Field Course: Customer Discovery in Entrepreneurial Ventures - Harvard Business School MBA Program

Field Course: Customer Discovery in Entrepreneurial Ventures

Course Number 6212

Professor Alan MacCormack
Spring, Q3Q4; 3 credits
Weekly 2.5 hour sessions
Enrollment: limited to 50 students

Educational Objectives

Formerly known as Entrepreneurship Laboratory, this project-based course engages teams of students to work on “customer discovery” projects for local (typically high-tech) start-up firms.  The course objectives include:

  • Developing and applying skills needed in new ventures, especially those related to customer discovery (i.e., segmenting markets, interviewing customers, developing personas, defining customer value propositions, designing go to market strategies);
  • Understanding what it is like to work in fast-paced, entrepreneurial firms;
  • Providing an opportunity to apply academic knowledge in an entrepreneurial setting;
  • Managing a project under time pressure to deliver real, actionable insights to the host

Host firms and Projects

Host firms come from a diverse range of industries and technologies, including Software, Hardware, Mobile, Healthcare and B2C. Firms are typically small (5 to 50 employees) but have working technology and seed or series-A funding. We focus on local firms, to maximize the opportunity for face-to-face interactions. We recruit more host firms than teams, so students have a wide choice of possible projects.

Projects vary in focus, but a typical project might involve interviewing customers, identifying needs, defining “beachhead” markets, developing user personas, defining customer value propositions, specifying market and product requirements and developing go-to-market strategies.

Our aim is to recruit Boston’s hottest startups to participate in class. Former hosts include nuTonomy, Lola travel, Vesper, Whoop, Getaway House, Oasys Water, MC10, Vaxess Technologies, and Hourly Nerd.

Please note that students may not work on their own startups in CDEV, however, they are free to propose potential host firms via a poll that is sent to registered students in the fall. Host firms are often founded by, funded by, or employ HBS alumni and faculty.

Course Content and Organization

Most entrepreneurial ventures fail. Studies reveal that the main reason for failure is there is no market need for the products they produce. That is, there is no validated customer problem for which the customer is willing to pay for a solution. Ventures can avoid such outcomes by conducting a rigorous process of customer discovery alongside their product development efforts. In this course, student teams learn about and engage in this process.

In this class, you will primarily learn by doing. Expect to spend a lot of time meeting and talking with your host firm, potential customers and industry experts. In-class sessions focus on teaching the practical tools required to conduct an effective customer discovery process, using exercises, lectures and cases. In addition, local CEOs come and talk about how to run effective customer discovery processes. Past guests include Pat Pettiti (Hourly Nerd) Brian Halligan (Hubspot) Jim Matheson (Oasys Water) and Ben Schlatka (MC10).

Due to the field-based nature of the class, we do not meet every week, nor for the full time each week. Approximately 25% of class time is given to teams to work on projects. In addition to classes, faculty will hold periodic mentor meetings with teams.

Course Deliverables

Students typically work in teams of four. The main deliverable is the final presentation and associated slide deck/report. You will be asked to present your findings to faculty in advance of your presentation to your host firm. This provides an opportunity to receive and incorporate feedback into your final product. Teams will be asked to present their emerging analyses, and to give/receive feedback, periodically throughout the term.

Career Focus

Students who wish to experience the challenge of working in small, rapidly growing startups. Students who wish to become entrepreneurs, or work in entrepreneurial firms. Students who plan to work in VC/PE firms that make investments in entrepreneurial firms. Students that intend to grow new businesses inside existing corporations.


There are no pre-requisites for CDEV, apart from passion and commitment. Students will benefit from enrolling in complementary EC courses, such as Product Management 101/102, Entrepreneurial Sales and Marketing and Launching Technology Ventures.


A small number of places are held for non-HBS graduate students. Non-HBS students that wish to enroll must apply. Please submit your resume, along with a cover letter explaining why you would like to take CDEV to the course faculty member by January 21, 2018. All cross-registrants must attend the first class on January 24, in which host firms will pitch their projects and team formation will begin.

Due to the nature of some EC Field Courses students may be required to sign a legal agreement requested by project/business partner organizations. Additional requirements and documentation may also be requested of students by organizations. While students are typically not charged a course fee for taking an EC field course it is possible that students will be responsible for minimal out-of-pocket costs (varies per course), however funding is available for local travel to partner location.