Sometimes It Really Pays to Be a Jerk at Work

Being tough gets results

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources, and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
William Shakespeare, Henry V | Act 4, Scene 3

band of brothers

The concepts in my Lean LaunchPad curriculum can be taught in a variety of classes–as an introduction to entrepreneurship all the way to a graduate-level “capstone class.”

I recently learned that being tough when you select teams for a capstone class pays off for all involved. Here’s why.

Our Lean LaunchPad class requires student teams to get out of the building and talk to 10 to 15 customers a week while they’re building the product–and they do this while they are taking a full load of other classes. To say it’s a tough class is an understatement. The class is designed for students who say they want a hands-on experience in what it takes to build a startup–not just writing a business plan or listening to lectures.

The class syllabus has all kinds of “black box” warnings about how difficult the class is, the amount of time required, etc. Yet every year, about 20 percent of teams melt down or drop the class because some of the team members weren’t really committed to the class or found they had overcommitted.

This year, that dropout rate went to zero when I ran an accidental “be a jerk” experiment.

Here Are the Rules

We set up the Lean LaunchPad class so that teams hit the ground running in the first class. Before students are admitted, they form teams, apply as a team with a business model canvas, have homework, and are expected to be presenting their business model canvas hypotheses on Day One of the class. Our first class session is definitely not a meet and greet. The syllabus is clear that attendance is mandatory.

This year, at one of the universities where I teach in the engineering school, our quarter started right after the new year. Some of the teams had students from the business school, law school, and education school, whose start dates were a few days later.

To remind everyone that attendance at the first class was required, we sent out an email to all the teams in December. We explained why attendance at the first class was essential and reminded them they agreed to be there when they were admitted to the class. The email let them know if they missed the first class, they weren’t going to be allowed to register. And because teams required four members, unless their team found a replacement by the first week, the team would not be allowed to register either. (We made broad exceptions for family emergencies, events, and a few creative excuses.)

I had assumed everyone had read the syllabus and had planned to be back in time for class. Then the excuses started rolling in.

Be a Jerk

About 25 percent of the teams had team members who had purposely planned to miss the first class.  Most of the excuses were, “I thought I could make it up later.” In past years, I would have said, “Sure.” This year, I decided to be a jerk.

I had a hypothesis that showing up for the first class might be a good indicator of commitment when the class got tough later in the quarter. So this time, unless I heard a valid excuse for an absence, I said, “Too bad; you’ve dropped the class.”

You could hear the screaming around the world (this is in a school where the grading curve goes from A to A+). The best was an email from a postdoc who said all his other professors had been accommodating his “flexible” schedule his entire time at the school, and he expected I would be as well. Others complained that they had paid for plane tickets and it would cost them money to change.

I stuck to my guns–pointing out that they had signed up for the class knowing this was the deal. Half the students who said they couldn’t make it magically found a way to show up. The others dropped the class.

The results of the experiment? Instead of the typical 20 percent dropout rate during the quarter, no one left. We had a team of committed and passionate students who wanted to be in the class. Everyone else failed the “I’m committed to making this happen” test.

Lessons Learned

  • Commitment is the first step in building a startup team.
  • It washes out the others.
  • Setting a high bar saves a ton of grief later.

Steve Blank is a retired Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur turned educator who developed the Customer Development methodology that changes the way startups are built. His book The Four Steps to the Epiphany launched the Lean Startup movement.

Read More from

The One Behavior That Guarantees Failure

One Powerful List–and Why You Should Make Your Own

Read more: 12 Ways to Get Pretty Much Anything You Want |