, but be flexible in offering special, one-time-only discounts to select early testers and lighthouse customers, as they will be far more beneficial to your product’s success than the average early customer. Unlike your business model, pricing will continually change, both as a result of information you gather and as you progress throughout the 24 Steps, as well as in response to market conditions.

Step 17: Calculate the Lifetime Value (LTV) of an Acquired Customer
In This Step, You Will:

  1. Key Inputs to Calculate the LTV
  2. How to Calculate Lifetime Value
  3. How to Calculate the LTV: “Widget” Plus Yearly Maintenance Fee
  4. Important Considerations


The Lifetime Value of Acquired Customer calculation is the profit that a new customer will provide on average, discounted to reflect the high cost of acquiring capital that a startup faces. It is important to be realistic, not optimistic, when calculating LTV, and to know the underlying drivers behind LTV so you can work to increase it. You will be comparing the LTV to COCA – Cost Of Customer Acquisition. An LTV : COCA ratio of 3:1 or higher is what you will be aiming for.

Step 18: Map the Sales Process to Acquire a Customer
In This Step, You Will:

  1. Four Factors Entrepreneurs Often Overlook about Customer
  2. Acquisition Costs
  3. Your Sales Process Changes over Time
  4. How to Map Your Sales Process
  5. Sales Process Comparisons: Zynga, Groupon, Linkedin, Facebook


Mapping the sales process is a thoughtful first pass at how you will enter the market, refine your sales strategy over time, and ultimately establish an inexpensive long-term strategy for customer acquisition. The sales process includes creating awareness, educating the customer, and handling and processing the sale. The sales process drives the COCA, one of the variables – along with the Lifetime Value of an Acquired Customer – that shows your business’s profitability.

Step 19: Calculate the Cost of Customer Acquisition (COCA)
In This Step, You Will:

  1. Why Coca Matters
  2. How not to Calculate Coca: A bottom-up Perspective
  3. The Right Way to Calculate Coca: A top-down Perspective
  4. How to Reduce Coca


It this point, you have completed the important steps of determining whether the financials of your business will work. The LTV and COCA analysis can kill many new businesses by identifying problems early in the process; but more often it highlights the importance of keeping an eye on key factors to make the business successful. It provides a simpler scoreboard than financial statement and allows you to make adjustments and refine your business. It makes your path to success more transparent. Don’t let your optimism blind you in doing the calculation. Make the numbers real and not what you want them to be.

Step 20: Identify Key Assumptions
In This Step, You Will:

  1. How to Identify Your Key Assumptions


Identifying key assumptions is the first part of the process to validate your primary market research by looking for customers to take specific actions, which will happen in the next step. Before the assumptions can be tested, they need to be broken down into their component parts, so that each assumption represents a specific, narrow idea that can be empirically tested in the next step using a single experiment design. Do not worry about how you will design the experiment yet. Focus on breaking out all the key assumptions, because if you skip over an assumption fearing that testing it is difficult, you will neglect a potentially important factor in your business’s health.

Step 21: Test Key Assumptions
In This Step, You Will:

  1. Now That We Have Identified The Assumptions, Let’s Test them

Examples of Easily Testable Assumptions: Student Teams

Testing key assumptions, particularly the most significant assumptions, such as cost targets and interest of lighthouse customers, prepares you well to sell your product because it complements the primary market research–based approach you have already taken. The convergence of your market research with empirical results from your experiments prepares you to put together a first-pass product and sell to customers.

Step 22: Define the Minimum Viable Business Product (MVBP)
In This Step, You Will:

  1. Three Conditions of a Minimum Viable Business Product


You have previously tested individual elements of your business; however, the Minimum Viable Business Product (MVBP) represents a systems test of a product that actually provides value to the customer. The paying customer can use this to start a feedback loop that helps you iterate better versions of the product.

Step 23: Show That “The Dogs Will Eat the Dog Food”
In This Step, You Will:

Take your Minimum Viable Business Product to the customers to see if they will actually use and pay for the product. Collect data to see if they are really using it and how engaged they are as users. Determine if they, or someone associated with them, will pay for it and also if they are advocating for your product with word of mouth. After you collect data over time, analyze it and especially look for trends and understand underlying drivers. Make sure you are intellectually honest and rely on real world data and not abstract logic.

Step 24: Develop a Product Plan
In This Step, You Will:

Establishing a product plan is similar to the step to calculate the broader TAM. The idea is to get you thinking ahead so you raise your sightlines and don’t get too bogged down in your beachhead market, which is only your first step as a business. You want to expand from the beachhead. It gives you a long-term vision that keeps you reaching and thinking ahead, especially in the design of your product and organization. Do not spend too much time here, though, because you still need to get the dogs to eat the dog food today, or else you will run out of money long before entering adjacent markets. Plans will change as you learn more from the beachhead, but to not have a plan is to put yourself in the hands of luck as opposed to your own methodical process.

Postlude: A Business Is more than 24 Steps

  • Building a Company Culture
  • Selecting a Founding Team
  • Growing and Building the Team (HR Processes)
  • Developing the Product Selling and Sales Execution
  • Servicing the Customer and Building Customer Service Processes
  • Building Your Financials and Managing Cash Flow
  • Raising Money to Scale the Business
  • Entrepreneurial Leadership and Scaling the Business
  • Building and Utilizing Good Company Governance
  • And much more..
  • adjacent market A new market that you can easily enter from the market you are currently in; requires its own persona. beachhead market The first market your business sells in.
  • business A viable organization created to achieve a goal that does not depend on outside charitable contributions.
  • cash-flow positive When the cash received by the company exceeds the cash that is paid out in a particular month.
  • competitive position How well you meet your customer’s top two priorities compared to any existing or likely competition, including the status quo for the customer.
  • Core The central element to your business that gives you a sustained advantage over your competitors.
  • follow-on market A market you enter after gaining significant market share in the market you are currently in, which for this book will be the beachhead market. Either an adjacent market buying the same application as the beachhead market, or an additional application for your current persona.
  • gross margin The difference between revenue and marginal costs for your product. Expressed as a percentage, so a 20 percent gross margin means your revenue from each unit of product is 20 percent higher than your cost of making a unit of a product.
  • innovation A new-to-the-world idea or invention that gets commercialized, either by an existing business or through starting a new business. It may be technology, process, business model, market positioning, or other. It can also be for each of these disruptive, incremental, or lateral.
  • innovation-based entrepreneurship Starting a new business based on a new-to-the-world idea or invention.
  • market A system in which the trade of goods and services takes place, characterized by three conditions: customers buy similar products, customers have similar sales cycles and value propositions, and there is word of mouth between customers.
  • marketing communications Getting word out to potential customers about your product with the primary purpose to increase exposure and to generate leads. Not to be confused with “product marketing.”
  • primary market research Information gained by talking directly with, interacting directly with, and directly observing customers and potential customers. product Physical goods, a service, or the delivery of information.
  • product–market fit When your product matches what customers in a specific market are interested in buying.
  • product marketing The process of finding product–market fit by finding out what the customer wants and mapping a product to it. Actual messaging to potential customers is called “marketing communications.”
  • secondary market research Information obtained from market research reports and from indirect sources like the Internet or analyst reports.
  • target customer A group of customers in a market that you intend to sell the same product to. They share many characteristics and would all reasonably buy a particular product.
  • Total Addressable Market (TAM) The amount of annual revenue your business would earn if you achieved 100 percent market share in a market. Expressed in terms of dollars per year.
The world needs more and better entrepreneurs because our world’s problems are becoming more dire, complex, and ubiquitous. Historically it has been the intrepid spirit and skill of the entrepreneur that has come up with the best solutions for the world’s problems.


  1. Three core elements necessary to have a Minimum Viable Business Product
    1. The customer gets value out of use of the product.
    2. The customer pays for the product.
    3. The product is sufficient to start the customer feedback loop, where the customer can help you iterate toward an increasingly better product.


  2. Key questions that sales process should address include:
    * How does target customer become aware that they have a problem or an opportunity?
    * How will the target customer learn that there is a solution to this problem they have, or learn there is the opportunity they did not previously know about?
    * Once the target customer knows about the business, what is the education process that allows them to make a well-informed analysis about whether to purchase the product?
    * How does the business make the sale?
    * How does the business collect the money?


  3. Two questions:

    1- How much does it cost you to acquire a customer?

    2- How much value do you get from a customer?

    The key inputs that you will need to understand to estimate the Lifetime Value of a customer:
    1. One-time Revenue Stream, If Any. Typically, if there is an up-front charge for your product, it is a one-time source of revenue.

    2. Recurring Revenue Streams, If Any. Subscription and maintenance fees, as well as repeated purchases of consumables, are all recurring revenues.

    3. Additional Revenue Opportunities. If there are opportunities to “upsell”the customer, where the customer purchases additional products with minimal additional effort from your sales team, include these as revenue streams. Remember to consider the DMU and the sales cycle you calculated earlier. Underestimating either of these could lead you to a distorted view.

    4. Gross Margin for Each Of Your Revenue Streams. The gross margin is the price of your product minus the production cost of making an individual product. Cost does not include sales and marketing costs (which is factored into the COCA) or overhead costs like R&D or administrative expenses.

    5. Retention Rate. For each recurring revenue stream, this rate is the percentage of customers who continue to pay the recurring fee for the product. This usually expressed as a monthly rate or a yearly rate. (The opposite of retention rate is “churn rate,”which is the percentage of customers you lose.) Assume, for simplicity, that once the customer has stopped paying a recurring fee, the customer will no longer be receptive to upselling. Do not assume that on a multiyear or multimonth contract customers will make all of their payments. Early termination of a contract by the customer should be incorporated into the retention rate.

    6. Life of Product. For each one-time revenue stream, this is the length of time you expect the product to last before the customer will need to either purchase a replacement or discontinue use of the product.

    7. Next Product Purchase Rate. For each one-time revenue stream, this rate is the percentage of customers who will buy a replacement product from you when the current product has reached the end of its life.

    8. Cost of Capital Rate For Your Business. Expressed as a yearly rate, this is how much it costs you, in debt or equity, to get money from investors for your business. For a new entrepreneur who lacks a track record and is just getting started, the appropriate number is most likely between 35 and 75 percent per year.1This number is so high because an investor gives you money he cannot get back for years at a time (an illiquid investment). The investor is also taking a great risk because you are a brand-new business. These two factors mean that investors will charge you quite a premium for capital.


  4. Set your pricing based on the value the customer gets from your product, rather than on your costs. Thus, use the Quantified Value Proposition to determine how much value your customer receives from your product, and charge some fraction of that.


  5. A business model is a framework by which you extract from your customers some portion of the value your product creates for them. It is the idea that the amount of money your venture gets paid is based on how much value the customer gets from your product, and not some arbitrary markup based on your costs.

    The role of business model: The track record shows that companies that spend time and effort on innovative business models can see enormous

    Advantage: As a new business, you will have many options for business models; but it is very difficult to change a business model once you have established a base of customers.

    There are two sides to a business: creating value and capturing value through a business model. The two should be in balance.


  6. Sales process:

    How customers will find out about your product?
    How customers will analyze your product?
    How customers will acquire your product?
    How customers will install your product?
    How customers will pay for your product?


  7. TAM well addresses a certain weakness of startups in preparing pitch deck. Market estimation is a “big illusion.” The author is totally correct when saying he never sees a client come out of spreadsheet.


  8. Each customer actually consists of an end user and a decision-making unit. The end user very likely is an integral part of the decision-making unit but may or may not be the most important person within it. More specifically:

    End User: The individual (a real person!) who will use your product. The end user is usually a member of the household or organization that purchases your product.

    Decision-Making Unit: The individual(s) who decide whether the customer will buy your product, consisting of:
    Champion: The person who wants the customer to purchase the product; often the end user.
    Primary Economic Buyer: The person with the authority to spend money to purchase the product. Sometimes this is the end user.
    Influencers, Veto Power, Purchasing Department, and so on: People who have sway or direct control over the decisions of the Primary Economic Buyer.


  9. Mentorship: Keep the entrepreneurs focused and disciplined.

    MIT professor Dan Ariely, who discusses the topic in his 2008 book, Predictably Irrational: According to his research, when people are given what appear to be multiple paths to success, they will try to retain all the paths as options, even though selecting one specific path would have guaranteed them the most success.


  10. Very good for mentorship

    There are a few key factors that are integral to collecting accurate information:
    You must have a high level of intellectual curiosity. You must be fearless about getting on the phone, in the car, or on a plane to pursue this information. You must have an ability to listen and get people to talk. You must be open-minded and unbiased, and never presuppose a solution (inquiry, not advocacy). You must have the ability to explain what the essence of your proposed offering might look like while also being flexible. You must have time and patience to devote to this important step.


  11. Discussion about job created by entrepreneurship development:

    Innovation Driven Enterprise: When you put money into the company, the revenue/cash flow/jobs numbers do not respond quickly.

    SME: respond quickly. But will reach a limit shortly.


  12. Evidence on entrepreneurship development in universities.

    For evidence, we need look no further than the one magical square mile that is MIT. Students who attend MIT start companies at an absolutely prolific rate. In fact, as of 2006, over 25,000 existed, and 900 new ones are started each year. These companies employ over 3 million people with aggregate annual revenues of approximately $2 trillion. To put that in perspective, the total annual revenue from MIT alumni–founded companies taken together would make them the eleventh-largest economy in the world.2

    Well over 90 percent of the companies started by MIT alumni are started without MIT laboratory–produced technology.

    The real reason why MIT is so successful at creating new companies is a combination of spirit and skills.


  13. Agree that entrepreneurship can be taught and entrepreneurs can be trained.

    Research shows that more important than being charismatic, entrepreneurs need to be effective communicators, recruiters, and salespeople.


  14. A reference about the outcome of university-based incubators and accelerators.

    For evidence, we need look no further than the one magical square mile that is MIT. Students who attend MIT start companies at an absolutely prolific rate. In fact, as of 2006, over 25,000 existed, and 900 new ones are started each year. These companies employ over 3 million people with aggregate annual revenues of approximately $2 trillion. To put that in perspective, the total annual revenue from MIT alumni–founded companies taken together would make them the eleventh-largest economy in the world.


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