Posts Tagged ‘student entrepreneurship’
There are a lot of good reasons why entrepreneurship is SO HOT for young people right now, but for all the right reasons, there are just as many wrong perceptions. Number 1? Being a startup founder will not get you laid more. Unless you’re the Zuck.
Unlike aspiring to be a banker, a doctor or a lawyer, startups has this market buzz that makes it seem like it’s for anyone. It doesn’t matter if you have the grades, it doesn’t matter what you study, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. There are so many diverse success stories, it really seems like it is possible for just about anyone. There are more extreme examples like Chad Hurley and Steve Chen of YouTube, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Aaron Patzer who recently sold Mint.com, and of course the Zuck.
There are also social structural changes which are taking place, that I’m not fully able to comprehend, nor able to properly articulate. But trust that things are changing about the way young people are seeing the workplace and the idea of a ‘career’. And then there’s that whole economy screwing around with everyone.
So startups, being your own boss, being CEO before you’re 30. It’s all awesome, it’s sexy, as I blogged about a couple of months ago, it’s the new investment banking. But it’s actually not all about the sex, again unless you’re the Zuck, according to Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires. *N.B. In the book, Mezrich retells a scene of the first summer Zuck goes out to the Valley, hooks up with Sean Parker, who takes him to this one of the hottest clubs in town, at which, still a very awkward Zuck gets picked up by a Victoria’s Secret model. Yep. Zuck, he’s our man. Fiction, probably. Still cool, frick yeah!*
It turns out more often, observed from attending university entrepreneurship events especially, young people turn their attention to startups not because they’re interesting in solving a pain, not because they see disruptive opportunity, but because they’re passionate about having sex. More figuratively than literally. There are a lot of young guys out there handing out fly business cards, proudly calling themselves CEO even when it’s just a one-man idea. They’re hiring interns to make themselves feel better, and talking about raising money before they’ve even got any idea who a prospective customer might be. I know this first hand, not only because I’ve seen it over and over again, but because I’ve done all these things myself.
I now write this from the perspective of doing it the hard(er) way. Dropping out of college and moving out to Shanghai, my health is deteriorating because I’m not sleeping or eating properly, I’m giving up great jobs and good pay for no benefits and zero pay. I’m disappointing my parents who sacrificed everything so I could have an education, which I’ve now chosen not to complete. Sure many will say, I’m bitter that I’m just not successful. Which I’d half-agree, I’m definitely not successful, but I’m also not bitter. I genuinely love what I do, and I believe I can change the space I’m in. Startups take time. I always go back to one of my favorite Kawasakism’s; It’s not how small you start, it’s how big you end up.
It is about the passion, but it’s not about the sex. Especially when your girlfriend is half way around the world. Frick!
We have a lost generation of entrepreneurs. Not enough 20-somethings, or let’s even say under 35, have had the opportunity to see success at a young age and learn the important lessons of start-up leadership … When my partners and I tried to develop a list of today’s under 35 entrepreneurs who had started companies and seen meaningful success with them, it was a depressingly short list.
When I first started exploring the Boston startup scene, I was brash and arrogant. In fact, Scott Kirsner, publicly asked, “okay, you’re angry, what are you going to do about it” in response to a rant that the community wasn’t doing enough for young, first time entrepreneurs. When I asked James Geshwiler if he was committing Common Angels (he’s the Managing Director) to any support of young first-timers, he immediately went to quote the Kauffman Foundation report from late last year citing that the average ‘successful’ entrepreneur was 40. I used to get blindly frustrated at responses like that and wonder how were things ever to improve for young guys inspired to start interesting companies. But if you think about, it’s fairly logical right? 20-somethings can’t really be expected to launch, grow and run successful companies? A community or a society shouldn’t be supporting something that’s most likely going to fail?
Through my various interactions with people in the Boston startup community, especially with a lot of young peers launching companies, I started to wonder what really was the optimal age to start a company. A really close friend of mine took a year off from a top Boston engineering undergrad program to work on an education software-as-a-service technology. He and his team came up with something fairly interesting, but it’s a big project and startups are difficult. After much work, many lessons learned, he’s now back at school finishing off his degree, and ready to spend the summer at Google, possibly, and probably, leaving the dream of launching a company whilst still at school behind. Instead, he’ll probably go to Google after college, then to Harvard Business School a couple of years later. At that stage, he’ll have a bit of financial capital, be much more connected, and generally have far more knowledge to be in a much more optimal position to launch a great company. Am I sad that this would mean potentially one less young rock star Boston entrepreneur? Definitely. But do I think this is the right move for my friend. Most probably.
Given I haven’t started a successful company, am merely attempting to, I can’t properly answer the question in the title. What I will say is, without empirical evidence, there are a lot of early 20s (not to mention the freakish Mark Bao‘s of the world) in Boston, and I’m sure in a lot of other places, passionate about startups. There is an element of ‘it’s the cool thing to do’ (thinking back to the post Why for Students Entrepreneurship is the New Investment Banking) but there are more compelling fundamental reasons why the ‘supply’ of companies entering the marketplace founded by an early 20-something will increase by multiples in the next five years.
Is it best that a significant majority try and fail, but learn and try later in life, or are there solutions to this social phenomenon of young people going from lemonade stand to hiring their father’s friends.
Skimming even just the titles of my posts, beside the fact I write a fortnightly column for College Mogul, and the fact I’m both a student at Babson College as well as a co-founder and CEO of Blank Label, it’s fairly evident that I strongly believe the reasons why students should consider venture creation as a very real possibility whilst in college, and that why the auxiliary parties need to do everything possible to support those pursuits. So outside of my life at Blank Label, my one big passionate pursuit is directly in this field. But I probably should have found something that didn’t try and overcome two of the most proven difficult to overcome hurdles.
Open Gate Initative is the project that I’ve co-founded with Evan Morikawa, co-founder and CEO of Alight Learning, whose mission is to provide a highly interactive, collaborative platform for Babson and Olin students who share the interest in venture creation. There are a couple of key words in this that I’d like to highlight. First, the focus on ‘interactive’ and ‘collaborative’ is incredibly important. We’re a generation of people who are entitled enough to care very little for the incredible speakers we have access to, instead finding it non-specific if we’re being spoken to with any audience size greater than a dozen. We don’t turn up to lectures, why would we turn up to hear someone else talk when we’re not getting credit for it. Sure there is some inspiration value in hearing talks, but the truly inspirational ones are really rare. The focus on OGI will really be to get people thinking creatively together. It’s the intellectual stimulation of problem solving, the shared opportunity identification, and outrageous fun that will get students really thinking about venture creation. The other key word is ‘interest’. This is not the gateway for student entrepreneurs to be given more exclusive resources to make then high potential. Merely, for those with an interest which can be supported, catalyzed and encouraged.
Naturally the two biggest hurdles that OGI looks to overcome is i) creating a sustainable student organization and ii) bringing together the cultural differences of specialized business and engineering students. The first one is fairly obvious for those with any exposure to student organizations that go through roller-coaster cycles of good Presidents and bad ones, even more tumultuous than on the national level, that start with the best intentions and then just flop post the honeymoon period. The second is far more subtle, yet at the same time interesting to analyze. What we initially thought were fundamentally different approaches to venture creation between Babson students and Oliners we actually found to be show common traits of how traditional business people approached entrepreneurship as compared with creation-focused engineers. I’ll go into the observations in depth another time, suffice it to say there is polarity on a few different spectrums.
As OGI is rolled out in the coming weeks, I’ll keep everyone posted on how we execute and plan on overcoming said challenges, what the response and effectiveness is, and what lessons can be shared with other schools looking to cross-pollinate or that are multi-disciplinary.
Music whilst writing this post: Macy Gray Radio Station on Pandora
Before starting Blank Label, I was the co-Founder and Executive Director at Meeting of the Minds (‘MOTM’). If you clicked onto the hyperlink, you’ll notice that the website is terribly outdated, and that’s because it was my first startup, and I’d be the first to admit it failed. MOTM was a youth-based think tank that looked to bring together Sydney’s brightest young minds accross disciplines from Engineering to Science, Government to Business, to collaborate around topical issues such as Australia and Aid, Social Impact of a Rising China, Economic Conditioning. It was the opportunity for like-minded students to bridge the disconnect between Sydney’s large universities and share their passion, excitement, and mostly ambition for change. We started small, grew organically, started to make an impact, got some press, scored some sponsorship money, then flittered out in reverse order.
So when I came to Boston in February this year, I was excited to engage with the incredible intellectual capital of students the city is so famous for. Many from back home actually asked if I’d ever thought of migrating MOTM to Boston, but I responded being sure that there would be far better platforms for like-minded students to be collaborating independent of the silos of schools. Naturally being passionate about startups and venture creation, I went searching for student-centric communities and vehicles that brought together these (aspiring) entrepreneurs. My exploration led me to the Kairos Society which held an event at Tufts earlier in the year, bringing together student entrepreneurs from Tufts, Babson, Harvard and MIT. It was an enjoyable event, great opportunity to meet peers outside Babson, and hear an entertaining talk from Mike Michalowicz. There was a far more ambitious event in April, that went national, brought together student entrepreneurs from 17 schools around the country, meeting, sharing, collaborating and celebrating in NYC. That was four months ago, I haven’t heard from them since. And trust me, I’ve been listening.
Since then, I’ve explored the numerous Boston tech, startup and VC networking events. From Web Inno to Mass Innovation Night, Future Forward to Dart Boston. I look forward to exploring far more including Tech Tuesday and finally making it to a TiE event, but from the list, there isn’t really anything student-orientated. Now of course the logical quesiton is what’s the value of having something just for students, especially just undergraduate students. Well I’d like to think Scott Kirsner‘s on the ball with Innovation Open House, offering an opportunity to students to visit some of Boston’s coolest companies, and even the people who created them. The point is that it really helps nurture the Grey Entrepreneur, the one sitting on the fence, who with influence and environment will have their risk adversity eroded from better understanding what it’s all about, and at the same time develop their self-confidnce by seeing it in action, and seeing their same-aged peers going out and doing it. To have it focused on students is also important. We’re a terribly entitled bunch of people, who want something that speaks to us directly as consumers. Otherwise it’s going to be hard for us to hear you – probably because we’ll have your headphones plugged in.
Music whilst writting this post: Matchbox 20, Mad Season.
Having just spent the last two days in workshop titled Entrepreneurial Thought and Action (ET&A), I realized that I perhaps had a different interpretation of the word than most. At the start of the summer, I stipulated that entrepreneurship was actually a fairly narrow subset of broader population of creation. It was in response to philosophical (nice word for argumentative) conversations with my father on why traditional corner store or small business with little innovative principles should not be labeled entrepreneurial. It was not a solution looking for a problem, or just a middle-man opportunity, it was an Executing Innovative Solution. Now linguists would break down each word in that phrase, and I completely appreciate it’s all very subjective.
If I understood it correctly, much of the course of the purpose was to encourage entrepreneurial mindsets, and notions of affordable lose and taking the plunge. However starting with the Muhammed Yunus claim that ‘we are all entrepreneurs …’ lost me fairly early. Whether it be an academic institution or independent programs such as the one I attended, it’s incredibly important to find your purpose and then position. When you stretch out the definition of entrepreneurship too far, it loses its meaning, the purpose is too broad, and the audience finds itself confused.
This was slightly less of a problem in ET&A as it was far more of an intellectual exercise and fairly abstract in its practical applications. For the most part this is a safe play as arguments against the content become highly philosophical and incredibly subjective. My views of encouraging entrepreneurship revolve around the notion of The Grey Entrepreneur. It’s a fairly simple hypothesis that stipulates entrepreneurial educators need to create highly active, sustained environments that creates the ‘nurture’ element to an entrepreneur’s development in complimentary to the ‘nature’ elements.
It is difficult to do this on any short-term basis, e.g. two days at a workshop, or an incomplete environment, e.g. business school with a venture creation major, because entrepreneurs are ultimately still outliers in their way of thinking and in that development stage, if they are not in a sustained environment, the outliers will move back to the norm.
Presenting to a public audience rule 101, know who they are. That doesn’t change with the internet. I know who my community is in the physical plane, those in Boston who share common interests, are like-minded in philosophy, intersect in areas of expertise. The web, and this blog, allows my community to not be limited to my physical geography. And it helps articulate my thoughts perhaps more thoroughly than 140 characters.
Most of my musings will be related to my core areas of interest; i) understanding Gen Y dynamics, ii) venture creation, and iii) networking with unreasonable people. It will be a candid perspective of what I see going on with the consumers of Blank Label, the startup I dedicate my life to, my exploration of what it means to be an entrepreneur especially at the early stages, and my interactions with various interesting people in my journeying, mostly in the active Boston tech, startup, VC arena.
It’s my firm belief that all three are undeniably linked, and mostly in relation to the increasing supply of student entrepreneurs entering the marketplace and looking for substantial meaning as a value system in life. As Gen Y starts to become more prominent in corporate America, we’re going to feel displaced and dissatisfied at what we do after the initial honeymoon period. We find the corporate world stuffy, uninspiring, and a far cry for the action-driven activities we were involved with at school. Although I’ve only experienced limited amounts of corporate industry, a quick read of my resume will highlight that I probably stayed there long enough to hate it. And turning to venture creation as an outlet for something more meaningful is becoming a popular choice.
The economy isn’t THE reason for it, rather acting more like a catalyst. Now I’m naive and irrational enough to think that a team of undergraduate students can build a high-potential company, but I’m not stupid enough to think I can do it without the help of others. This is where networking comes in. Something I’ve noticed, although slowly changing, is that not many undergraduate students are being confident and proactive on the Boston networking scene. This is unfortunate because Blank Label’s been able to benefit a lot, including Board Advisors and press.
I really want to use this as a medium to share my experiences and lessons learnt from all three areas of focus. Making unoriginal mistakes is a terrible shame, and I’m a big believer in this school of thought that knowledge is never wasted. I don’t know how many people will find this useful, but in any case what I do know is that this will be an honest, sometimes brutally so, perspective of one young Chinese Australian’s journey as an entrepreneur in Boston.
Viewing Entourage s5 ep5 Fore! whilst writing this blog.
Inevitably the question of why you start a blog comes up under the title of ‘The First Post’. For me it’s a little different. I started my first blog on blogspot on New Year’s Eve last year, and I wrote semi-regularly, on a wide range of things. It was mostly for personal interest. I mean I enjoyed writing, I thought it was useful to articulate my thought process on paper, or in this case in code. I was then referred by a mutual friend to the gold folk at College Mogul with whom I’ve been writing a column every fortnight.
But one of my primary values in life is independence. Once there’s anything ruling over me, or a mandate I have to adjust to, I just get incredibly uncomfortable. And not the type of uncomfortable that I enjoy. That’s the uncertainty in everyday that I enjoy, the risk, the sense of the unknown. This is the uncomfortable that is genuine discomfort. Don’t get me wrong, I love the folk at CM and for the 3.5 people who probably read my posts on CM, minus the two friends I always make read it, leaving that 1.5 person reading it, I’ll still continue posting there. And to the credit of the CM team, with no thanks to me, they actually manage to drive around 10,000 uniques to my B.S. every month.
This blog is really for my ramblings, just the way I like them. It’s not supposed to be highly searchable and optimized, I don’t care too much if I piss off people or institutions I’m not supposed to, this is me giving it to you straight.
Music whilst writting this post: Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say That I Am, That’s What I’m Not.