Feedback on the Greenhouse Application: An Open Letter to the Lang Center

The Entrepreneurial Greenhouse program is the Master Class for entrepreneurship at Columbia Business School. It is a second-year second-semester class that is the culmination of the entrepreneurship track and the class where your venture is meant to finally take off. Admission is exclusive: you have to pitch before a panel of judges and be chosen to be selected. All in all, if you’re serious about entrepreneurship, Greenhouse is your goal.

When I applied to CBS, I wrote that my goal was to get into the Entrepreneurial Greenhouse Program with a non-profit education start-up. Amazingly, I didn’t waver from my goal and I also attained it by getting into the Greenhouse program (albeit with a different venture).

The moment is much more bittersweet than I expected it to be. I chose Columbia Business School mainly for the impressive people. What disappoints me is that some of my peers who have fought the entrepreneurship battle with me were not chosen for Greenhouse. I think we are all worse off for not having their opinions and expertise in the room with us.

You could accuse me of bias, and you wouldn’t be wrong because these people are my friends. But when someone receives their non-admittance to Greenhouse as they’re talking to Angels about funding their beta product, something is wrong. When the students who, arguably, created Steve Blank’s favorite venture during the Lean Launchpad aren’t selected, I feel something is off. When the leaders of Lions Lab are denied…well, you get the picture.

I could spend another 500 words complaining about why this happened. However, that’s not constructive and it won’t get these people into the class (although I wish it would). Instead, I’ve decided to provide the Lang Center with feedback on the Greenhouse application process. Every year it seems as if people who legitimately deserve - almost obviously to their peers - to be admitted to the Greenhouse are denied. It’s my goal to stop, or at least reduce, this occurrence. Consider this my unsolicited and honest feedback.

The product vs. the founder

We’re constantly being told by venture capitalists that most of the time they invest in people, not products. Being that the Greenhouse pitch emulates a VC pitch, why are students not being judged similarly?

Much like an incubator, the Lang Center is incentivized to develop and fund the students who are most likely to be successful. In time, these successful entrepreneurs will return money to CBS through invested equity and donations to the school. This is why the lens of judging students based on who they are and what they’ve done has it’s advantages. The best indicator of what a person is likely to do in the future is what they’ve accomplished in the past.

To the Lang Center’s credit, they do look for a signal of commitment. However, I would argue they do not do give it the correct weight in the application process. From what I’ve been able to discern, after a student pitches, they are given a “yes”, “no”, or “maybe” decision. “Maybes” are then reviewed further by the faculty and administration on how committed they are to their venture and entrepreneurship at school. The problem is that this happens only in the “maybe” case. A signal of commitment is only considered 1/3 of the time!

I argue that in the future, all students, even those receiving “yeses”, should be considered on this attribute. This would reduce a potentially bad “no” decision from a room of judges who do not know the entrepreneurial background of the student. It could also mitigate a “yes” from advancing if the student was not serious about his commitment to his venture and, say, had a full-time job offer in hand.

Judging the judges

I believe the Lang Center is mostly getting it right with its diversity of judges. Based on observation, it appears that they attempted to place at least one faculty member and one young alumnus in each room. This is along with the older alumni who have greater liberty to show up mid-day on a Friday and very generously donate their time. These three groups are definitely where we should be pulling judges from and together create a strong judging panel when the mix is correct.

If we think of the pitching process again like pitching to VCs, then the part of the equation that is missing is that students are not given the opportunity to know who the judges they are pitching to beforehand. The judges in the room are given bios, business plans, and even our pitches before they ever step in the room. However, we are not given the same luxury.

I pitched my digital marketing certification company. With only seven minutes to pitch, I could have saved significant time if I knew the judges have some level of expertise with digital marketing. Likewise, if they had no experience, I could be more persuasive by explaining the ecosystem and acute need for my product.

Further affecting our persuasiveness is that judges are not grouped by vertical. This, again, would save precious time and allow us to be judged by people versed in our domain. It would make judging fairer.

Having pitched for the Greenhouse both last year and this year, I see this problem manifest the most with B2C ventures. The CBS alumni for the most part have a (surprise!) finance background, and they use this lens to judge our ventures. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it lends them to be more knowledgable about and biased towards B2B products. It’s hard for them to understand the need for a new television based social network app because they are not the target. Grouping judges by vertical and having more young alumni in rooms would reduce the bias against B2C ventures.

The last thing I must stress is just as we respect the judges, they must respect us. The judges are giving of their time, leaving work, traveling up to Morningside Heights, to sit through not-the-most-exciting process in the world. I think it is incredibly generous of them and they have my utmost respect. For their part, I think most of them are respectful to the students pitching as well.

But this year I experienced something I did not last year: judges walking in during the middle of my pitch. Having talked to others, I was not the only person this happened to. This is incredibly disrespectful and distracting. I also believe it is unfair to be judged by anyone who does not hear the totality of a pitch. I’m not convinced it was intentional, but they were not told to do otherwise. In the future, alumni should be instructed to wait outside the room if the door is closed.

Process, process, process

The last two weeks of my Fall Semester were incredibly stressful and sleepless. In addition to other school work, I slept about four hours a night to complete my business plan by Friday at midnight on November 30th. Even pulling late nights, I still didn’t finish it until 10 PM that Friday. I put in this time because I wanted to get into Greenhouse.

This time requirement is a great filter for potential applicants to the Greenhouse. Requiring a business plan, financial documentation, and a pitch is presumably enough work to keep students how are not serious from applying.

After completing my 16-page business plan, my judges would have a week to read and become familiar with my venture. They could ask me tough and challenging questions due to their familiarity with my business. Not once did I get the sense that any of the judges knew of my venture before I started pitching it. Had it been read, it would help mitigate the product versus founder problem. The judges would understand the both the product and founder better having reviewed the documents.

The problem with the submitted documents not being read is that there is now the opportunity for the system to be cheated. Again, these documents are an important filter. Once students have reassurance that they can write 10-pages without rigor because they won’t be reviewed, you loose a screening element.

I would also like address the confusion surrounding our pitches being submitted a week before our actual presentations. Like many of my peers, I took that intervening week to practice my pitch and make it as good as possible. In fact, I emailed every student who was potentially applying to pitch with me so we could all make our pitches better. The problem is that the rules said we could not update our pitches over the week. This seems counter-productive to the aim of the whole process. While in the end this point was moot because we were apply to bring in our presentations on a flash drive, this process needs to be corrected for future years.

I suggest giving students a cut-off of noon on the Wednesday before the pitches. This prevents the need for every student to spend precious minutes setting up their presentation on the computer, while still giving them a couple of days to perfect their documents.

Iterate the Greenhouse Application

The lean startup method teaches us to use customer feedback to iterate products so that they achieve customer satisfaction and growth. Clearly there is a huge demand for the Greenhouse class judging by the number of applications submitted. Yet the resources of the teaching team are limited, so a process has to determine who ultimately takes the class. No process is 100% fair, but I believe this one has room for improvement. It is my hope with this feedback, and forthcoming solicited feedback from other students, next year’s Greenhouse class will be even better and no truly deserving student will be left outside the Greenhouse’s doors.