interactions magazine

This is from 2014 | 7 minute read

Learning Entrepreneurial Hustle

Since we accept students from a variety of backgrounds at Austin Center for Design, we don't assume they will all share a common set of skills; instead, we teach our students some broad fundamentals (like sketching, presenting, and storytelling) during their first quarter. We also try to teach them another fundamental: entrepreneurial hustle—the idea that you can actively cause things to happen rather than passively have things happen to you. This is both a mind-set as well as a series of methods. Many students have never thought of themselves as agents of change and have never considered that they can set events in motion based on their actions. For all the talk of the millennial generation being lazy or unmotivated, I've found their temperament to be more closely aligned with helpless inaction—many don't truly believe they can do, achieve, or succeed in the chaos, complexity, and ambiguity of the world around them, and I observe, broadly, a generational feeling of helplessness. Entrepreneurial hustle is the opposite of this feeling, and it can be taught. But to learn it, students need to overcome some pretty large hurdles related to their own identities—they need to adjust how they view themselves and their abilities. They need to start to understand that their actions add value to the world.

To teach this entrepreneurial hustle, we leverage something called the $1,000 Project, which we borrowed from one of AC4D's advisors, Gary Chou. Gary, who was general manager at Union Square Ventures (a venture capital firm out of New York), assigns the project to a class he teaches because it fosters self-sufficiency and autonomy, and helps students learn how to build a business. The project is misleadingly simple: Students must earn a $1,000 profit doing something legal. Take a second and think about what you would do to earn a grand in a short amount of time. Would you perform a service? Build a product? Leverage a skill you already have? Try to collaborate? Go it alone?

The primary learning outcome of this project is to help the student learn what value actually is, how it can be created, and to understand that both their ideas and skills can be valuable in the right circumstances. The quickest way to understand this is to engage the market: to talk to and observe people, introduce new ideas for products and services, and see how people react to those ideas. More broadly, the project is about leaving the safe and predictable (and supportive) confines of the school to go out and talk to real people, who have less predictable needs and who view value—and their money—in less predictable and kind ways.

While the most important learning outcome of the project is a respectful understanding of value, there are more nuanced learning outcomes for the project. Here are a few of the most important objectives of the project, along with some of the emotional and tactical barriers in the way of students achieving these goals:

  • Students will learn they need to make their own constraints. This project is so vague that students have to reframe it in their own terms in order to be successful. Some students view this as a flaw in the assignment—as if the lack of detail is an academic defect—and attach negative affect to the curriculum as a result.
  • Students will learn the market is skeptical: a "good idea" is not enough. Some students engage with online communities before they've designed anything, describing new product and service ideas to garner support and interest. Predictably, the online communities ask for proof: evidence that the product exists, does what it's purported to do, and has been used successfully by other people.
  • Students will learn the market lies. When they first start, students ask people if they would buy hypothetical products at hypothetical prices. They are then disappointed to realize that hypothetical purchasing behavior rarely translates into actual purchasing behavior.
  • Students will learn that value forgives craftsmanship. Students often are reluctant to offer a product or service until it's perfect, failing to realize that perfection comes through operationalizing a business over many years. In fact, when a market observes and understands value in an offering, it will often overlook cosmetic or even functional flaws—as long as the value proposition is realized.
  • Students will learn they need to ask for things. Some students find themselves in situations where they've delivered (or promised to deliver) a product or service but forgotten to have a conversation (and negotiation) about payment. This may be the very first time in their entire life that they have had to ask someone to pay for something, and they may now find themselves in situations where they have to either renegotiate the terms of a deal or assume a loss on a particular transaction.

This project is presented in a curriculum focused on social entrepreneurship, and students initially question the largely capitalist undertone to the project. In fact, the money itself is largely irrelevant (and on our grading rubric, the money is less than 10 percent of the grade). AC4D students go on to work with wicked problems, and the skills learned during this foundation course are transferable to tackling the systemic, ill-defined, unstructured messes of society. As students explore issues of poverty, nutrition, education, and other large-scale social issues, they will be required to manage complexity and ambiguity, to engage lazy, politically minded stakeholders, to work with scarce resources, to abandon perfection in favor of execution, to ask for things (like money), and above all, to understand they are capable of making a positive impact—to understand their work has the potential to add value to the world around them.

When the project is first assigned to our students, their reaction is extraordinarily emotional. Simply, the class is scared to death (and this fear often manifests as anger). Some students think the project isn't actually achievable, and so they feel that they have been set up to fail. Others feel the project won't teach them anything because they already have lucrative jobs and have already proved their financial acumen. Still others assume the open-ended nature of the project is laziness on the behalf of the professor, and that more constraints are required for it to be both achievable and a useful learning tool. Most of the students simply don't believe they can produce something that has $1,000 of value. They doubt their own ability to add value to the world; they don't believe their ideas and skills are worth anything.

After the project is over, students begin to understand the power of action over contemplation. When we reflect with students about their experiences, many wish they had spent less time worrying about "doing it right" and more time working. It takes a long time for students to overcome this pursuit of rightness, or conformity to established social guidelines or expectations. But when they do, they see the world—and their role in it—in a new way. These students have begun to understand the essence of entrepreneurial hustle, the same drive that propelled design icon Steve Jobs to success. As he described in the recent PBS documentary One Last Thing:

"When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is, and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life. Have fun, save a little money. That's a very limited life.

Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is everything around that you call life was made up by people who were no smarter than you. And you can change it. You can influence it. You can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again."


Kolko, Jon (2014), "Learning Entrepreneurial Hustle". In interactions magazine, March/April, 2014.
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