Work & Start Model

Blending Work, Education, and Company Creation

Rachel Aliana
11 min readApr 26, 2023
A student interviewing a person at a company. Image generated by DALL-E.

This article is a part of the book “A Pattern Language for Successful Start-up Ecosystems”.

Throughout our conversation Umar seemed not at all curious about the systems of urban planning and economics at play that made affordable housing and fresh food unavailable on campus. Neither was he curious to understand how the system of poverty in which he was locked generated a stress response that caused him to seek out coping mechanisms like vaping. He seemed to simply want to be the “Vape King” that distributed vape supplies quickly to students on campus.

But here is the funny thing about wants. They have a stealthy way of being shaped by a person’s potential achievable action map. If a person believes they can only achieve the level of an associate manager of a retail store, they will often tell themselves they do not want the responsibility of a Manager role. If they can only afford to become a nurse’s assistant, they will convince themselves that they do not want the paperwork involved to be a doctor. In the face of increasing inaccessibility of the same type of lifestyle as one’s parents and grandparents with greater inequality, some people become angry, some depressed. Others grow content with smaller potential achievable action maps.

Ironically this more inequitable world is one where where information is increasingly accessible to everyone even without university tuition. To keep universities relevant they need to push past information access as their key value. So too do they need to find a better selling point than to provide years-long training of students for careers that might not exist within months of university graduation. Umar with his mixture of general ambition but lack of understanding in how to direct it points universities towards a potential path: to be the place where people consciously reshape their wants, and do so in a way that is economically feasible to even students like Umar.

Everyone Gains with the Work & Start Model

The basis of the Work and Start Model is that students interested in entrepreneurship get paired with companies to work with the agreement that the company will also help pay them to explore a specific problem. The first portion of the engagement the student learns about the company and industry through interviews with various people in the organization, the wider market, and with customers. In the second portion the students develop a potential business opportunity to present to the board or owners of this company. The expected time of this engagement is a semester or summer.

Students gain through this experience an understanding of interlinked systems within a company. Throughout their interviews students can begin to see a company not as a monolithic entity but a constantly shifting set of relationships that respond to outside influences from markets, supply chains, and customers. It is this kind of thinking that shapes what scale founders decide to tackle problems at, and could help people like Umar who have a passion for entrepreneurship but have a small potential achievable action maps widen the kinds of problems he thinks to solve.

Companies gain new insight into their markets and customers at a fraction of the cost of consulting firms. Especially for smaller businesses that cannot afford the expertise of consulting firms or “traditional” businesses that are often uninvolved with new technology, these new insights might prove pivotal as the emergence of AI is rapidly changing many typically stable markets.

Universities gain one of the last ways that students can be tested on their skills of customer research and analysis in a way that ChatGPT cannot copy because they are conducting primary, original research in a way that can be verified by speaking with company employees. The movement to real-world data collection will likely become an ever more prevalent component of university education with the growing rise of ChatGPT usage amongst university students.

Payment as Essential Component to Entrepreneurial Equity

It is an essential part of the Work and Start Model that the students are paid for their engagements with the company. The mindset that entrepreneurs should “hustle” and “grind” with low wages and late nights without pay makes entrepreneurship inaccessible to people who need to spend late nights working. So, too, are internships also often unpaid with the idea that students gain valuable real world experience that makes the time spent worth it. Universities need to insist that only paid engagements are allowed.

A good ratio of general work to start-up work is 2:1 — for every 2 hours students work they are paid 1 hour of time to work on interviewing stakeholders within the company and generating their project proposals. A standard ratio is 4:1 — every 4 hours worked students have 1 hour to work on their company. A low ratio is 8:1 — -for every 8 hours a student works they get 1 paid hour to work on their own projects. Universities should not allow engagements with companies that want to offer a lower than an 8:1 ratio.

Preparations for Engagement

The University Community Manager should manage a list of companies interested in student interns across a broad variety of different industries. Students who want to engage in a Work & Start can look through this database or bring forward a business on their own. To begin the engagement the business simply needs to sign off on a form that outlines the payment ratio, time of engagement, and recognition that the work generated by the student throughout the engagement can be used by the student after the engagement.

Students need to agree that they will submit at minimum five interviews within each of the three question sections (Company, Customer, and Market Exploration) for a total of 15 interviews as well as a final project presentation at the end of the engagement. The final project will take the form of a twenty minute presentation to stakeholders within the company on their findings and their proposed solution.

Communications within the Engagement

Community Managers should seek to have all internships start at the same time in the semester so that students have a cohort of people to go through this experience with. Discussions with students working on adjacent problems can generate new potential insights and lines of inquiry. These students can serve as a support for any problems, and might one day serve as potential co-founders.

Before the Work & Start internships start, after each interview section, and before and after the final presentations students should meet, for a total of six meetings. Meetings will be more productive for the development of social ties if they occur in-person. The format of each meeting should include an intro, debrief, team work, and social time.

The first meeting should include students introducing themselves and the organization they will work with. Following meetings should begin with a debrief of each student on their progress and any problems they have faced. Then the Community Manager will introduce the next section. Students in groups of two should then spend ten minutes developing an initial outline of their questions for the next section. Students can use these sessions to ask questions or suggestions of their other colleagues and get feedback on their proposed plan of action. The final ten to fifteen minutes of any session should be open for questions and socialization. The last session should have each student give an abbreviated (5–10 minute) version of the presentation presented to their company to their wider cohort.

Community Managers should create a Slack channel for students to be able to talk to each other and ask questions of the Community Manager in between in-person sessions. This Slack channel should remain open even after the internship has ended, as this can be a valuable community for these students long after university graduation.

Questions for Part 1, Company Exploration:

Students should engage in a minimum of five interviews with people at the company within five primary areas. Their goal should be to understand the role of each individual, how their role interacts with the larger organization, and pain points within their role. Below are some suggested questions to get students started:

For Advertising/Marketing Roles:

  1. Who are your customers? What pain points do they have?
  2. Where do you advertise? Why do you advertise there?
  3. What is your annual marketing budget?
  4. If you have multiple ways that you advertise, what is the most effective channel?

For Finance Roles:

  1. How many customers who reach your company end up converting to sales?
  2. What is your revenue model?
  3. Do you have different types of revenue streams?
  4. What are the most costly parts of running the company?

For Product Roles:

  1. What are the different components of the product or service that you sell?
  2. Do you have suppliers? Who are they? What is your relationship with these suppliers?
  3. What is the typical timeline for making changes to your product or services?
  4. How are product decisions made? How do you decide to pursue an idea?
  5. What are the various pieces at work in designing, testing, and selling a product or service?

For Customer Success Roles:

  1. How do you stay in touch with your customers?
  2. How do you re-engage customers that leave without purchasing your product or service again?
  3. Who are the types of customers that come back to your company?
  4. Have you set up any sort of loyalty program or up-selling/cross-selling?

For CEO/Manager:

  1. What inspired you to start/run this business?
  2. How has this industry changed while you have been working here?
  3. How has the company changed while you have been working here?
  4. What is the largest threat facing your business today?
  5. What is the largest limiter of how much product or service you can sell?
  6. Who is your biggest competition?

These questions are simply a start, and students should be encouraged to add their own questions. After all interviews are done, they should create a one-page summary of their findings, including a summary of each individual interview as well as their new insights in total on the state of the company.

Questions for Part II, Market Exploration:

Students should seek out a minimum of five other people within the market to interview to understand the wider context outside of the company. These questions below can also be adjusted for competitors, regulators, suppliers, or any other organizations the company interacts with that can help the student better understand how their client company operates.

  1. Who are your customers? What pain points do they have?
  2. What is your revenue model? How do you make money? Do you have different types of revenue streams?
  3. What is the rate of customers that interact with your company that ultimately purchase something from you?
  4. What are the different components of the product or service that you sell?
  5. Do you have suppliers? Who are they? What is your relationship with these suppliers?
  6. What are the various costs of delivering your product or service? What is the most costly aspect of running your company? What is the least costly?
  7. How do you stay in touch with your customers? How do you re-engage customers that leave without purchasing your product or service again?
  8. What is the largest threat facing your business today?
  9. What is the largest limiter of how much product or service you can sell?
  10. Who is your biggest competition?

Once students have answered these questions from various people outide of the company they should write up a one-page summary of a few sentences summarizing each interview as well as a few final sentences that sum up any new insights they learned about the market.

Questions for Part 3, Customer Exploration:

Students to understand the full scope of a company’s system also need to speak with customers that purchase the company’s products or services. Some suggested questions are below:

  1. What need is the company solving for you?
  2. What convinced you to choose this company over others?
  3. How often do you use this company’s product or service?
  4. Do you also use other products/services like ours?
  5. When you use our product or service, are there any place that causes frustration?
  6. What product feature or additional service would you like to see the company offer?

Once students have finished interviewing customers, they should write up a one-page summary that includes major highlights of each individual interview as well as a summary of insights in total from across the five interviews.

Part 4: Presenting a New Solution

Students need to decide two foundational questions after they have finish their interviews and before they progress to their presentation. First is, what is a problem within the market that is both urgent and important to solve?

Once they have decided what specific problem they want to tackle, they need to decide: should they structure their proposal as a new product or method within the company, or propose a potential start-up for their client to become the first customer?

After students choose their problem focus and positioning, they should begin to develop their final presentation. This presentation should be around twenty minutes, and is directed towards major stakeholders in the company. It should cover:

  1. A Title Slide with a one-sentence summary of the proposed solution and the value it will provide to the company.
  2. An Intro Slide on themselves and their background, specifically background that explains why they decided to pursue this problem area.
  3. A Summary Slide of the Company Interviews that highlights major insights found.
  4. A Summary Slide of the Market Interviews and insights found from interviews.
  5. A Summary Slide of the Customer Interviews and insights gleaned from them.
  6. Introducing the Problem or Potential. Based on all three groups of interviews, what is the most important problem for the company to solve or new product or service that it should deliver?
  7. Potential Size. How much could solving this problem or bringing this new offering to market offer to the company in terms of money and market share?
  8. A Slide of Cons. What are the potential pitfalls of solving this problem or bringing this new offering to market in terms of time, money, risk, and organizational bandwidth?
  9. A Slide on Competitors. What are other companies doing in this space?
  10. Steps to Solution. What steps would need to be taken to address this problem or provide this new offering?
  11. Timeline. Lay out a clear timeline of steps needed to address this problem or roll out this new offering.
  12. Summary. In the last slide remind the company of the problem/offering, solution, and why you should be involved in helping them in this journey.

Out of this experience, the students will gain many skills to take forward with them. They will gain an understanding of how to pitch to prospective clients, develop a market analysis, and how to do customer research. They might land a job, or find their first customer. Within the context of their mental maps, students will learn how to analyze problems at a systemic level that can help them extend their potential achievable action maps. This extension of what they believe is possible for them to achieve they will carry with them throughout their life, making them more ambitious and systematic in the problems they seek to tackle.

Too often internships provide simply low-cost work for companies and provide no freedom for students to learn lessons important to their growth and understanding of systems. Business plan competitions often stress polished slide decks rather than a deep understanding of the customer and market. Competitions also do not provide funding for students who go through them, but only money for those who win. This excludes many low-income students who do not have the bandwidth to participate in competitions and not get paid for it. The goal of the Work & Start Model is to position students to do the deep, complex customer and market research that competitions often do not provide, and to do so in a way that makes entrepreneurship accessible to a wider socioeconomic bracket of students.