University Startups and Spin-Offs: Guide for Entrepreneurs in Academia (2015)
Part I. Strategies for University Startup Entrepreneurs
Chapter 3. What Does It Mean to Be a Startup Entrepreneur?
Thanks to the movie The Social Network, we now all know what startup entrepreneurship is like.1 Late night hackathons in the house in Silicon Valley, half-empty pizza boxes and shot glasses everywhere, groupies, parties. We lost a few friends on the way, but there is still the billion dollar paycheck at the end of the road. It would be nice if this were true. Unfortunately, it is not—unless you are Mark Zuckerberg. Entrepreneurship is fun, but rarely the sort of fun shown in the movies. More the fun of solving a complicated chess problem. Or the fun of writing a beautiful mathematical equation. Or combining many agents who seemed unconnected into a springboard for your product.
At this point, I encourage you to stop for a minute and think about your motivations for startup entrepreneurship. Are you seriously dedicated to making this work? Or is the startup more of a convenient strategy to stay a little longer at your research institute after your postdoc has run its course? Do you just want to find out what it is like to dabble in entrepreneurship, with no plan to see the whole affair through? Ask yourself the inconvenient questions at the beginning. Be aware that unless you have a strong motivation, it will be hard to enjoy the fruits of your labor, in terms of both experience and success. I believe that everybody has entrepreneurship in them. That’s why I encourage you to give it an honest try.
Entrepreneurship is taking place on a global stage today. Right this second, millions of startup entrepreneurs are thinking about how they can take market share from somebody else. They are hungry, scratching and clawing their way into the market with little or no capital. They are fueled by Top Ramen, sleeping three hours a night in their parents’ basement (at age 35), with no other choice than to make their startup work. You need to know that launching a successful startup is no cakewalk. It also has little to do with a lottery that you can play passively and hope to win the jackpot. Honestly check your own motives and those of your team before you charge forward. This chapter is not meant to dissuade you from entrepreneurship, but you should understand what you are getting into before you dedicate time and resources to this rewarding but demanding challenge.
You may have guessed it by now—there is no quick fix to launch a startup. There is also no secret sauce that only the chosen few have. Viewed from a distance, entrepreneurship is just a persistent movement toward a certain goal. The road is winding, and you only see the short distance right ahead of you. By taking one step after the next and adjusting your course, you will eventually achieve the goal. That’s it. This chapter discusses some defining characteristics of entrepreneurship and some loosely defined ground rules that distinguish entrepreneurs from non-entrepreneurs. Some of those may be unexpected because they are different from commonly accepted business advice. They come primarily from my personal observation and experience, with no claim to be contextually exhaustive. Think of this chapter as a conversation with someone who shares his personal viewpoints about the mindset required to become an entrepreneur.
More Management Than Creativity
Contrary to public opinion, entrepreneurship is nothing like going to the casino and betting everything on red 13. It is more perspiration and management than fun and games. Creativity is important, but long stretches of running a company have little to do with that. In other words, startup success lies less in creative planning and brainstorming and more in doing and taking action. Many nights are spent diligently managing delicate issues, evaluating data, and troubleshooting. Researchers have an advantage, because they are familiar with meticulous documentation, statistical testing, and reporting their findings. This can be a considerable asset over the college dropout who has a great idea but few tools and no patience to work with data. Startup entrepreneurship has a great deal to do with tinkering. Getting it right the first time is nearly impossible. Make sure you have the energy and flexibility to adjust your course when you see that improvements are necessary.
Here is another popular view of entrepreneurship. A team has decided to launch a startup. Before they can do so, they need to brainstorm for months about the perfect product. Finally they hit on a brilliant idea, which they carry out over the following months by endlessly laboring in their top-secret lab. They get feedback from MBAs who help them create the perfect business plan and marketing plan. With the perfect product and the perfect plan to push it into the market, they are prepared to conquer the world.
I certainly thought this is how it works until I launched my first startup. However, it is an outdated notion of product development, which arose in the paradigm of mass production that held true during your parents’ lifetime. Today’s model is lean production, which Chapter 4 explores in more detail. As a startup, you need to first come up with the simplest test product imaginable to see how potential buyers react to it. We explored how to do this in the previous chapter. You can build your MVP in a few days, with little brainstorming and planning. When you get positive signals, you continue and improve the product. If the signals are negative, you change course, tinker with the product, or invent a new one. You do this until you have proof that enough people in the market need your product and will pay for it. Then you are ready to launch it. Because you tested it in every upgrade cycle, you already know which market segments want your product. Advertising and marketing costs are minimal and draw on pull factors, not push factors. This requires diligent market testing, recording data, managing progress, and keeping track of your overall goal. With creativity alone, this is impossible.
Many additional aspects of startups need management. For example, angry clients, or the lack of clients altogether. A neglected spouse. Concerned parents. These require management skills and perhaps some creativity, but mostly they just need to be handled. When there is a founding team, even more politics and psychology enter the mix. Perhaps one co-founder has lost faith in the startup and wants to exit, but still wants to share in future gains of the invention he helped pioneer. If no paperwork exists, then this can quickly become a sticky issue. Or you may receive a cease-and-desist letter from a lawyer in a far-off land, stating that you are infringing on patents X, Y, and Z and are hereby notified to immediately stop any and all business activity and contact her firm to negotiate damage compensation. Dealing with such issues is most unwelcome, delicate, and a huge time waster. You can only master them if you draw from a well of strength, fueled by your own conviction that you are on the right path. Per aspera ad astra.2
Succeed Turtle-Style, Not Kamikaze-Style
Discipline and self-motivation are extremely important for entrepreneurs. Forget about the cliché of the entrepreneur who is finally his own boss, spends most of the time on the golf course, and wanders into the office once in a while to make certain profits are still rolling in. The other cliché of the workaholic who only got her startup off the ground by working 24/7 also is inaccurate. Both of these are extremes—the real-world experience lands somewhere in the middle. Although it sounds good to work hard and play hard, this is rarely helpful in the long term for entrepreneurs. It is better to adopt a disciplined, slightly boring lifestyle to get things done. Putting one foot after the other every single day will take you to the finish line faster than quick sprints with much exhaustion in between. Binge behavior, even if it is good behavior, such as staying up all night to solve a problem, is rarely helpful in the long run. Discipline yourself to adopt healthy, sustainable habits. If you are older than 30, you know that staying up until 6 am three times in a row will take a toll on you. You will achieve your milestones faster if you warm up to the idea of getting to the finish line turtle-style, not kamikaze-style.
Willpower vs. Self-Confidence
What about self-confidence? Isn’t that also vital? It is true that those who have good self-esteem are more likely to act on their beliefs than those without. But research has shown that pep talks in the style of “You can do it” mostly improve a person’s ego instead of their performance.3 On the other hand, if you develop long-term willpower, you are much more likely to achieve success. This is also essential for universities and their advisors. Little good will it do their startup performance if they hire motivational coaches or engage an expert to give a talk once in a while to fire up the students. Sure, an interesting afternoon will be had by all. But the effect on the bottom line will be questionable. It’s better to help startups by providing practical support such as a hands-on startup coach or longer-term advisor who is living proof of the entrepreneurial attitude required to succeed.
Time management is another important skill. Most successful entrepreneurs are always working, when they are working. Get the most out of the time you have available, especially if you can benefit from the well-equipped research laboratory or other infrastructure at your university. Make sure you use it thoroughly while you’re at it. Being an entrepreneur occupies a different paradigm than being a student or staff at a university. The sense of urgency that a startup introduces is often foreign to the daily business of research institutions, which mostly run on their own time. When you launch your startup lean, time will take on an entirely new meaning for you. It is critical to keep your momentum going, so you cannot afford to waste any of it. Stop procrastinating. Stop wasting time. Stop spending time with those who do. This may mandate some radical strategies, because not everybody at a university is goal oriented and on a timeline.
Dealing with disruption is a good skill to learn. First, avoid disrupting your own flow. Of course, stay off Twitter and Facebook when you need to get something done. Avoid compulsively checking your e-mail or other messaging platform. Always being connected is addictive. It is also damaging your concentration. If you wish to improve your time management, turn off all toys that may ping you any second. Answer your phone just one hour in the afternoon, and make this known on your voice-mail. The same applies to your e-mail. You may even want to block out time on your calendar for replying to messages. I know this all sounds extreme and strange. If you have enough time during the day, a few instant messages here and there will seldom make much impact. But if you are on a mission and are strapped for time, then these habits are the first that have to go. Shut them off for one day and see what happens—this frees up a surprising amount of concentrated time.
There are also many distractions beyond your control. In each office or university department, there are always those with too much time on their hands who will begin a conversation with you and then ramble on endlessly until stopped. They are rarely willfully wasting your time but are simply unaware that for entrepreneurs, time is money. If someone has made it a habit for a decade or more to stop others in their tracks and tell them about the latest thing that happened to so and so, then this behavior will be difficult to shake. However, entrepreneurs should beware of those who interrupt their flow. After each interruption, even an innocent text message ping, it takes about ten minutes to get back to the level of focus you had prior to the interruption.4 If you are already in a conversation with someone via messaging or e-mail and engage in a purely administrative task at the same time, the impact of the disruption will be smaller. But if you are in deep thought about your strategy, brainstorming a thorny issue, or just getting in the flow with some good ideas coming, then even a harmless smiley face sent to your phone can have devastating effects. You will lose your train of thought and may never regain it.
Assume you get six unexpected text messages a day: one each hour. In addition to the time you spend responding to these messages, they will cost you about 1 full hour of fully focused work during the day—7 hours per week, about 30 hours per month. Think about all the brainstorming and MVP testing you could complete in that time. Now, what if you get a total of 60 messages per day, including text, e-mails, and instant messages, each of which you address immediately? You may get some routine work done, but your focus and concentration will be subpar most of the time. That may be fine if nobody competes with you, but entrepreneurship demands as much concentration as practicing martial arts. Postpone interruptions until your free time, and avoid all of them during your work hours.
In addition, I strongly recommend that you go on a low-information diet from time to time, as recommended by author Tim Ferriss.5 Unplug yourself from all media, including news, TV, blogs, e-mails, messaging, phone calls, and so forth. Celebrate selective ignorance for a week, and you will find you have all the time you need to accomplish what you thought was impossible. You can easily do this while working on your startup. Just announce to everyone via voicemail and e-mail autoresponder that you will be unavailable for the next seven days. Most people will think you are on leave and will postpone their questions until you return. Meanwhile, some pressing issues lose their urgency or turn out to be unimportant, and you will never know they existed. When you return to the plugged-in world after this one-week media fast, you will see how stressful all the disruption going on in most people’s lives is. It will take you a while to adapt—but before you know it, the Matrix will have you back. If you need more time in your life, remove the things that waste it. It is as simple as that.
I recently worked with a startup team on the lean canvas. Some good ideas were flowing until about an hour into the session, when somebody appeared and asked for “just five minutes” of one of the founders’ time. The discussion took place in the room where we were working, so this distupted the whole group. There was some confusion about a certain unknown webmaster, who might have failed to update some content on a web site about a project. Finding this webmaster proved difficult, so speculation started about who he was and where he might be at present. Perhaps he was on holiday? Or perhaps he had left for his home country? Or perhaps it was the entrepreneur himself, but he couldn’t remember? Or perhaps … This took fully ten minutes, with no conclusion to the matter. I sat there, flabbergasted. Why couldn’t this have waited until later? Clearly, the interrupter had no plans to willfully disturb our session, and I love her dearly. Yet the effect was devastating. After this incident, the group never achieved the previous focus and flow. This was a pity, because such consulting sessions are rare, and they are exactly what bring entrepreneurs forward. Five more minutes of focused attention can make all the difference: they can result in a breakthrough about the business model or a solution to a certain problem. When you need to focus, hide where people cannot find you. Make it a rule to turn off all phones, and ban tablets or laptops on which people may otherwise read their instant messages or book a flight while you are trying to work.
It is difficult to avoid all interruptions, but you should try to minimize them. When others interrupt you with unimportant requests or gossip, the following strategies by author Dan Kennedy have worked quite well for me6:
Someone: “Have you got a minute?”
You: “Sorry, but I’m extremely busy today. We can meet at 4:45 pm for 15 minutes and tackle everything on your list at one time.”
Or even better:
Someone: “I need to discuss something with you.”
You: “I am extremely busy right now and can only deal with tasks that are either a nine or ten on a scale of one to ten. Is this a nine or ten?”
Stop Being Late
An often-overlooked component of time management is punctuality. Although it may be OK among students to be academically late, business people, bankers, and other entrepreneurs value their time above all else. As the saying goes, “Those who cannot be punctual cannot be trusted in other ways either.” Nobody will inform you that you should be on time more often—they will just categorize you as someone who is habitually late and untrustworthy. Or even worse, they will not meet you again and will never do business with you. Avoid this at all costs. Being late is rude (both in business and private matters).
When I lived in Los Angeles, one of my neighbors was a retired rock-star guitar player from a famous 1980s band. For 20 years, he had toured the world, flown around in private jets, and lived the good life. Just as with entrepreneurship, his lifestyle actually had very little in common with the Hollywood version of stardom as all chaos and mayhem. Celebrities have a tight schedule and must show up on time. They can only do this with iron discipline and serious planning. Whenever I met with this neighbor for coffee, he would suggest an odd time like 9:10 am or 3:25 pm. It later occurred to me that he was running on a schedule partitioned in slices of five and ten minutes: 9:10 am meant 9:10 am, not 9:15 am. In those five minutes he could have done something else, and time is money. Do you think someone like this would give you another meeting if you were 15 minutes late? There is no need to be that extreme, but you get the point. Make it a rule to be extra punctual to all meetings and gatherings.
Startup entrepreneurs should be experts in bootstrapping. As mentioned before, I think the best way to ruin a startup is to give it a lot of money. This may sound illogical, but I have seen it happen firsthand with my own projects. The ones that eventually turned profitable always limped along on limited private finances for a longer time than I would have liked, then slowly turned profitable, and then accelerated along the “hockey stick” (see Figure 3-1). Because the changes are exponential, it is impossible to spot them at the beginning. Over time, as they compound, growth reaches the upward sloping part of the hockey stick and explodes.
Figure 3-1. The hockey stick
The flat part is necessary in order to iron out the business model, market approach, and financial model. Last but not least, you gain clarity about whether you and your co-founders wish to continue this venture. The groundwork for your future business success starts in the tough times of the flat hockey stick. The accelerating part is when you experience the fun and payoff. Without the flat part, long-term success will be impossible. If your goal is just about making a quick buck, then entrepreneurship is the wrong avenue. You need to learn important lessons about your venture and about yourself first. These insights will last you a lifetime.
The learning experience that comes with entrepreneurship is another reason having wealthy parents or early funding is a disadvantage for the bootstrapping entrepreneur. It steals the thunder of being inventive and robs you of the ability to make do with little or no means. A successful serial entrepreneur I know had an incredible drive in his first self-funded venture, launching product after product in a 24-hour release cycle. After selling the first startup in the low nine-figures, he embarked on his next tech venture, which immediately attracted multimillion-dollar venture capital. But instead of losing sleep fretting together with the team about ideas for the next MVP, he phoned in from the racetrack (he had taken up sports-car racing) and only showed up at the office once a week. The entrepreneurial fire was obviously gone. The venture did OK, but it was a mere shadow of the first company. Early funding puts you right in this second category. You lose your edge over all the hungry entrepreneurs who must make it work on a shoestring. If you are really interested in learning the ropes of entrepreneurship, there is no way around experiencing the long, flat part of the hockey stick.
Ideally, you should wrap the initial stage of your startup into an existing engagement, such as an ongoing research commitment or postdoc. It is best to start with hypothesis testing without having to scramble for a roof over your head. Most universities are open to letting their research teams start a business with their ideas, and they even encourage them to do so. If you are straightforward about your plans, others will support you. Make sure the university is on board with your idea. Then use its infrastructure 24/7.
Make a Good First Impression
I cannot stress enough how important good manners and being presentable are in business. Startup entrepreneurs play in the league of the business world rather than the academic world. They should therefore adopt the style that will brand them as businesspeople. Yes, Mark Zuckerberg wears flip-flops and a bathrobe for meetings with venture capital firms, but he is probably the lone exception. Extremely few entrepreneurs have been able to engage other companies, investors, and venture capitalists by dressing down and celebrating the student image. Of course, nobody asks you to wear a suit and tie to your lab. But how about a polo shirt instead of a t-shirt? That simple shift alone can make a huge difference. You can still wear tennis shoes, but they should be clean, without holes. By all means, wear something comfortable, but please do not show up in your pajamas. If you dislike wearing a business suit, fine. Wear dark jeans or khakis and a dress shirt. Or a longer skirt and a blouse. Please, leave the athletic pants and the Adidas flip-flops at home. You never know when unexpected visitors will drop by, and you never know who they may be. They may be distant descendants of the royal family, looking to invest in a university startup. You never know when a government delegation may tour the building, and you will have the opportunity to give a little presentation about your current development. Not only will you make a better impression, but you will feel more on par with the people you present to. When you feel underdressed, you lack the confidence to inspire others.
A brief word about language. For some reason, in some parts of the world, it has become fashionable to use obscene language in everyday conversation as if there was nothing to it. If you are an entrepreneur, this is not for you, because you wish to be taken seriously by the business and investor community. You may think this advice is overly conservative and patronizing. However, the majority of businesspeople and those in decision-making positions at venture capital firms will appreciate it if you refrain from using gutter language. They may use this or that word once in a while themselves, but their language is generally cultivated.
The tricky part about language is that you may think you can adjust easily to different settings depending on who you are talking to. Unfortunately, this is not true. As soon as you establish some rapport with other people, you will drop your guard. If you normally use profanities, they will roll off your tongue without you noticing it. Just as with being late, nobody will tell you to please watch your language. But they may subconsciously feel that your startup still needs more development, or that they preferred another entrepreneur who made a more professional impression. Give third parties as few reasons as possible to reject you. One of them is proper language. No need to emulate Prince Charles but f-words and any derogatory language have no place in business.
I once introduced a friend in Los Angeles to an attorney I had worked with previously. I thought she might be interested in an invention my friend was working on. So I set up a lunch for the three of us to see if there was some common ground. Having known my friend for a while, I had somewhat gotten used to his rough language and liberal use of f-bombs. Naively, I assumed that he would control himself in a business meeting. Was I ever mistaken. F-bombs were flying in the chic cafe in Venice Beach, over seared ahi tuna salad and sugar-free ice tea. F- this, and f- that, this f---ing m-----f---r, what a f---ing idiot, and so on. He talked himself into a frenzy. In his view, people were out to get him, and they should all be f----d. This was obviously the first and last time I introduced this guy to anyone. Not only was his behavior blatantly rude, but he also sabotaged himself—and it reflected terribly on me. You cannot tell a grown man in front of others to watch his language. After he left, I had to profusely apologize to the lawyer from Beverly Hills, who commented that the guy was quite intense, in her own words. That introduction led nowhere. My friend failed to get his project off the ground. And the next one. And the one after that. It’s a pity, because some of his ideas were good and could have taken off. By all means, do not be that guy.
In addition to avoiding gutter language, you should avoid speaking negatively about others. Think twice before you talk down about your competitors in their absence. In fact, never speak ill of anyone, except to their face. Recounting the calamities that have happened to you is also unattractive. Avoid stories about how you were sick over the weekend and spent most of it in the bathroom. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes: would you like to spend time with someone who mainly speaks about things you would rather never have happen to you? Or would you prefer someone with an upbeat outlook on life who sees the opportunity in everything? By no means am I advocating that you fashion yourself into a careless Pollyanna. But there exists a magical balance between being a realist and having a positive outlook. Start observing the impact it has on you when someone won’t stop telling you about their problems and mishaps. It creates a climate of negativity that drags everything down. It’s better to see the bright side of things and avoid dark topics. This makes a better impression on others, especially in your first meeting.
Doing Business Abroad
If your university has a campus in a foreign country, then you may already be familiar with the idiosyncrasies that different cultures bring with them. Asian cultures in particular often stump the American or European visitor with their many intricacies. As a student, consequences of severe mishaps may be minimal; but for an entrepreneur, a misstep can break your venture. Business culture is rigid in some countries, whereas it is relaxed in others. Become familiar with the business etiquette of your locale. As a foreigner, nobody calls on you to do everything right. If it seems as though you genuinely care, then you are in the green and small mistakes will matter less. There are numerous books about conducting business abroad. Read one about the country where you are a guest. Even if you think you already know everything, the dos and don’ts may surprise you.
A key custom is the act of greeting. Each country has its own protocol. Some religions may forbid a man to shake a woman’s hand. People may dislike it if you hug them cordially. But others will find it strange if you refuse to participate in the ritual of three kisses on their cheeks. Familiarize yourself with the greeting protocol if you engage with partners from a foreign culture. It is usually easy enough to ask someone before the meeting about how things will unfold. You can then copy what others do. It has always been a good practice to wait on a handshake until the other party extends their hand. If they don’t, then you do whatever they do: either bow or nod.
The same goes for food. You will rarely have an important business lunch or dinner where table etiquette is so exotic that you are at your wit’s end. Most lunch meetings are informal. But occasionally you may unexpectedly find yourself at a banquet. If this happens, copy what everybody else is doing. If you are being served food, then let that happen, without refusing any of it. Nobody expects you to eat everything that is put before you, but rejecting food is seen as very impolite in many cultures.
A few years ago, a company of mine entered in a joint venture with a Japanese company. When the business relationship was forming, the Japanese partner flew my firm from Los Angeles to Tokyo for a week to hammer out the legal agreements. One of the partners in the American business, let’s call him J, had a tattoo of the Chinese character “love” on his forearm. This may have been cute in Los Angeles, but in Japan, only Yakuza and other delinquents bear tattoos. Foreigners are often unaware that a tattoo reflects badly on the person in Japan. In the Japanese view, tattoos violate the body, and they are a reflection of low self-esteem. In a negotiation, you obviously need to make the best impression possible and come from a position of strength. To negotiate with Japanese businesspeople is tricky enough, to say it mildly. The last thing you want is the other party perceiving you as flawed and weak. I advised J of that and suggested he wear a long-sleeved business shirt to cover the tattoo. Knowing he had a stubborn personality, I doubled up and sent him an article from a book that explained the problem. With that, I considered the issue closed. Fast-forward two weeks. We are seated in the conference room in Tokyo: three people from my company on one side of the table, five older Japanese businessmen on the other side of the table. Negotiations are not going well. The Japanese repeatedly say, “Just sign the contract!” That contract contains blatant flaws and is a long way from I want for my business. But most important, J’s tattoo is shining brightly for everyone to see. Not only that, but his cowboy boots and the rolled-up sleeves of his flannel shirt give the impression that he comes right from the farm in Ohio. He certainly made his point that nobody can tell him what to do with his tattoo or what to wear. Yet how can a settled Japanese businessperson in a tailored suit consider a person looking like a farmhand an equal partner in a joint venture? I certainly am no micro manager. But dressing properly for a business meeting is a basic requirement when negotiating a contract. After much wrestling, the deal eventually came to pass, in the least elegant way possible. The business later turned sour, and I exited before it tanked. I am not blaming that on J. However, the foundation for a strong future of that joint venture was missing. It could have started in that first meeting, had the other party taken us seriously.
This concludes the crash course in manners. Read a book about business etiquette, and you will be all right.
A Mindset, Not a Job
Entrepreneurship is much more a mindset than a job. It is about finding openings and possibility where others don’t. If you look at the world through the entrepreneur’s eyes, you will suddenly see many opportunities that you previously missed. Opportunities to get feedback from others to assist you in moving your idea forward. Opportunities for partnerships that open new platforms for you. And opportunities to save money wherever you can. You can be entrepreneurial in any line of work, not just as a startup founder.
The main point is that an entrepreneur needs to switch from being a consumer to being a producer. What does that mean? Producers have new ideas, come up with innovative solutions, and launch products and services that consumers cannot live without. Consumers benefit from these ideas: they need the new solutions and buy the products or services the producers offer. Of course, everybody is both a producer and a consumer at the same time. On balance, however, an entrepreneur should be more producer than consumer. This is a tricky topic, and by no means is this a value judgment. But it is important to understand that startup entrepreneurship shifts you from the consumer side to the producer side. This is intuitively clear, because a startup produces a product or service for the benefit of clients in the market. You provide a product or service instead of consuming one.
This shift is fundamental and will eventually seep into other areas of your life. You can no longer take the easy way out, but have to meet challenges with leadership. Instead of blaming others for a botched job at your company, you must now take on full responsibility, because there is no one else to point fingers at. Instead of trying to carry out a task, you must deliver, whatever it takes. Instead of partying the whole weekend and calling in sick on Monday, you must be a professional, always ready to pull the trigger when a lucky chance presents itself. It may be inconvenient, but if it helps get your startup off the ground, you should jump on it.
As an entrepreneur, you are always on. Most people are no startup entrepreneurs and are firmly rooted on the consumer side, so making the switch is difficult. Why do you keep talking about business when everybody else is trying to forget the day at the office after five o’clock rolls around? When you see your startup as a mission, then there are no business hours. It takes willpower and determination to stay the course. Otherwise, you may miss an opportunity that could potentially launch your venture into the stratosphere. To adopt an entrepreneurial mindset, it is of course very helpful to surround yourself with other entrepreneurs. These are your peers, from whom you can learn by osmosis. When you have access to a supportive group of businesspeople, then over time you will see how they do things and approach certain situations and learn what it takes to get your startup off the ground.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
As an entrepreneur, you must learn to be open about life and its opportunities. These often present themselves in the least likely places. What do you do if a project is only somewhat in line with what you can or want to deliver, but it has the potential to get you closer to a company you would like to enter a joint venture with? By all means, take on the project, even if doing so is a little uncomfortable at first.
One day, a casual acquaintance from a business workshop called my company in Switzerland and asked me to put together some documentation for a certain sound system for a store his architecture firm was working on. This had little to do with the core business of my company, but sound systems are a hobby of mine. I did some research, called a manufacturer to order a catalog, and then sent everything to the architect. With this documentation, he went to meet his client. Rather unexpectedly, I then received a phone call with a request to calculate the exact cost of the system. So, I made another call to the manufacturer and created a table in Excel. I thought of this as nothing but a favor to another businessman. A week or so later, the architect called me excitedly and congratulated me on landing the project. What project, I wondered? It turned out that his firm was remodeling the stores of a mini-supermarket chain, which wanted to install sound systems in each store. Because the documentation I had put together looked professional, he was under the impression that I was a dealer of these sound systems. His client approved of using the system I had researched and wanted to order it from my company. Well … sure, we could deliver that! All I had to do was ask the wholesaler to drop-ship a system to each location. Local electricians then carried out the installation under the architect’s supervision. My company’s markup on each system was $1,000. There were 500 stores in total. Feel free to do the math.
When I met this architect, did I know that he would turn out to be an important business contact who would eventually secure a substantial project for my company? Far from it. I had never thought about collaborations with architects, but I was curious to find out about his projects in the workshop where we met. The conversation went well, so we exchanged business cards. At networking events, you can always learn something new and meet people you would rarely otherwise be exposed to. Networking events are more than a free buffet and a chance to pick up girls. When you launch a startup, you have graduated to adulthood and should see networking events in a new light. I know, it can be uncomfortable to introduce yourself to strangers. Making small talk is also not my forte. Nevertheless, if you make it a habit to get out of your comfort zone regularly, you will acquire an important skill for success. Your university may put on some sort of catered event for a delegation from industry or the government. Instead of loading up your plate and then huddling around a table with your fellow researchers, do something different this time. Look for a table with just a few people, and introduce yourself. Ask what brings them to the event, and find out what they are doing. Exchange business cards. Tell them about your startup and the current insights you’ve had or the challenges you are struggling with. Ask for their feedback and whether they may know someone interested in your technology. Make outrageous demands. Do they perhaps know an investor or a joint venture partner for your startup? Or would they be willing to assist you with testing your MVP? See what happens. You never know what will come out of these encounters.
Building a strong network is important for the future of your startup. You may meet someone in a few months who could benefit from a casual connection you made last week at a networking event. Once you have connected with enough people, you can begin linking them up with your existing network. This is fun to do and will do more than benefit those you introduce to each other. When you need somebody’s help, you may also tap into their network. Before you know it, you are part of an active exchange of contacts and ideas. And all this happens because you leave your comfort zone once in a while.
Read and Improve
Most successful entrepreneurs are voracious readers. They constantly read books, publications, and the news to keep on top of what is happening in the world. This concerns topics beyond existing domain knowledge, about which I assume you are already an expert. Knowledge is power, and startup entrepreneurs need all the power they can get. You need to expand your horizon with knowledge from outside your field of vision. In addition to absorbing all the information you can to solve your current challenges, also read books that have no obvious application to the situation. If you need to find a solution to an issue with a certain material, then do the required reading along with a biography about Nicola Tesla. Far-flung ideas may cross-pollinate the problem-solving process, and they may originate in the least expected places. If you read one sentence somewhere that holds the answer to a pressing problem, your life may change forever. You cannot expect to have that one sentence presented to you on a silver platter. To distill the wisdom that is useful for you, you need process large amounts of information yourself.
It is surprising how few books people read after their college years. Even some smart people proudly announce they have read the last book a decade ago. Sure, they may browse the news online, scan some RSS subscriptions, and academic publications here and there, but systematic reading with the goal of massive knowledge acquisition is rare. Not among the successful entrepreneurial elite, though, who practice it as a daily habit. By the way, I am not talking about reading novels, but nonfiction books. Imagine you read one such book each week. That would be 52 books in a year. Quite a sizable library. I doubt most people read 52 books in their entire life. Here is a knowledge advantage you can gain in a single year. With speed-reading techniques you can read two or even three books per week. That amounts to a whopping 156 books by the end of the year and 1,560 books after 10 years.
The reason I prefer books to other written material is that you enter a conversation with the author. It takes about one year to write a complete book. Considerable research and knowledge condensation go into the process. The author recounts many experiences for your learning pleasure. When you read a book, you absorb a whole year of somebody’s work. With speed reading, you can assimilate in one year what 156 people took an entire year of their life to compile. This 156X multiplier is incredible leverage.
Whenever I read a book or a research paper, I make a summary. It consists of bullet points and some of the most important drawings or graphs from the book. At the end of the summary, I do some quick brainstorming about how the ideas from the book are applicable to my current circumstances. I strongly encourage you to do the same. Even though it is extra work, you will benefit hugely from having summaries of what you have read. It enables you to review your reading later and quickly look up the most important ideas. Who has ever read a 400-page book twice, or three times? I revisit most of my summaries at least once a month so they stay fresh in my mind, ready for use when I need ideas. When you have your own summaries, you can also share them with others. Exchange summaries with like-minded individuals. When you progress along your entrepreneurial journey, you will be surprised to learn that many successful entrepreneurs are doing exactly this and have done it for years. Only the relatively passive mainstream prefers watching TV to knowledge acquisition.
To become excellent, you should avoid all things that make you mainstream. When you are picking up new, positive habits, they rarely seem to make a big difference at first. But over time, when your efforts compound, you will pull away increasingly quickly. After several years of knowledge acquisition, there will be a huge gap between you and the mainstream and a much smaller gap between you and successful entrepreneurs. To achieve success, you need to do the things that successful people do. Reading a lot and putting that information in context with your situation is just one of them.
Then there is the subject of self-improvement. I know, you may think this is soft and only applicable for esoteric types. But all successful people engage in one form or another of self-improvement. Perhaps adopting a new positive habit, like getting up at 5:30 am every day. Or learning a new language just for fun. Or improving their working memory with N-back programs. They do little things each day that push them a bit. Self-improvement is much more than meditation and yoga. If you go to the gym regularly, that’s a form of self-improvement. If you deny yourself that second piece of cake, that’s another form of self-improvement. And if you read a book every day for 30 minutes, that’s also self-improvement. This has little to do with seeking enlightenment, but with adopting positive habits. When those habits have become part of your day like brushing your teeth or taking a shower, they have the power to help you achieve your goals without even thinking about them.
So how can you get in the habit of reading more to accelerate your learning? Begin by scheduling daily reading sessions. Make a regular, recurring appointment at some time during the day to read a nonfiction book for 30 minutes. Or put the item on your daily to-do list. It is in your own best interest to follow through on this commitment.
Get Used to Big Numbers
When you manage a business, you must begin getting used to bigger numbers. What does that mean? Well, if your profit margin on each product sold is $100 and your potential market size is 1 million, then that will amount to $100 million in profit. Can you imagine such a number? Yes? Good. Feel free to skip this chapter. But you may feel slightly queasy when talking about capitalist concepts like profit, margin, and sales revenue. You may think $1 million is an enormous amount of money. If anyone asks you about your revenue target in five years, you may feel uncomfortable if it is more than $5 million. If this is the case, you are not alone. Startup entrepreneurs rarely come from a background where they received early education about money. The financial literacy of most people around the world is limited. If there is more month at the end of the money, then they notice that they have overspent; otherwise, budget planning has no mindshare.
Financial intelligence has nothing to do with IQ. The smartest people can make terrible financial decisions. And some people who have never gone to school have amassed fortunes. Nobody expects you to become a financial planner or financial analyst, but you should at least get comfortable with bigger numbers. When you deal with corporations, you will notice that they have another definition of revenue and cost. Hundreds of millions may be cheap for a corporation, compared to their other overhead.
Once upon a time, a company of mine was working on a project for an airline. Our contribution was small, but the entire project, handled by a large consulting firm, cost several million dollars. We thought our part should be worth $30,000, because it only involved a limited engagement for a week or so. The big meeting took place on the top floor of the client’s corporate headquarters, right next to the airport. The decision maker and his staff sat around the conference table in tailored suits and silk ties. When the time came to approve the budget, he addressed me and asked, “So, about your budget item here. This is in addition to your other $30,000, am I correct?” Somebody must have made a mistake and entered our fee twice in the overall budget. Honest as I am, I cleared up the confusion, only to notice a hint of disappointment on the face of the airline man. Oh, I see. It’s that cheap … I am sure those were his thoughts. To me, $30,000 hardly seemed little at all. However, the airline man would not have blinked had that fee been twice as big. It might even have been OK to charge $100,000.
Budget items need to make sense in relation to other items. If all the other items are $100,000 or more, then yours should be in a similar range. If the overall budget is several million, then adjust accordingly. But wait a minute, you say. You would charge a company twice the cost that another company paid, just because their budget is higher? Yes, absolutely. Your markup should adjust to the capability of the market. Price is a result of the ability and willingness to pay and has little to do with the manufacturing cost of the product or service. This is called price differentiation in economics. It is what hotels do all the time. Booking directly on their site may cost 50% more than booking on a discount web site. It is the same room—the only difference is the margin a particular customer is willing to pay. What if you sell a product with a fixed price? Then you will always have a dominant market to which you tailor your margin. If you cannot sell your inventory, that’s when you begin reducing the price and your margin. As a rule, choose a market that can pay a high price for your product or service. Marketing to them and delivering the product takes the same effort as catering to a low-cost market. As a startup, you should attempt to extract the highest price you can. To do this, you have to think in large numbers.
Many startups project their future revenues way too low. If you believe you will hit $3 million in sales in the third year, then you are thinking too small. Look for markets and business models that will allow you to make $100 million, $500 million, $1 billion. This market size is interesting for joint venture partners and investors. Do a little research about other companies. Speak with some investors. Read books about how venture capitalists think. Watch the movie Wall Street.7 Direct your thinking toward larger numbers, and seek out projects that can help your startup gain momentum. If you provide a service and a project pays just $1,000, seriously think about whether you should go ahead or decline it. If it puts you in the same room with people who could help you land bigger projects in the future, that may be a reason to take a bath on the first project and then engage the client toward larger projects. If you can wrap some MVP testing into the project, that may be another reason to accept a low-paid assignment. But steer clear of making this a habit. If you keep doing small projects, then you will always be the small-projects company. Clients will rarely consider you for larger projects, because you have pigeonholed yourself into the inexpensive category. Your work should never be inexpensive or cheap. Abandon clients who think it should be. Nobody wins when you set the sights too low for your startup.
80% Specialist, 20% Generalist
How often have you heard the following phrase? “Only do what you are an expert in, and outsource all the rest.” This is a common pattern for businesspeople, but it misses the point of what startup entrepreneurship is all about. Sure, you should avoid wasting time with tasks that someone else can do much better, faster, and for a lower price. Should Tiger Woods mow his own lawn?8 He spends a lot of time walking around on grass and may therefore have profound knowledge about the dimensions of a golf course. Tiger would most likely be more efficient with a lawnmower than a normal gardener, but his opportunity cost is much too high to be doing that. In the time it takes him to mow the lawn, he could earn a million dollars doing a photo shoot.
Despite the economic concept of opportunity cost explained with this classic textbook example, you need to know how to pull yourself out of a sticky situation or deadline when there is no help around the corner. Therefore, being ignorant about anything outside your expert domain is a bad strategy for a startup entrepreneur.
Recently, I was working on a project where we had five days to prepare a 40-page printed and bound brochure for an investment proposal. A decision maker on another continent needed this information, so the deadline was firm, and the presentation determined the future of the project. This may not sound like much. But since that project had started, about 100 folders with countless articles, diagrams, summaries, and PowerPoint presentations had been accumulated on three people’s hard drives and Dropboxes. The founders now needed to revisit everything and pick out the most important bits. The brochure had to measure up to others whose teams had spent six months getting everything right. If you have ever put together an annual report, then you know that this usually takes much longer than a week. We had five days to condense all the information, write an executive summary, and make a professional layout in Adobe InDesign. A printer would then bind three copies of the brochure, which had to look glossy and flawless. Somebody knew a graphic designer who was available on such short notice, who flew in to do the layout. Straight off the plane, she raced to the office on Thursday morning, where we put her in front of a PowerBook that was preloaded with all the assets and had the layout software already running. The deadline for the printer was Friday noon, 26 hours away. Let the fun begin.
Many unforeseen issues arose. The first was the keyboard of the computer. Because the designer was used to a foreign layout, she found our PowerBook with the QWERTY layout very confusing. Luckily she had her own machine with her, so all the assets were hurriedly copied to her hard disk. In the transfer to her laptop, which had a different software version and was missing some fonts, settings in the file were changed. The layout template looked completely different from what we imagined. That was the moment when it became apparent that the designer was much less proficient in working with the layout software than expected. Sure, she had done motion design and stunning Photoshop and Illustrator work, but laying out a brochure was a first. With 20 hours to go until the deadline, it dawned on us that this would be anything but smooth sailing.
On Friday morning at 11 am (one hour before the deadline), the file was still unfinished. Working around the clock, the designer was in no shape to spot errors and typos. One of the founders sort of knew his way around the layout program, so he troubleshot the most blatant issues right in the printing company’s office. With everybody hunched around the computer screen, pointing out a missing image credit here or a wrong description for a graph there, the file finally went to print. Five hours later, we picked up the bound brochures. They looked like a million bucks and were soon on their way to Europe. The goal was accomplished, just in the nick of time. Nobody who saw the final product would ever know that it was up in the air until the last second and only came together thanks to lucky circumstances.
Do you believe this would have worked out if the founders had concentrated on the high-value task of concepts and product development, and let the designer deal with the supposedly low-value task of the layout job? For the entrepreneur, the high-value task is getting the job done, whatever it takes. In this case, it meant knowing how to use that layout software and staying up to motivate the designer to keep the pace. Finishing what must be done takes the mindset of a generalist, and entrepreneurs must put on more than one hat. From this viewpoint, the notion of outsourcing everything but the tasks with the highest payoff is terrible advice for a startup. If you care about nothing else than your one area of expertise, you will be at a disadvantage when things veer off course, as they often do.
It is difficult to identify which tasks are of high or low value in the first place. Is touch-typing low or high value? I have seen too many C-level executives desperately trying to knock out a 100-word letter with two fingers when their speech recognition software refused to work. How about basic web design and using WordPress? When an important potential joint venture partner asks you to forward your online documentation to her team, it may be impossible to hire someone to set up a web site for you in an hour. Make sure you know your way around more than one thing. Diverse skills can help you directly and can create considerable goodwill for you when you get others out of a tight spot. This is why constant learning and reading are so important. Become 80% specialist and 20% generalist. You will rarely need your generalist knowledge every day, but it may come in handy when you expect it least.
How to Learn Something New
Did you learn something new in the last month? A few words of a new language, juggling, or how to stay under water for more than 60 seconds? Life is learning, so the saying goes. If you think learning stops after your graduate degree, then you are missing many opportunities right in front of you. Curiosity and an open mind are indispensable for entrepreneurs. You should make it a habit to acquire new skills at all times. This benefits you personally—plus you never know when you can help somebody out of a bind with a skill you possess.
A splendid example of an easy-to-learn skill is touch-typing. Most people believe this is unimportant, because they can always hack their way through a paper using two fingers. Speech-to-text software is also often used, and it makes the keyboard unnecessary. As long as the software works, that is. When you can type fast without errors, you can translate your thoughts into the computer at such speed that a new world of possibilities opens up for you. You can blog about your company and your progress, write manuals or reports about MVP testing you did, or write a book about your trials and tribulations as an entrepreneur. If typing is a dreaded activity you would rather outsource, then you will subconsciously try to avoid anything that has to do with it. If rapid new skill acquisition sounds intriguing to you, and you still type with two fingers, then I recommend you put touch-typing on the top of your list.
Wait a minute, you say. What about the 10,000-hour rule? Author Malcolm Gladwell found that experts in their domain practiced an average of 10,000 hours until they achieved world-class levels. Studying prodigies like Bill Gates, Tiger Woods, famous musicians, and chess grandmasters, Gladwell found that none of them were geniuses when they started out. Only after about ten years of single-minded, deliberate practice of their chosen skills did their hard work pay off. Ten years equate to about 10,000 productive hours. The rule states that mastery in any field requires 10,000 hours of practice.9
Research has shown that success comes down to deliberate practice much more than innate talent. Even prodigies like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart produced dismal works in their early years. Only after diligent study were they able to reach the status the world knows them for.10 With this in mind, it seems as though you could never learn anything new that you would not be mediocre at. Who has ten years available to engage in single-minded study of just one skill? At the same time, many people learn languages well into adulthood. They pick up a complex game like golf long before they put in 10,000 hours. There is no need to compete with Tiger Woods on the golf course or with Mozart on the piano—just play well enough to have fun.
Author Josh Kaufman found that a minimum of 20 hours of concentrated, deliberate practice is necessary to feel the first improvements when learning a new skill.11 By putting aside 1 hour each evening for 20 days for deliberate practice, you can improve any skill you set your mind to. The word deliberate is important. Just reading about a subject does not count. Nor does attending a seminar about it. A passive activity is not deliberate practice and does not qualify toward those 20 hours. Most of us forget what practice means after childhood. If you learned to play an instrument well, then you know what deliberate practice means: endless repetitions of the most difficult part of a piece of music, under the watchful eyes of a teacher who criticizes your every mistake.
Applying this kind of practice to new skills is key to becoming good at them. When you can manage that, you will be able to pick up a new skill with acceptable results within 20 hours. You will be able to show some ability, but you will hardly be a master who can compete with the best of the best. For most of us, this is unnecessary. Being good enough at a skill to avoid frustration is all we want.
I recently learned touch-typing while I was in Vietnam. I had my own typing system before, using more than two fingers; but without looking at the keyboard, I failed to produce satisfactory results. Replacing this haphazard system with professional ten-finger touch-typing was as simple as blocking out one hour each evening for typing practice for 20 days. Using software to learn typing, I can now produce 70 words per minute with few errors. Sure, this is a far cry from the world record of 216 words per minute. However, it is plenty to write this book without frustration and exhaustion. Touch-typing is the ideal first skill to learn in 20 hours. I recommend you look into it.
Begin getting into the habit of practicing new skills regularly. As you saw in the specialist/generalist discussion, there are various useful skills that startup entrepreneurs should know. These reach beyond intellectual or computer skills. Also pick up fun skills like riding a unicycle or kickboxing. Make it a habit to be enterprising and curious, instead of passive and withdrawn. Be interested, to be interesting. Just like the knowledge you will gain from reading extensively, your newfound powers will accumulate over time and build on each other. That takes a while, so you need to start early to reap the benefits later. You need to practice several years to be an overnight success.
Who to Turn to for Advice
Entrepreneurship can be a confusing and lonely affair, especially when your environment consists of people with a strong need for safety and predictability. These may be your professors, fellow students and researchers, parents, friends, and significant others. Asking non-entrepreneurs for their opinion about your startup and advice to solve certain problems can be frustrating. Not only do they lack the experience to actually help you, but there is also the risk that they will (subconsciously) try to dissuade you from your plans. They have never started their own company and probably have nobody in their circle who has, so they are hardly the right people to call for advice. Of course, please keep your old friends. Enjoy their company and have a good time with them, but look for qualified startup and business advice elsewhere.
The same goes for the experts in commercialization at your university, the technology transfer or licensing office (TTO or TLO). By definition, they are thinking about patents when it comes to commercializing research. If your startup has no patentable assets, they will be at their wits’ end. In the rarest cases, will they admit that. They may point you toward the grant track and government agency XYZ, which has been set up to guide young entrepreneurs in the “correct” direction. Someone at the TLO may have taken a crash course in entrepreneurship at a seminar. However, because that is purely theoretical, you may as well read a book—you will know just as much. Good intentions are at the root of most of the current support programs, but startups that take off have seldom gone through these conventional channels. If it was that easy and predictable, there would be many more successful companies coming out of academia and government programs, don’t you think?
When you meet venture capitalists and other investors, inquire about their practical experience and their track record before you ask them for entrepreneurship and business advice. Have they ever started their own company? Has the company achieved profitability? No and no? Then think for yourself why you should trust their advice. It is perfectly OK to ask direct questions like these. When a venture capitalist becomes serious about investing in your company, they will grill you about anything and everything. As a rule of thumb, ask yourself why people are doing whatever they do. If they could run their own successful company, they probably had better options than working somewhere 9–5.
Successful entrepreneurs are much better qualified to guide you than anyone else. Seek out other successful startup founders in your city or country and become friends with them. Use the Internet to connect if there are no networking events or meetups in your city. Make it a point to upgrade your personal network. Exchanging ideas with other startup founders and established entrepreneurs is stimulating and inspiring for you and your team. Most entrepreneurs, myself included, are happy to give advice if they feel the person asking for it has drive and motivation. They recognize earlier versions of themselves in people who ask them questions. Openly approach other entrepreneurs and ask if they can give you feedback on your ideas. Most of the time they will accept, and a new friendship may be in the making.
Why Even Bother?
By now, you may have decided that launching a startup is interesting but too invasive in your life and hardly worth the hassle. Perhaps you hoped you could somehow start a new business on the side without much effort. Why bother, if it is so grueling and uncertain? Why not simply take on a cushy position at a university? After all, that is what everybody else is doing, so it cannot be that bad.
Sure, the temptation to give up is there. When things are on the rocks, it will become even stronger. Regardless, be aware that real change always originates from a determined entrepreneurial mind. Entrepreneurship is pretty much the only way for anyone to have a chance to change the world. Working as a researcher may lead to groundbreaking insights, but rarely do they find their way into the lives and hearts of people. Teaching at a university may instill certain knowledge in motivated students, but it is by starting your own company that you can make a real impact. Not everybody has to reach for the sky and try to make their mark. It is perfectly OK for most people to work a normal job, enjoy the weekends with their friends and family, and lead a quiet, comfortable life. There is nothing wrong with that.
However, you may lie awake some nights with the gnawing feeling there should be more to your life. You notice the lack of a deeper mission and purpose. You feel you are on a treadmill, failing to live up to your potential. You wonder if you are making enough use of your talents and your energy. Your work at the university never leaves the ivory tower and has no impact in people’s lives outside academia. Later you fall asleep. The next morning, you have largely forgotten those silly thoughts, which you blame on insomnia and stress. But they return—regularly, and at shorter intervals. What to do in this situation is unclear to you, because the necessary changes seem so sweeping and impossible that you better forget about them. Does this sound at all familiar?
Not everybody asks these questions, but chances are you do, because you have picked up this book and are still reading it. If you feel you should make better use of your talents, then launching your own company may be the answer for you. Your deep understanding of a certain technology can find its way into a useful product with the power to transform lives. How about giving your mind the platform to express itself fully and make an impact in the world at the same time?
There is a whimsical Japanese movie by Akira Kurosawa, called Ikiru (“To Live”).12 The protagonist, Watanabe, has spent the last few decades in a government agency where he has advanced to the respected position of section chief. His work consists of little more than stamping papers and shuffling project proposals from one desk to the next until they disappear into a drawer. One day he receives devastating news: he has stomach cancer. He will die within the next six months. Watanabe wakes up to the fact that he has done nothing important with his life up to this day. He sets out on a search for meaning and makes it his mission to see through at least one project: a proposal to turn a festering sewage pond into a park. This proposal has been repeatedly submitted by residents who suffer from the sewage pond near their homes, but it is sent from section to section, and the government does not intend to take action. But this is no longer how Watanabe does his job. He scratches and claws his way through the bureaucracy, through a thicket of complacency and corruption, up to the highest positions. Most of his colleagues think he is crazy and will never prevail. Against all odds and through sheer will, Watanabe makes it work. He eventually dies a happy man in the park he helped create.
A friend of mine recently confessed that she thought there was nothing left to discover. All the important and fun adventures had taken place already. The discovery of new continents, the flight to the Moon, were all checked off the list. Of course, she would quit her job as a stockbroker and become an entrepreneur, if she could only find a satisfactory field for her startup to venture into. Clearly, this person had set her sights on the Hollywood version of entrepreneurship.
Most people think the status quo is how things are and should be for eternity. When the world was flat, there was no need to sail past a certain point in the ocean. Yet somebody did and induced a paradigm shift that set a whole new ideology in motion. None of these discoveries were fun and games. The voyages of Christopher Columbus took many years of preparation, tedious politics, and fundraising alone. Not only did the monarchs to whom he sent his plans to discover the western route to India believe them to be impractical, but they also doubted Columbus could possibly succeed. Many had tried before, so why should it work this time? When he finally secured permission and funding for his expedition, the dangerous part of the endeavor began. Three days into his first journey in 1492, the rudder of his vessel broke—a potential act of sabotage. Then his crew allegedly grew so homesick that they threatened to sail back to Spain. It was unclear whether the indigenous people Columbus might encounter would be friendly toward foreign visitors. Had Columbus’s primary motivation been the fun and potential honor of the project, he would have given up after the first few weeks.
Fun and prestige are weak motivations to launch a startup. You should feel a burning desire to explore, learn, and make an impact in the lives of people who find your startup’s product or service useful. This is often little more than a feeling deep down that this idea could potentially be big. When you have this feeling, I encourage you to follow it, using the list in Figure 3-2 as a guideline. You can rationalize for as long as you want whether the idea will be successful. But if you have an inexplicable drive to make it work, chances are high that it will. Setting the wheels in motion without much deliberating is the best policy. Overcome analysis paralysis, and boldly step forward. The recommendations in this book will allow you to do just that.
Figure 3-2. Checklist for a startup entrepreneur mindset
1The Social Network, directed by David Fincher (2010; Columbia Pictures).
2Latin phrase, loosely translated “A rough road leads to the stars.”
3Roy Baumeister and John Tierny, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (New York: Penguin Press, 2011).
4Gloria Mark, Victor M. Gonzalez, and Justin Harris, “No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work,” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference: on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Portland, OR, April 2–7, 2005 (New York: Association for Computing Machinery, 2005).
5Timothy Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich (New York: Crown Publishers, 2007).
6Dan S. Kennedy, No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs: The Ultimate No Holds Barred, Kick Butt, Take No Prisoners, Guide to Time Productivity & Sanity (Irvine, CA: Entrepreneur Press, 2004).
7Wall Street, directed by Oliver Stone (20th Century Fox, 1987).
8N. Gregory Mankiw, Principles of Economics (Independence, KY: Cengage Learning, 2008).
9Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2008).
10Geoffrey Colvin, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else (New York: Portfolio, 2008).
11Josh Kaufman, The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything—Fast (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2013).
12Ikiru (, “To Live”), directed by Akira Kurosawa (Toho Studios, 1953).