Archive for the ‘student entrepreneurship’ Category
a big advocate for the influence of environment, i find myself surrounded by first-time entrepreneurs because i find it useful to share notes, laugh about mistakes we’ve all made, and mostly importantly have a common naive belief we can all change the world. the statistical reality is that we all won’t. that in fact it’ll be well less than half of us. unfortunately that fact alone will put off a lot of people.
one of my favorite entrepreneurs, founder of pyramid digital solutions, blogger of on startups and co-founder and cto ofhubspot, dharmesh shah, once said, entrepreneurs should i) learn useful things, ii) meet interesting people, iii) make money, and if you’ve done two of the three, you’ve done okay. as a first time entrepreneur, this was especially pertinent. everyone knows founding a startup is a rollercoaster, in the morning you feel like you’re going to change the world, in the afternoon you feel your company has three weeks left to exist. in the lows i inevitably go through, i think about dharmesh’s point is well made. in the worst of it, i’m still so glad i’ve given this a go. my personal development as a human being, my learning curve as a business person has been so much better for it. i’ve had the most amazing opportunity to meet truly inspirational world changers. and thankfully blank label‘s started making money. but if for whatever reason if the last one wasn’t the case one day, no one can ever take the other two away from me.
[photo courtesy of tomdog, dharmesh teaching more useful startup lessons]
being in a student leadership position at babson, i get the good fortune of seeing and meeting a lot of students at babson and olin college exploring opportunities for their first entrepreneurial endeavor. they’re always concerned about their idea not being a big enough marketing opportunity, that the idea isn’t somehow sexy enough, that they’re somehow not going to make massive bank in three years. first i tell them that very few people make serious bank in three years. i also encourage them to pursue opportunities that they or someone they know and trust have the skill set to carry it out. but more importantly in my most cliched voice possible, i tell them to pursue something they’re actually genuinely interested in, or dare i say it, even passionate about.
balance of probability will have it that you’re not going to make bank on your first venture, but if you care about it, you’ll be active in it. with that, you’ll cross the biggest hurdle in a startup, and that’s the initial 100 day momentum, i.e. getting started. you’ll research, you’ll speak to prospective users, you’ll tell everyone and anyone you meet. you’ll meet the most amazing people, many of whom will genuinely want to help you. and you’ll learn so many useful things about so many different things, and arguably most importantly, about yourself.
it’s all about sex appeal, and it seems that the cash-poor, unglamorous, ramen filled world of startups has managed to overtake the steel and glass tall buildings, expense accounts and suit and tie life of investment banking in the eyes of college students. of course the first reaction most people while have is d’oh, financial crisis mr blogger? isn’t it obvious. they’ve probably already clicked out.
for those of you who haven’t, i want to engage in a conversation with you that suggests the fundamentals of why young people are thinking more seriously about getting involved in startups, either by founding one, or joining one early-stage, is more fundamental than the economy and the fewer job opportunities on wall street. When I threw away my aspirations to be an investment banking superstar (check out the loser on the left), I thought I was being some kind of rebel, but as most instance in my life, nothing all that special, just context. If you look around, you see a new breed of college student, people call us Gen Yers, Generation U, Millenials. At Blank Label we call ‘us’ Connected Individuals, and have coined the term #CONNECTEDINDIVIDUALISM. We’re impatient, generally needy, have been brought up fairly entitled, mostly in small families. We associate with independence, we see more young people than ever doing really cool shit. And that really cool shit is not making money off the buying and selling of others. Yes, that was a jibe at bankers.
But if you think about those characteristics as a generation we generally embody, a lot of them are closely correlated with why young people are starting companies these days. We’re giving the finger to the corporate rat race. We’re thankfully irrational enough to think we actually have a decent shot of founding a startup, I’m sure by serious of orders of magnitude if you measured what young founders thought their chance of success was vs what was realistic based on balance of probabilities, the economy would be seriously worried. Thankfully that’s a hard study to do. What the real catalyst driving a lot of this is the actual success of young entrepreneurs. Much of the reason why I wanted to go into banking is because peers who were a few years older were talking about the six figure salary, the friday night open bar parties, the ass-kicking intensity. This was all incredibly sexy to me. And amazingly, sex appeal is important to a young 20 something year old male. With the growing list of young rockstar entrepreneurs spread around, the attention has turned to being sexy by starting a company. And think about the ego rush of a young person hiring someone older than them. Damn! And the king of them all Zucks is getting a freaking movie made about him!
Entrepreneurs south of 30 will always be a minority in comparison to those who spend time as academics or research experts, those who get corporate gigs, and those who just want to spend their time surfing. Everyone’s different, everyone’s passionate about different things, and I fully respect that. But there’s no doubt in my mind that this generational group of entrepreneurs has been growing over the last 10 years, and will grow at an even quicker rate in the next 10 years. Make no mistake, I am not qualifying necessarily massive hits from young entrepreneurs, only that more young people are founding companies or getting involved in startups. What this really stresses is that there’s an amazing opportunity for schools, government and the investment community to seriously change the impact young people have the future of the world, and it’s amazing how large an impact small tweaks can have.
the last two days have been significant to me because it’s the first time in the 15 month history of blank label that we made revenue on two consecutive days. i should also try and put the 15 months into context. this was a 15 months were i did almost everything wrong. i’m a guy, who only 24 months ago, was certain that i wanted to spend the rest of his life in the corporate rat race, aspiring to become an investment banking superstar. i knew nothing about technology, knew nothing about supply chain/fulfillment, knew the wrong things about e-commerce. as a ‘business guy’, i was supposed to understand strategy. what strategy? the learning curve is steep, being analytical is useful. i have my parents to thank for a good work ethic, my mother to credit for being somewhat sociable, and my father to blame for the genetic flaw of being in love with risk taking.
now besides the fact that for the last 15 months until yesterday i had no real idea of what i was doing, and today i think i’m even more lost than i was yesterday, the 15 months have to be discounted for ‘school months’. it hasn’t really been ‘serious heart and mind’ until probably a few weeks into the summer where i wasn’t distracted by settling into a new country, meeting new people, being fascinated by a white powder falling from the sky, covering the grounds. since then, i’ve really discovered a new sense of commitment, more profound than anything else i have in my life previously. being closed into a high volume of aspiring student entrepreneurs at babson and olin college, it’s actually interesting to observe the relatively strong reverse correlation between gpa and business traction (especially revenue). both schools have a policy that they teach ‘entrepreneurial thought and action’ which is a nice way to say that it’s okay if they don’t produce entrepreneurs out of college, it’s more important that they teach students how to think ‘entrepreneurially’ for the rest of their lives, i.e. something that’s vague and impossible to track. but this is not the place for such a dialogue. in any case, treading the borderline of passing and failing as never been better for business, and i only wish i had realized this earlier.
so if you haven’t caught on yet that blank label had our lean launch on saturday, yes we were working all day halloween (in fact i was getting text messages around 11pm from our chief interweb builder as i had finally started to relax and thought i could enjoy a couple of hours of my first halloween). of course there are errors, and yes there are bugs, and we know about the glitches, but we’re real, and i can’t tell you how good a feeling that is. wow! i highly recommend it. but being in the real world also brings in real world implications, real world responsibilities. these next few weeks are going to be absolutely crucial for us. the last thing we want to be is the one night fad that didn’t capture any momentum. we have to be smart with our analytics, we have to spread out our publicity traffic, we need to keep building and fixing, we need to make sure fulfillment is executed without any delays. is it strange that all these challenges sound awesome to me?
The combination of events and experiences of the past three days have really typified how much life has started to evolve for me by putting myself in the right environment. The tales of the past three days will live in my memory for some time yet to come.
4am; We get some shuteye as Babson Forum starts early in the morning.
8am; Alarm goes off and I jump out of bed. Strange given I usually snooze quite a few times before actually rolling out of bed. But this is a special weekend. Dinesh and I run to Samuel’s room to wake him up.
9am; I catch the second half of Helen Greiner‘s story on the journey of iRobot. I catch her in the foyer afterward and re-connect (several months previous I had asked a semi-stupid question to a panel she sat on).
10am; Catch Alan Webber, founder of Fast Company magazine, again in the foyer (reaffirming that conversations in the foyer in between talks are the best thing about conferences), talk about young entrepreneurs making moves in Boston, especially about his appearance on Dart Boston the previous evening.
11am; Watch a panel with Gail Goodman, Chairman and CEO of Constant Contact, Kevin Colleran, tenth employee of Facebook, and Gary Vee, social media rockstar, moderated by Barry Libert, Chairman and CEO of Mzinga. Gary Vee, as expected, is a rockstar on the panel, and catching him for a couple of minutes afterward only confirmed this.
12pm; Have lunch on a table with some Babson entrepreneurs, Kevin Colleran from Facebook, and Mark Atkins, Chairman and CEO of Invention Machine Corp, talk about all sorts of crazy things. We then listen in on a keynote talk by Doug Otto, Co-Founder and ex-CEO of Deckers Outdoor Corp (UGG Boots), after which I wait inline patiently to speak with him, pitch him Blank Label, to which he responds he’s totally into mass-customization and that I have to follow up.
2:30pm; Watch a panel talk from three Babson alums, Matt Lauzon, Lin Miao, Francesco DeParis, and one current Babson student, Chris Jacobs, who in the past three years have all been in BusinessWeek’s Top 25 Entrepreneurs under 25. Catch up with Matt and Lin afterward. Chris lives in E-Tower with me.
6:00pm; Attend a Babson Hall of Fame Dinner which is nice, but I start falling asleep during dinner, even though there are talks given by Carl Schramm, CEO of Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and insanely wealthy alumni, Matt Coffin. Have interesting chats with Babson alumni, especially IdeaPaint founders.
10:00pm; Go to pub with Francesco DeParis who is also at dinner and a few other Babson students. See Jeff Katz, producer of Freddy vs Jason, Snakes on a Plane, X-Men Originals: Wolverine, there drinking at the bar, he comes up to E-Tower, we drink and smoke, and I get inebriated with a young Hollywood producer.
3:00am; Pass the fuck out.
10:00am; Wake up to a hangover, check through work emails, feel bad for the team, especially our CTO who was working till early AM.
11:00am; Walk out to E-Tower lounge to an awesome champagne breakfast for Babson Parents Weekend. This helps the hangover.
12:00pm; Go to work to make sure we’re still on target for launch on October 31, reviewing web designs, examining photorealistic rendering of our shirts, touching base with a few prominent bloggers in our space.
5:00pm; Get news from SP, code name for wicked smart, founder of one of Boston’s most exciting, venture-backed startups, that he’ll be hanging out with me for the night, talking about Blank Label, and then partying at one of Olin College’s biggest parties of the year. Clap my hands. Keep working.
8:00pm; SP comes around, we chill and talk, I introduce him to a few E-Tower folk. He gives me a major mind fuck about how I’m running Blank Label, walk away with some really honest and priceless advice. ‘Mistakes are good, just don’t make catastrophic ones’.
10:30pm; SP, a couple of E-Tower crew, and I rock over to Olin. Close friend, Evan, runs up to me and asks, is SP really here. Holy fark! SP is amazed he can have beer in solo cup, and yet still have deep conversation with party goers on why Python is awesome. Welcome to Olin.
2:30am; Many drinks later, me having ‘met’ a really nice Wellesley girl, and the both of us generally having had a really great time, SP and I walk back.
3:30am; After some late night chatter, we both pass out. Yes, SP is crashing at my place. Ridiculous.
8:00am; SP wakes up almost in panic. ‘When I woke up to silence, with no humming sound of servers, I thought, holy shit, our servers have crashed. And then I realized I was here. I usually sleep at work in the server room.’
9:30am; A little more chatter later, SP leaves E-Tower after a bit of a whirlwind visit.
10:30am; Weather sucks balls in Boston, but we need to do a photoshoot. Scramble to think of somewhere where we have good lighting. Manage to scrap something together. Models, product and photographer ready to go. Have a great time.
2:00pm; Smash out some work, follow up with contacts I met on Friday, still thinking about the mind fuck SP gave me the night before about how I was running Blank Label.
4:00pm; Spend two hours and three times too long on a six page paper on a ‘Managing a Growing Business’ case for class.
6:00pm; Catch up with Samuel about crazy weekend, and pretty much promise each other that there’s no way we’re going back to Australia. Us ending up here has been fateful and it’s up to us to fulfill our ‘destiny’, coincidentally both our designated religions on Facebook.
8:00pm; Have weekly Sunday evening call with folks at home, typical conversation where Mum and I do most of the talking and Dad just chimes in really matter-of-fact questions.
9:30pm; Great back and tris workout.
11:00pm; Shower up and get ready for long night between work and studying Brand Management mid-term.
Paul Graham, Founder of Viaweb and Y-Combinator, assimilates the life of startup founder as one who is punched in the face on a daily basis, but being a foreign, student entrepreneur, I’ve got it perhaps even a little bit worse than that. On a day like last Thursday, all those hurdles, all those challenges, they just melt away. I’ve been in a world, Sydney, where thinking differently about creating jobs rather than looking for jobs is looked at with some confusion. Then there are the other international students, not just the ones on exchange, but also on a four-year program, who look at me with bewilderment when I tell them I think I’ve found a home in Boston and I want to create wealth here. The fact that I’m a 21 year old also puts some people off. But last Thursday, that didn’t matter.
It was taken for granted that if you came through the Sun Microsystem doors, by the Terrafugia car with wings, you were smart, interesting, definitely worth having a conversation with, and probably worth helping. How often do you go to an event where you genuinely feel everyone, experienced/ unexperienced, young/ old, foreign/ local, would be intellectually stimulating, conversationally enjoyable and probably very useful. The most concise I could put my experience of the day is in a timeline, otherwise I will continue to go on about how good it was in forty other ways.
7:00am – turn up and get registered, deliberate over who I want to sign-up with
7:20am – meet Will Herman (Innoveda and Viewlogic Systems) who reached out to me before the conference (crazy, yes) and chat about Blank Label and basic technology issues
8:00am – sit in on what we’re going to do for the day, and how everything runs
8:30am – try to grab a couple of bites to eat, look at the topic board and frantically trying to plan my day
9:00am – one-on-one with Mike Grandinetti of South Boro Capital (and four previous start ups) to talk about Blank Label and spending time in Canada due to visa restrictions, tells me he’s going up to Toronto for meetings in a few weeks and I should join him
10:00am – short conversations with Scott Friend (Bain Capital Ventures) to give Blank Label update, James Geshwiler (Common Angels and Mass TLC) to talk about student entrepreneurship, finally meet Jer Levine (Star Street) after tweeting many times
11:00am – quick chat with Brad Feld (Foundry Group and Tech Stars) about situation and #startupvisa, try to get the inside scoop
11:30am – check emails, tell Profs that I’m not going to class that day, try and shovel food down
12:00am – one-on-one with George Bell (General Catalyst and awesome dude) about his crazy youth traveling around Australia, my background and how he could help me as an entrepreneur
1:00pm – attend my first session of the day by Richard Dale (Sigma Partners and Phase Forward) on ‘All the Bad Things VCs Want to Do with You’
1:45pm- one-on-one with David Beisel (another great guy) to talk about mass-customization space and how we’re trying to attack it at Blank Label, wanted to help out, stay tapped in and find a spot for us on Web Inno
3:30pm – sit down with Don Dodge of Microsoft (and four previous start ups)
4:00pm – attend Bill Warner’s session on ‘How to Launch Your Idea with No Money’
4:30pm – wrap up, say good-byes, and begin the drive back in preparation for live-stream interview on Dart Boston a couple of hours later
BEEP, BEEP, BEEP. SMACK! Alarms goes to snooze. KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK. Door opens. ‘Fan, get out of bed, it’s already 6. We need to go’. I jump out of bed. Sleepy eyed, Samuel and I go down to the zipcar, we pick up Chris, and we begin our day, leaving Babson carpark, sleepy eyed, yet an unbridled enthusiasm as all three of us have printed off an ‘Experts List‘. Chris is a co-founder and CEO of an early-stage on-and offline toy startup, and a sophomore at Olin College of Engineering. Samuel lives with me in E-Tower at Babson College, where he is exploring different startup opportunities whilst being study abroad from his home university, RMIT, in Melbourne, Australia.
We begin the drive up to Sun Mircosystem’s offices in Burlington, bragging who we’re going to track down during the day, whilst all being a little overwhelmed at the caliber of people in attendance. Along the way, we pickup Danny from Bentley, who works with me at Blank Label as the Lead Traffic Controller (SEO, SEM, Copy, Social Media, Social Networking, Affiliates, Direct Marketing). At 19 (Chris), 19 (Danny), 21 (Me) and 23 (Samuel), we’re probably going to be four of the youngest people there, but that gets us excited. We all approach our entrepreneurial ventures as the start of the next 50 years of starting, sustaining and growing companies.
As we walk to the entrance, it’s gatekeeper is the newest model of the Terrafugia car with wings. This is going to be a good day. As I walk in, I see some friends of the Boston events community, Scott Kirsner, Michael Gaiss, Matt Lauzon. But there is something different, they’re not surrounded by three circles of people waiting to ask questions. Amazingly, they’re just standing around, looking at this ‘board’, like everyone else. Like everyone else. But they’re not, ‘just everyone else’. What’s going on. But before thinking about that too much, I’m distracted by this ‘board’ that everyone’s standing in front of.
I quickly find out that I have two stickers for one-on-one meetings with this extraordinary list of ‘Experts‘, and everyone’s fair game. I’m Charlie, Bill is Willy Wonka, and I’m in the most amazing chocolate factory I’ve ever been to. But it’s the paradox of choice, I must use my stickers wisely. I jump for Mike Grandinetti. Not only has the guy got about the same number of LinkedIn recommendations as I do connections, he’s also internationally experienced, definitely something I’m interested in exploring in the next 50 years. One left. I remember reading that George Bell likes to meet ‘scary smart, high-energy people’. Now anyone with an ego gets attracted to that. There are no wrong choices.
But the people weren’t even the most amazing thing about the day. It was the culture Bill was able to create. As soon as you walked in the doors, there was a flat structure, everyone and everything was fair game. In the opening introduction, everyone sat in a circle, there was no, experts on stage and the rest in the audience. Bill made it so passionately clear that it was about doing everything possible to help educate, connect and stimulate entrepreneurship and innovation. And the guy just has such a presence about him that it’s kind of hard not to do exactly as he says.
That’s only part 1, I’ll wrap up part 2 in a couple of days. Stay tuned. It gets so much better.
Wrapping up a busy summer at Babson’s Summer Venture Program, there were your expected results from a three month incubation; some startups were able to get from idea to alpha prototype, some were able to go from private beta to generating revenue. What was unexpected, at least to me, were how much the teams grew with interns and part-time student hires.
Of course a serious constraint of any student startup is the lack of time to execute and bring to market your product. I’m all for Ferriss like efficiency, but the reality that I’ve experienced is that it simply takes a lot of man hours to get a startup from idea to product to market to growth. So what’s the logic?
- Need 1,000 hours to build this web app, and we’re aiming to get to market within 10 weeks
- Founders only have 25 hours each to dedicate per week outside of school = 500 hours total by week 10
Besides the fact that it’s probably going to take 1,500 hours because everyone ALWAYS underbudgets time for web apps, you think you’re going to need three interns to punch out 10 hours a week (total 300 hours), but that still only brings you to 800 hours by week 10. So let’s bring on another intern (100 hours), and then outsource components (120 hours), bringing you to 1,100 hours. You think you’re being smart by overbudgeting by having that extra 100 hours
The thing that I saw as consistently as growing teams was the decay curve of efficiency as each team member was added. So you’re not actually getting quality 1,100 man hours. You’re getting far less. From disengaged interns and disconnected outsourced developers you’re probably getting closer to 600 quality hours. It’s basic economic dimishing marginal returns. That’s in addition to having founders who are often over-achievers, still wanting to excel in other parts of their domain, i.e. still be top of their class, be President’s of the most respected clubs, etc, and are restricted to so many man hours on their startup.
Even if that isn’t the case, sometimes the notion of growing a team is just so appealing. I know Blank Label definitely suffered from that. When Max, co-Founder, exited the business, I was determined to build a team. There was a revolving door of interns, and then a zoo of sales reps on commission, developers all across India and Eastern Europe. And I’d make two fundamentally devasting mistakes every time. I would get out the worst part of any relationship, at The Dip, the most challenging part, but just before you’d start to experience some real value. And I’d always underappreciate the overhead management time which would cripple me from driving the business forward.
My lesson: Have as few people on the team as possible, doing the most amount as possible. You cannot afford to have a 20-80 rule in a startup. It will kill you, and your startup. And Stay Lean —> Build Less, Fix Time and Budget, Flex Scope
When in writing, Getting Real by 37 Signals sitting by my side for inspiration.