Learn – Create – Test

Learn – Create – Test. That is the Balloon mantra, taught to all fellows in the first week of the programme. The mantra was developed from a combination of Steve Blank’s work on customer development and Eric Ries’s book, The Lean Startup.

Steve and Eric (and Balloon) are all about challenging assumptions. They love to go out into the real world and test: test assumptions, test products and get to the truth. Hence the Lean Startup method: “build, measure, learn.”

  • Build – create a minimum viable product that looks to solve a problem
  • Measure – test the product to get feedback and data from customers
  • Learn – use the data to realise new insights and use the insights to make a new or improved product to use in the next cycle

The key to this method is to repeat the cycle as often as possible. This allows the start-up to change direction or exploit any opportunity at a moment’s notice.

Just like a child playing with Lego, ideas change quickly. Blocks are pushed together haphazardly to discover new combinations, and old parts are tactically broken off to make way for better structures, as the child learns and acts opportunistically to improve the construction. After many cycles, the finished product is drastically different from the original idea. This childlike style of thinking is key to being entrepreneurial

The Marshmallow Challenge: 1 marshmallow, 20 sticks of spaghetti, 1 yard of string, 1 yard of tape and 18 minutes to build the tallest tower to support the marshmallow on top…

“15 seconds left! 

Doug loomed over us, like the long shadow of a tall clock-tower, adding further anxiety to our last-minute panic in trying to get our marshmallow to stay on top of the spaghetti structure.

“3 – 2 – 1, Time’s up! Everybody let go of your marshmallows!” 

Our building snapped and fell, every flaw and weakness made apparent by the cruel, imperceptible weight of the marshmallow.

Only one group survived. Why? They got to know their marshmallow. They used it to test their structure, learnt from it and made small incremental improvements. The remaining groups met the same fate as mine.



The post-challenge analysis – always done as a group – revealed that our lack of testing throughout the task caused our failure. This was the first of many lessons cemented in our minds through the process of ‘learning by doing’.

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them” – Aristotle

‘Learning by doing’ is the strongest tool used by Balloon Kenya. Every section of the curriculum is taught using a specific process which ensures that the information is easy to recall and apply.

  • Learning phase – learn the concept and analyse case-studies
  • Practice phase – practice implementing the knowledge with a task
  • Reflection phase – analyse your performance and find areas for improvement



Many people seem to skip steps 2 and 3, but these are the steps that make the knowledge useful and enable development.

Through practice, the conscious effort required to translate knowledge into action solidifies the learning in your memory. This makes it easier to draw into the forefront of your mind when you need it again. If the knowledge is simply read and filed away, you will lose it quickly.

The reflection phase is key for understanding and improvement. Analysing your actions helps you to understand the concept better and identify areas that were forgotten or need extra attention.

We are here on the programme to take action, to work with local entrepreneurs through our business frameworks, and pass on our thinking strategies. I am certain that we would have done a poor job of that if we had not taken the time to move beyond the learning phase, to practice implementing our knowledge and reflect on the experience.

After just one week on the programme I have already learnt more about business and entrepreneurship than I thought would be possible. However, there is one thing I have learnt from Balloon that I will transfer to all development areas of my life:

Learn – Practice – Reflect


Written by Ed Thomson, Balloon Fellows 2015