Using Owls to Train Startup Employees: A Review of the Startup Institute


Kevin Victor Zhou holding Startup Institute sign

Startups are facing a talent shortage. At the same time, many millenials and ex-corporate drones want to work for these companies but don’t have the proper training, which is more than just wearing jeans to the office and playing beer pong. As a result of this demand, the last 5 years has seen the proliferation of bootcamps that claim to teach the necessary skills in only a few weeks. Visit any major city, and it seems that a bootcamp is being offered by everyone and their mother. (I’d highly recommend my mom’s bootcamp.) Tuition for a bootcamp generally costs between $5,000 and $15,000. Is it worth it? Here’s my story:

I’m attending the Startup Institute’s bootcamp in Chicago. I’m in the Sales and Account Management track; there are also Web Design, Web Development, and Technical Marketing tracks. My goal is to learn sales techniques and develop skills for succeeding in a job at a startup company. The program is an immersive and intense 8-week bootcamp that consists of 40 hours of in-class work, 20 hours of homework, and multiple networking events. It’s extremely selective; under 20% of applicants are accepted. I’ve been in the program for 5 weeks and have learned a great deal. Here are the top 5 things I’ve learned:

1. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. One often has to move forward on a project with incomplete information. Risk is part of startup life. In startup environments, speed of execution is crucial. On Day 1 of the program, there’s the “Draw the F$%#ing Owl” exercise; the instructors pull out a blank whiteboard, ask for a volunteer, and surprise the volunteer with the task of drawing an owl. I was that volunteer; i’m not an artist, and I haven’t seen a picture of an owl since 7th grade, but I did my best, and the class thought it was a hoot. (Sorry, that joke was bird-brained.)

owl slide owl drawing by Kevin V. Zhou (Kevin Victor Zhou)

An accurate depiction of the North American Great Horned Owl.

2. Great minds don’t think alike. My background is in engineering, and all of my group work experiences have consisted in working in teams with other engineers. As a result, I’ve mostly worked with people with similar thinking styles. At the Startup Institute, I work in teams consisting of salespeople, marketers, designers, and programmers. Due to the different thinking styles, not everyone shares the same priorities. Some people are results-focused, and others are process-focused. Some people think in concrete terms, and others invoke Nietzsche in a discussion about a fart app. I’ve learned to accept that not everyone thinks like me, keep an open mind, pick my battles, and not strangle people when the group wastes 15 minutes debating the merits of writing the report in Times New Roman.

3. Everyone doesn’t speak the same language. The Startup Institute taught me the Red/Yellow/Green/Blue communication style classification system. Red communicators are results-focused, yellow communicators are optimism-focused, green communicators are connection-focused, and blue communicators are detail-focused. I’m normally a red communicator, and I’ve been assigned to project teams with people who are are green or blue. People often use a primary communication style for everyday situations and switch to a secondary style when they’re angry. When I’m mad, I shift to blue. When Bruce Banner’s mad, he shifts to green.

4. Networking is important. <sarcasm> LinkedIn is more than Facebook for old people. It’s also Twitter for old people. </sarcasm>

The Startup Institute taught me the importance of having good networking skills. Most job opportunities are never posted, and networking is the best way to access these secret job openings. One needs to get used to approaching strangers, making small talk, getting their contact info, and asking for a coffee chat. It’s like dating except without the making out. Save that for the 2nd meeting.

The Startup Institute provides many opportunities to network. The alumni network is rapidly growing, with over 800 alumni around the world. There are alumni parties and exclusive events. The Chicago program takes place inside “1871”, the city’s best-known startup incubator. 1871 sponsors meetups multiple nights of the week and a weekly happy hour on Fridays. I’d also recommend eating in the 1871 cafeteria so you can mingle with startup employees, although I don’t recommend their overpriced $8 cookie.

5. The most important part of the sales process is listening. Good salespeople ask open-ended questions, listen, and doesn’t promote a product until there’s a thorough understanding of the customer’s problems.

Roleplay from a sales training session (what not to do):

Me: Welcome to Kevin’s Toyota.
Customer: I’m looking for a new car.
Me: Take a look at our 2015 Corolla.
(Customer looks at 2015 Corolla.)
Me: What do you think?
Customer: I can’t fit my entire family. It’s 2 seats too small.
Me: You could put them in the trunk.

The right way is not to begin by showing cars but by asking questions about the customer’s needs. Find out what car styles he likes, how the car will be used, and if the trunk will be used for cargo or his in-laws.

Overall, this program has made me a better communicator and innovator. I’d highly recommend it. Hope you enjoyed reading my review. My mom said it was the best Startup Institute review she ever read.


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