September 20, 2015


I know what it’s like to be both driven and limited by my own vision. In 1991, after my first book was released, I saw a need for a better way to help readers find books of interest, including mine. My book, The Epicurean Laboratory, was on the chemistry of cooking. Unfortunately, it ended up in the cookbook aisle of the bookstore, as opposed to the science aisle, where most of those who would consider this book interesting would find it. 

This problem inspired me to start a multimedia company that helped match books with buyers. I developed an interactive kiosk for use in bookstores that allowed shoppers to look for books by subject, author, or title, and called the product BookBrowser. (Note that this was 1991, several years before web browsers were invented.) Though I had no experience running a technology company, my goal was to develop and deliver the product, and build an organization that was successful enough to be sold in two years. 

That’s exactly what happened: I built the business and sold it two years later. In retrospect, there was substantially more potential for this business than I had imagined. My limited goal, however, limited the opportunities I saw. If my goal had been to build a large, sustainable business, I would have been much more likely to create new opportunities, hire people who were able to help me scale the venture, and push through the challenges that precipitated the sale of the company. All founders face obstacles. However, only those founders who envision a future where those challenges have been resolved have a high probability of successfully addressing them. As Henry Ford said, “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” 
Those who can’t visualize a path to success are doomed to give up long before those who know that they will find a solution. My colleague Steve Blank, who has been on the founding team of eight companies, says that he creates a vision for what he wants to accomplish and then methodi- cally removes all the obstacles in the way. When I look back on BookBrowser, I recognize that there were many ways I could have removed the challenges I faced before I sold my firm. Back then, though, I was limited by my view of what I could accomplish. My vision for the company and for myself framed the scope of the opportunity for me. 

The great news is that what we envision for ourselves is completely malleable and can be altered in an instant. That’s what happened to Ann Miura Ko. Ann grew up in Palo Alto, California, the daughter of a scientist, and assumed that she would become a doctor or a research scientist. She studied electrical engineering at Yale, and while there, she took a po- sition in the dean’s office, doing administrative work to help pay for college. 

On a winter day in 1992, the dean asked Ann if she would give a tour of the engineering school to a visitor. During the tour, her guest learned that Ann was from Palo Alto and offered her a chance to shadow him at work when she returned home over spring break. Ann asked him what he did, and he said that he was the president of Hewlett Packard. Intrigued, she accepted Lew Platt’s invitation.
While shadowing Platt at Hewlett Packard, Ann got to see him in action, running meetings, and making decisions. At one point, Lew suggested that they get a picture together in his office, with Ann sitting across from him on a white couch. A few weeks later, a letter arrived in the mail with the photo of Ann and Lew, plus another photo taken the same week in the same room. This time, instead of Ann, Lew Platt was sitting across from Bill Gates, president of Microsoft as they signed a joint agreement. 

Ann looked at the two photographs taken from the same angle in the same room, with both guests sitting on the same couch. At that moment she saw her life differently. The walls of her future opened up, and she visualized herself as the leader of a global company. She was bright and driven, but had never considered that she could play out her life on a global stage. Everything changed in that instant.
Flash forward to 2015. Ann is now a partner at Floodgate Fund in Palo Alto, which she cofounded with Mike Maples in 2010 after earning a Ph.D. in engineering at Stanford. She spends her days guiding early-stage startups that are having a global impact, and has been recognized as one of the most influential leaders in Silicon Valley. 

As Ann’s story illustrates, most people don’t question the stage on which they live, or don’t feel comfortable expanding the scope of their impact. Yet a single instant can change their view. A conversation, a book, a movie, or even a photograph can shift your perspective on how you envision your life unfolding. 
All great ventures and adventures begin with imagination!

August 21, 2015


Our education system is responsible for preparing young people to build successful lives. They should be ready for the wide range of possibilities ahead of them, including working for others, starting their own ventures, and contributing to their communities. All of these options require a depth of knowledge in their chosen discipline, as well as creative problem solving skills, leadership abilities, experience working on effective teams, and adaptability in an ever-changing environment. It’s no coincidence that these are the same capabilities that employers say they want in college graduates. According to research conducted by National Association of Colleges and Employers, they are also the deciding factors when employers compare candidates with equivalent backgrounds.

These skills are the cornerstones of entrepreneurship education, which explicitly prepares students to identify and address challenges and opportunities. Therefore, along with teaching traditional subjects, such as science, grammar, and history, that provide foundational knowledge, it’s imperative that we teach students to be entrepreneurial.

There are many who believe that entrepreneurship is an inborn trait that can’t be taught. This is simply not true. As with all skills, from math to music, learning to be entrepreneurial builds upon inborn traits. For example, learning to read and write taps in a baby’s natural ability to babble. Each baby learns to harness those noises to form words, connect words to compose sentences, and combine sentences to craft stories.

Entrepreneurship can be taught using a similar scaffolding of skills, building upon our natural ability to imagine:

- Imagination is envisioning things that don’t exist.
- Creativity is applying imagination to address a challenge.
- Innovation is applying creativity to generate unique solutions.
- Entrepreneurship is applying innovations, scaling the ideas by inspiring others’ imagination.

Using this framework, educators at all levels can help young people engage with the world around them and envision what might be different; experiment with creative solutions to the problems they encounter; hone their ability to reframe problems in order to come up with unique ideas; and then work persistently to scale their ideas by inspiring others to support their effort.

After years teaching innovation and entrepreneurship at Stanford University School of Engineering, I can confidently assert that these skills can be learned and mastered. I’ve seen thousands of students at Stanford, and at schools around the world, transformed by courses and extracurricular programs. These include classes on creative problem solving and entrepreneurial leadership, as well as cross-campus innovation tournaments and new-venture competitions.

We can all agree that these skills are much more difficult to measure than determining if a student knows all the state capitals or how to diagram a sentence. However, the fact that they are hard to measure doesn’t mean they aren’t equally important to teach. We shouldn’t shape the curriculum solely around subjects that can be easily evaluated on a standardized exam. As a quote attributed to William Bruce Cameron elegantly states, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” We shouldn’t be dissuaded from teaching entrepreneurship just because it is difficult to measure the impact in the short term.

From my experience, it often takes years before the seeds of entrepreneurship education grow into projects or programs that are manifest in the world. In fact, most of the successful ventures started by our graduates are launched years after they complete their formal schooling. Yet, they credit their entrepreneurship education for preparing them to launch and lead those endeavors.

There are compelling examples of educators who are successfully incorporating entrepreneurship education into traditional learning environments. Consider Don Wettrick, who teaches high school in Indiana. He gives his students a full class period each day to work on a project of their own choice, allowing them to master all the above skills. Students submit a proposal for their project, collaborate with outside experts to get input and feedback, keep a blog to document their progress, and present their project at the end of the course. Projects have included helping special needs students launch a coffee shop at the school, crafting an environmentally friendly plan for maintaining the school grounds, and building a transparent solar cell. No matter what project they choose, the students develop a valuable set of skills, which they’re able to apply to all aspects of their lives.

Another example comes from our classroom at Stanford this past quarter where we challenged our students to redesign the experience of going from prison to freedom. Working with The Last Mile, an organization that teaches entrepreneurship at San Quentin State Prison, the students learned about the problems that former inmates face when they’re released. As part of the project, the students taught a class at the prison, interviewed dozens of people in the criminal justice system to understand their points of view, brainstormed to generate hundreds of ideas, and presented the most compelling solutions to a room full of stakeholders. This experience provided meaningful insights. For example, several teams realized that for many of the men, this was not a reentry process at all, but an entry process — they were much more like immigrants, entering a new world rather than returning to a world they once knew. This led to a variety of innovative and actionable solutions, several of which have already been implemented.

These examples demonstrate that we can indeed teach entrepreneurship, preparing young people to see and seize opportunities around them. The skills they gain are critical for the organizations they will join in the future and for society at large. Most important, entrepreneurship education empowers young people to see the world as opportunity rich, and to craft the lives they dream to live.

August 18, 2015


It’s a crime not to teach young people to be creative and entrepreneurial. We’re each responsible for building our own lives and for repairing the broader problems of the world, and the only way to do so is with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required to bring ideas to fruition.

Unfortunately, most formal education deals with memorization as opposed to innovation. It focuses on learning about heroes as opposed to teaching students to be heroic. And it presents problems with one right answer as opposed to real-life challenges with an endless number of viable solutions.
Many people believe that you can’t teach those skills, and define themselves and others as “not creative.” They see the skills related to innovation and entrepreneurship as inborn traits, such as eye or hair color, that can’t be changed. This is untrue! These skills can certainly be learned, and it behooves us to teach people of all ages to be entrepreneurial, enabling them to invent the world in which they want to live.

Why do people think that you can’t teach creativity and entrepreneurship? It stems from the lack of a clear vocabulary and a process for moving from inspiration to execution.

When I ask people in any setting, from a classroom to a corporate office, to define creativity, I get a range of responses. Most people start with “To me creativity is . . .” And the most common completion of this phrase is “thinking outside the box.” This cliché phrase is meaningless.
In reality, creativity requires a complex set of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and actions, just like other domains, including math, science, music, and baseball. In order to harness our creativity, we need a robust set of definitions for all parts of the creative process.

After years immersed in this field, teaching courses on creativity and entrepreneurship at Stanford School of Engineering, I’ve crafted a framework to help anyone learn the skills needed to consistently move through the creative process.

To begin, there is a hierarchy of skills, starting with imagination:

Imagination leads to creativity.
Creativity leads to innovation.
Innovation leads to entrepreneurship.

This scaffolding of skills can be compared to those involved with reading and writing: Babies naturally babble, making noises to communicate. They learn how to harness those noises and combine them to form words. They then learn to connect words to compose sentences, and then combine those sentences to craft stories. Educators take great care to teach all the foundational skills along the way, including vocabulary, grammar, reading, and writing.

Below is a parallel set of definitions and relationships for moving from imagination to entrepreneurship. I call this the Invention Cycle.

The Invention Cycle
  • Imagination is envisioning things that do not exist.
  • Creativity is applying imagination to address a challenge.
  • Innovation is applying creativity to generate unique solutions.
  • Entrepreneurship is applying innovation, to bring unique ideas to fruition, inspiring others’ imagination.
This framework is relevant to start ups and established firms, as well as innovators of all types where the realization of a new idea — whether a product, service, or work of art — results in a collective increase in imagination. Consider how platforms such as the iPhone, crayons, and even the kitchen stove have unleashed the imagination and creativity of millions of people who have been inspired by the possibilities they unlock; and how leaders of any organization, from a football team to a research team, can inspire the imagination of compatriots. An entrepreneurial spirit infects others, leading to wave upon wave of imagination, creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

By learning how to harness your own Invention Cycle, you identify more opportunities, challenge more assumptions, generate unique solutions, and bring more ideas to fruition. These powerful tools will help you chart a path toward the life you want to lead.

August 6, 2015


I often meet individuals who are desperately looking deep inside themselves to find something that will spark their passions. They miss the fact that, for most of us, our actions lead to our passions, not the other way around. Passion is not innate, but grows from your experiences. For example, if you never heard a violin, kicked a ball, or cracked an egg, you’d never know that you enjoy classical music, soccer, or cooking, respectively.

The first step toward developing a passion need not be glamorous. If you took a job as a waiter in a restaurant, for instance, you’d have the chance to interact with hundreds of people each day, to learn something new from each interaction, and to tap into that new knowledge to spark your passions.

For example, as a waiter you might discover the secrets to effective customer service and dive into learning how to help others improve their hospitality skills. You might become fascinated with the dietary requirements of some of your customers and decide to open a unique restaurant that addresses their needs. Or you discover that a customer has an illness and, after learning about her challenges, take on that cause.

Just as there are almost infinite passions you could develop, so too are there wide-ranging directions you could take your new passion once it grips you. If you decide to focus on customer service, for example, you might develop a guide for best practices in the hospitality industry, launch a consulting business, make a documentary, or launch a chain of restaurants. Without your initial experience as a waiter, you’d never have found this new calling. In each case, once you open the door to a particular destination, you reveal a set of paths that you probably didn’t know existed. In fact, before it’s your cause, it’s likely something about which you knew nothing.

Love at first sight is rare in most aspects of life. The more experience you have with a person, a profession, or a problem, the more passionate and engaged you become. Let’s take this comparison further: If you want to get married, the last thing you should do is sit alone, waiting for the phone to ring, or for Prince or Princess Charming to show up at your door. The best chance to find a compatible match is to meet lots of people. Your attitude (affection) follows your actions (dating), not the other way around. Yes, the dating process can be filled with false starts and disappointments, but you will never be successful unless you embrace the process of discovery.

August 4, 2015

From Inspiration to Implementation

There is an insatiable demand for innovation and entrepreneurship. These skills are required to help individuals and ventures thrive in a competitive and dynamic marketplace. However, many people don’t know where to start.

There isn’t a well-charted course from inspiration to implementation. Other fields — such as physics, biology, math, and music — have a huge advantage when it comes to teaching those topics. They have clearly defined terms and a taxonomy of relationships that provide a structured approach for mastering these skills. That’s exactly what we need in entrepreneurship. Without it, there’s dogged belief that these skills can’t be taught or learned.

Below is a proposal for definitions and relationships for the process of bringing ideas to life, which I call the Invention Cycle. This model provides a scaffolding of skills, beginning with imagination, leading to a collective increase in entrepreneurial activity.

Invention Cycle

  • Imagination is envisioning things that do not exist.
  • Creativity is applying imagination to address a challenge.
  • Innovation is applying creativity to generate unique solutions.
  • Entrepreneurship is applying innovation, bringing ideas to fruition, by inspiring others’ imagination.

This is a virtuous cycle: Entrepreneurs manifest their ideas by inspiring others’ imagination, including those who join the effort, fund the venture, and purchase the products. This model is relevant to startups and established firms, as well as innovators of all types where the realization of a new idea — whether a product, service, or work of art — results in a collective increase in imagination, creativity, and entrepreneurship.

This framework allows us to parse the pathway, describing the actions and attitudes required at each step along the way.
  • Imagination requires engagement and the ability to envision alternatives.
  • Creativity requires motivation and experimentation to address challenges.
  • Innovation requires focusing and reframing to generate unique solutions.
  • Entrepreneurship requires persistence and the ability to inspire others.
Not every person in an entrepreneurial venture needs to have every skill in the cycle. However, every venture needs to cover every base. Without imaginers who engage and envision, there aren’t compelling opportunities to address. Without creators who are motivated to experiment, routine problems don’t get solved. Without innovators who focus on challenging assumptions, there are no fresh ideas. And, without entrepreneurs who persistently inspire others, innovations sit on the shelf.

Let’s look at an example to see these principles at work:

As a Biodesign Innovation Fellow at Stanford University, Kate Rosenbluth spent months in the hospital shadowing neurologists and neurosurgeons in order to understand the biggest unmet needs of physicians and their patients.

In the imagination stage, Kate worked with a team of engineers and physicians to make lists of hundreds of problems that needed solving, from outpatient issues to surgical challenges. By being immersed in the hospital with a watchful eye, she was able to see opportunities for improvement that had been overlooked. This stage required engagement and envisioning.

In the creativity stage, the team was struck by how many people struggle with debilitating hand tremors that keep them from holding a coffee cup or buttoning a shirt. They learned that as many as six million people in the United States are stricken with Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions that cause tremors. The most effective treatment is deep brain stimulation, an onerous and expensive intervention that requires permanently implanting wires in the brain and a battery pack in the chest wall. Alternatively, patients can take drugs that often have disabling side effects. The team was driven to help these patients and began meeting with experts, combing the literature, and testing alternative treatments. This stage required motivation and experimentation.

In the innovation stage, Kate had an insight that changed the way that she thought about treating tremors. She challenged the assumption that the treatment had to focus on the root cause in the brain and instead focused on the peripheral nervous system in the hand, where the symptoms occur. She partnered with Stanford professor Scott Delp to develop and test a relatively inexpensive, noninvasive, and effective treatment. This stage required focus and reframing.

In the entrepreneurship stage, Kate recently launched a company, Cala Health, to develop and deliver new treatments for tremors. There will be innumerable challenges along the way to bringing the products to market, including hiring a team, getting FDA approval, raising subsequent rounds of funding, and manufacturing and marketing the device. These tasks require persistence and inspiring others. While developing the first product, Kate has had additional insights, which have stimulated new ideas for treating other diseases with a similar approach, coming full circle to imagination!

This model underpins related frameworks for innovation and entrepreneurship, such as design thinking and the lean startup methodology. Both of these models focus on defining problems, generating solutions, building prototypes, and iterating on the ideas based on feedback. 

The Invention Cycle describes foundational skills that are mandatory for those methods to work. Just as we must master arithmetic before we dive into algebra or calculus, it behooves us to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and methodology before we design products and launch ventures. By understanding the Invention Cycle and honing the necessary skills, we identify more opportunities, challenge more assumptions, generate unique solutions, and bring more ideas to fruition.

With clear definitions and a taxonomy that illustrates their relationships, the Invention Cycle defines the pathway from inspiration to implementation. This framework captures the skills, attitudes, and actions that are necessary to foster innovation and to bring breakthrough ideas to the world.