The Foundry at the Lassonde Institute

Introduction to the Foundry at the Lassonde Institute

It’s 6:50 a.m. on Monday morning. It’s the first day of fall break for the University of Utah, and the campus is as empty as you would expect it to be. Except for one corner of Lassonde Studios, where a group of students is huddled around a table. What madness could get students out of bed this early and back on campus during Fall break?

They’re not being punished, there’s no extra credit, but they are participating in a class. This is not your normal class however, it is a startup disguised as a class. This is the Foundry. The goal of this class is to teach students the entrepreneurial skillset that is crucial to success in the modern economy.

What is the Foundry?

In the Foundry, students from a variety of disciplines across campus meet to help each other pursue their goals of starting a business or growing a passion project. The students choose their own projects to work on. By choosing something they care about, instead of having something arbitrarily assigned to them, they tap into their internal motivations and are driven to push themselves, overcome the many challenges they’ll face and live up to the expectations we set.

The line between teacher and student is blurred in the Foundry. Aside from some brief announcements, and providing coffee and breakfast, the teachers do little to lead our Monday morning CEO meeting. These meetings happen at 7 a.m. and are an hour long.

The students bring to the table their lessons from the week and the problems they are facing. When a problem is presented, the group focuses their collective knowledge, experience and relationships to help find a solution. With a group of 20 highly motivated and diversely talented students you can solve a lot of problems in an hour.

We practice what we preach

The Foundry operates on the same principles and systems it teaches. Which are the same principles and systems that startups all over the world use to manage themselves. The documents we ask the student to use, we use as well. The standards that we hold the students accountable to, we hold ourselves to (the students hold us accountable as well).

The tools, systems and principles we teach are designed to be useful for a lifetime, and applicable in “the real world,” a mysterious place most students travel to after they graduate. These tools are not just for starting a business but for achieving any goal, personal or professional.

We don’t provide seed funding, cubicle space, tech trinkets, five-step plans or gurus. We don’t have a formula or framework that can tell a student if their project idea is good or not, in fact, we care little for the project idea, our focus is on the entrepreneur behind the idea. We only provide a system that allows for constant searching, improving, introspection and growth and a community of people that value these virtues.

Integrity, the only key metric for success

In an uncertain world of entrepreneurship, the only key indicator you can rely on at first is your integrity. Can you do what you say you will do? Without integrity, you won’t be able to overcome the many challenges and setbacks an early startup faces.

It’s no secret that most people are terrible at keeping their commitments, we are no different. Fortunately, integrity is a skill you can practice and get better at. We practice through play. We play a game that the commitments we make to ourselves and our projects are the most important commitments in the world. This can dramatically impact how we prioritize our days and how we make decisions. The spirit of playfulness allows us to confront and learn from our failures without a sense of guilt or inadequacy, which allows for continuous growth and improvement.

Part of this game is setting very specific goals and understanding the results we need to achieve those goals. If you can break down a goal into specific results, then you can track your progress, and plan what actions you need to take to achieve them. We use a document called a MOKR (which stands for mission, objectives and key results) to document our goals for the semester and determine our focus for the Foundry.

No homework, just deliberate action

There is no assigned homework. We learn by doing. Students determine on their own what actions they will need to take each week to achieve these goals. We use a management report, a simple document where we write just four things:

  1. The progress we made toward achieving our goals or building our businesses this week
  2. The plans we have for next week
  3. The problems that are keeping us from achieving our goals
  4. Our priorities, which explain the “reason why” behind the actions we take

These four simple things give us a snapshot into the actions each student takes each week to grow their project. These documents are stored in a shared Google Drive folder, everyone has access to their current management reports as well as reports from previous weeks. This makes it easy for everyone to  know what is happening in the cohort, provide feedback where they can and offer help.

This turns each participant into both a student and a teacher, absorbing information and feedback from the group while providing insight and support based on their own strengths or experiences.

As they help each other, they bond with their tribe in the trenches each week. It helps each individual be more effective knowing that they are not alone in their struggle to start a business. Their shared struggle and support helps build relationships that will continue to grow long after they graduate.

How to speak the common language of CEOs and startups

We teach precision in writing as a tool to have more valuable conversations. Our MOKRs and management reports are our main way of communicating. We want to be as efficient as possible in sharing our progress and our problems with the group. So we enforce a strict formatting and layout with the documents we use. This means the group spends less time trying to understand how the information is organized and more time solving the real problems their business is facing.

This uniform writing system also is a conduit to startup and executive communities around the world. Top companies like Oracle and Google use these same systems with their management teams (and are always looking to hire people trained in these systems for management positions).

There’s been a great deal of participation from the community of Foundry and Lassonde alumni. Christopher and Andrew Pagels from Devgarden, Caleb Light and David Toledo from Power Practical, Travis Corrigan from Beach Body and Chad Mann from Mann Made Engineering have made themselves available to chime in on management reports and help the group work through their problems at our Monday morning meetings.

Alumni of the Foundry still use the same document systems we use each week and understand their value (both for their businesses and personal development). It easy for them to quickly dive into the management report of a student and provide help, share opportunities, or invest in the company (if they see a good reason to).

How to be a CEO

We train Foundry students to think like top-performing executives by treating them like they already are and expecting them to act like one.

One of the most powerful and challenging exercises we practice is the project review. The project review is modeled after a board meeting, where the student assumes the role of CEO of their company, creates a board of fellow students, teachers and other members of the community and have a focused discussion on the state of their business.

They invite their board to their project review where they will present their company, their progress over the semester and receive critical feedback and advice on how they can perform better and determine their priorities.

They collect their management reports, their MOKR and create a presentation that outlines the key assumptions of their business and share these with their board. Their management reports act as a trail of breadcrumbs, telling the week-by-week story of their business, the MOKR gives context to the management reports. This leaves the goals of the students and the action they took to achieve them in plain writing.

This allows for an interesting, vulnerable, powerful and often uncomfortable conversation to happen. This is the place where students can get the feedback they don’t necessarily want to hear, but need to hear. These meetings can be challenging and emotional, but can also allow for more growth and development in an afternoon than many students experience in an entire semester.

We create entrepreneurs, not businesses

Though students choose their own projects, they are allowed to pivot on or abandon their projects at any time if they see fit. They are welcome to start a new project or join another student’s team. Our priority is not to create businesses, but to teach students an entrepreneurial skillset that they can use to validate ideas, lead teams and grow their projects long into the future.

This gives the student a way to embrace and celebrate failure. Failure is an integral and expected part of every entrepreneur’s journey. We encourage students to rigorously question the assumptions they are making about the business they want to start, and identify reasons why it could fail as early as possible. If a business fails and a student learns from the failure, they share their lessons and are applauded by the group.

Constantly evolving curriculum

There are no assigned readings. Though copies of “The College Entrepreneur” were given to all of the students, there is no syllabus or set curriculum. The group is constantly sharing content that is relevant to them and discussing it in a Slack channel that the students created. We’ve also been able to add alumni and other members of the entrepreneurial community to participate in the discussions and share what they are learning in their own businesses.

When we identify a problem that we don’t have a lot of knowledge in as a group, we take action to educate ourselves. We’ve been able to tap into the diverse entrepreneurial community we work with to get short audio recordings with insights into key challenges that we face. We collect these recordings, along with topical essays we write in our shared folder for students to review and study at their own pace and apply the knowledge to their project as they see fit.

Want to join us?

Are you student at the University of Utah? Are you looking to do something more with your education? Are you interested in participating in the Foundry and joining a community of entrepreneurs? Are you interested in checking out what we do and attending one of our community events? Fill out the the form in the link below, and we’ll send you updates on events and updates on how to join the Spring 2017 cohort. We accept students of any discipline or level of experience.

Click here to fill out the student interest form

Are you an entrepreneur that wants to support a growing community of students who are able to think independently, act with integrity and execute with precision? There’s many ways you can participate.

  • Present to the group – We’re hungry to learn from people on the front lines on entrepreneurship and we host weekly events. If you interested in visiting us if you’re close or setting up a virtual meeting if your far, get in touch.
  • Join the community – Participate in the discussion and conversations we have on our Slack Channel, where we share our favorite articles we are reading and support each other through the week.
  • Develop curriculum – Share your expertise with us by doing a brief interview around a topic you’re an expert in. We share these recordings on a weekly basis with the community.
  • Participate in a project review – Foundry participants are always looking for more seasons entrepreneurs to participate in their project reviews.
  • Share opportunities – If you have an opportunity such as an internship, job opening or offering a tour of your business to our high-achieving students, get in touch!

Click here to fill out the community interest form

About the Author:

University of Utah student Kyle Gray is a University of Utah alumni who teaches at the Foundry, a unique startup accelerator at the University of Utah. He is the author of "The College Entrepreneur," a book for students who want to break into entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter @kylethegray.

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