A little under seven years ago, Kevin McCarthy, Greg Rogan and I – a bunch of naive 21 year-olds – began our pursuit of starting a digital media company. We had the basics that any founders need to succeed – heart, hustle and some interesting ideas. However, looking back, there are some things I learned the hard way that I think all first timers should be aware of as they get their start, and that I’d like to share.
While most of these things will still need to be learned the hard way for first time entrepreneurs, hopefully hearing about our experience will expedite the process for you.
I’m writing this post as part of the launch of BostInno’s Campus Innovation Series, which is our attempt to point students, alumni, professionals, and everyone else to entrepreneurship as it exists across Greater Boston’s many campuses. It includes both a guide for Boston students interested in entrepreneurship as well as a number of campus-specific guides. What launches today is just a start; we’ll be adding content regularly over the next several months so please check back. If you’re interested in partnering with us to sponsor additional content about entrepreneurship at a specific school feel free to email us.
1. You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.
When you first decide to start a company, I think it is really easy to get caught up in “pitch mode.” For most of us, we have an idea that we are very excited about. We see something that doesn’t exist in the world that we want to bring to life and we want everyone else to get as excited about the idea as we are. This is all fine and great, and as an entrepreneur you need the ability to get other people excited about what you are building.
However, I found that I would have been better off focusing my time on asking a lot of questions and listening to potential users, customers and investors early on rather than pitching the vision I had in my head. A lot goes in to making your vision become reality, and more often than not your vision will evolve, or flat out change, as you build your product and learn about your market.
If I were to do it over, I would spend my first 3-6 months asking people in the industry who they thought the most interesting companies were in the space, where they see the space going, who are the types of people needed to make a company in the space successful, etc. I would ask potential users/customers about their daily habits, what they need, what their favorite products/services are, etc. I would then take these learning to help guide the vision I then go out to pitch to the market.
2. Use your two ears, but listen selectively.
I have said this before in past posts, but I can honestly say that the hardest part about starting a company is figuring out who to listen to, what advice to take and what advice to ignore. The fact of the matter is that every successful entrepreneur has had to ignore some naysayers. However, it usually isn’t as black and white as people telling you “You will not succeed” or “Every aspect of your product sucks.” For the most part, feedback tends to fall in a gray area.
Throughout the years, many people liked our core team, but most people I talked to told me we needed key players in other areas, though they rarely were the same positions. I was told we needed a design talent, product talent, a senior operator, and even a “true CEO.” Some of this feedback was good, but some really wasn’t right for our company.
I had the same situation happen with product feedback. Often times people will see aspects of your product that they like but will want you to go in a very different direction. Some times they want different features than you have planned on your product roadmap. At the end of the day, you have to think very critically about who you are listening to and which advice you disregard, because ultimately some will be right and some will be wrong.
3. Learn how to ask for a favor.
I often to hear people telling first time entrepreneurs “don’t be afraid to ask for a favor” or even as far as “be relentless.” I would suggest that you learn how to appropriately ask for a favor. We all know the type of people who only reach out when they need something, and those people pretty quickly use up what good grace they may receive from others.
The best way to get a favor from someone is to do one for them. My rule of thumb: do two things for prior to asking for one in return. And beyond that, when actually asking someone for that favor, recognize they are going out of their way for you, say thank you and be grateful. It is amazing how many people forget basic manners throughout the course of business, and they really do go a long way.
4. Don’t take no for an answer, unless you should.
It is obvious, and a bit cliche, that you have to power through all the “no’s” in your pursuit of getting to a “yes” whether selling your product, raising money, etc. If you’re the type of person who needs convincing not to take no for an answer, you’re not going to last very long, so I am not going to spend much time on that piece.
For those of you who naturally don’t accept “no’s”, good for you! However, there are some times when someone tells you no for a valuable reason – you may be pursuing a path that is truly not right for you or your company and this “no” could actually be a blessing in disguise. Before blindly pushing forward, step back and really analyze who is saying no, why they are saying no and their circumstances – is this VC having trouble raising another fund? Is this customer having trouble with their own business? Often times an accepted “no” ends up leading you to a much better opportunity.
All in all, these things seem pretty straight forward, but nothing can substitute going through these things for yourself. So my final piece of advice for all the prospective student entrepreneurs out their would be to just start doing. If you are in Boston, there are a lot of people that want to help, so come and find us!