Entrepreneurship for students II: 11 things to do before you leap

Ok i know your embarassed they made you wear a gown and a dorky looking hat with a horse tail kind of thingy hanging from it. And I know you are beyond furious that they actually made you go on stage infront of your entire class in that ridiculous outfit to accept your degree. In short your triumphant emergence from the drudgery of student life is celebrated by embarassing you infront of 500 people and then expecting you to pose for pictures to capture this moment for an eternity. Yup convocations can be painful, but hey you get to laugh at all your other friends while they are onstage and you get to throw those dorky hats, so it doesn’t suck that bad. On the flipside all you have to do now is decide what to do with the rest of your life. No sweat, this is only like the most important decision ever which can screw your entire life up, yey! While you are pondering over the “what next” sweating like a pig(did anyone actually see a pig sweat(get back to me if you have)) you have this great itch for entrepreneurship that is begging to be scratched. Ever since you saw some crappy article on some blog this itch has only grown. Finally you decide entrepeneurship is for you and want to jump into the madness and insanity that is a startup. Not so fast buddy, undecide what you have just decided. There are things you need to do before you take that leap.

BTW this part is the shameless self promotion of my articles in this series so feel free to skip ahead.
Entrepreneurship for students I : 11 reasons why you need start now
Entrepreneurship for students II : 11 things to do before you leap
Entrepreneurship for students III : 11 Myths about student entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurship for students IV : 11 things to expect before you leap

1. Introspect

At the risk of sounding redundant please let me repeat what poorna and I have already said “Know thyself”. Ask yourself “why you want to be an entrepeneur?” Not surprisingly that question has all kinds of right and wrong answers.

Right answers
1. I have a passion for building a good company.
2. I have a great idea which if executed well will make me a lot of money.
3. I love the entrepreneur life style.(this can be a wrong answer too given your knowledge of the entrepreneur lifestyle)
4. I want to invest my time for exponential Rate of return even if there is risk instead of the steady Rate of return that a job provides.
many more…….

Wrong answers
1. Steve jobs was an entrepreneur, I luv steve jobs.
2. Tom, dick and harry are doing it why can’t I?
3. Hey the job title ‘entrepreneur’ sounds cool.
4. Because suman(or anyone else) told me to(very bad reason).
many more……..

It’s very important to be aware of all your reasons to be an entrepreneur. It is also important to scrutinize these ideas to withstand the stupidity test. People who are risk averse, easily influenced by others, afraid of failure should understand what entrepreneurship really entails before they decide wether it is their cup of tea. Realizing that you were not meant for entrepreneurship after a couple of months in will really spoil your day.

2. Get your shit together

Entrepreneurship and being an entrepreneur is a luxury and privilege few students can afford. Most wannabe entrepreneurs are kept at bay by the realities of everyday life. A typical graduate in india is expected to support his family. He/she is expected to earn and pay off the umpteen loans and needs of the house. When the vehicle, home and education loan come calling and expect you to pay up every month, starting your business might not be a good idea. Your first responsibility is to your family and the people around you. which means you have to hold off your dreams until “more important things” are taken care of. Don’t count on a steady stream of income when you are an entrepreneur. So get your financial affairs and responsibilities straight and fulfill them before you think about entrepreneurship. For the lucky few of us that needn’t worry about anyone else except themselves, consider yourself really, really lucky and make the best of your situation.

3. Round up the gang

The lone founder is a creature seldom seen in the bootstrapping startup circle, and with good reason. Being an entrepreneur is like being an entire office all by yourself, you need to be the clerk, programmer, boss, accountant, marketer, evangelist and a million more things. Though an enterpreneur is supposed to be a generalist rather than a specialist, not everyone can do all things well. A co-founder or a bunch of them will lighten the load on your shoulders while increasing your venture’s odds for success. The team can afford to have specialists so you have the “horses for courses” option. I also find that the more intelligent people there are around the harder it is for bullshit ideas to survive. For the student entrepreneur a support structure is also very important and vital reducing the cumulative downtime of individuals(if ur down ur buddies will kick ur ass to happy town). What im getting at is that a founding team is essential and a good idea for a student entrepreneur. As a general rule the older you are past your college years the harder it is to find co-founders. So get your team together.

4. What do you want?

It is important that every member of team be aware of what every other member on the team wants and expects from the planned venture. This is the step where most prospective co-founders are filtered away. There are certain core values, beliefs and perspectives that all the co-founders must share, and any compromise on these would most likely lead to conflicts in the future when they will be much more detrimental to the venture and will be harder to diffuse. For example if you believe in bootstrapping and your co-founders think that external funding is the only way to go then that doesn’t exactly seem like a good match, Similarly if you want to grow your company and your co-founder wants to build something and flip it then that doesn’t exactly spell ‘two of a kind’. This does not mean that different perspectives are undesirable, often conflict is a good thing and different perspectives aid in complementing each other to achieve the common goal. The short mantra is “like minded in core, complementary perspectives otherwise.”

5. What’s your business?

This is a not a toughie, before you begin your business you must know what your business is(I know my phrasing sounds stupid and condescending(what do i care, its my blog hehehehe)). Sit down and decide what you are going to do. Are you going to make and sell software? What kind of software? Do you want to get into E-commerce? If you dont have a narrow idea which is a good place for any startup to begin with, then formulate a broad business plan like “I am going to turn man hours into money(software services company)” or “Im going to turn patentable innovation into money”(selling high IP solutions). Validate your business plan or idea as much as you can before you get into it. You must answer questions like “Will people buy this?”, “Is our product unique?”…..

6. Role Play

What role are you and your co-founders going to play in the venture. Who is the people person is he going to be the evangelist and the vp of marketing. Who is the techie/geek does he have the discipline to be the CTO. Ofcourse these are decisions that cannot be taken at the outset but everyone should at the least be aware of their rough responsibilities and ownerships right at the outset like the techie, the money guy, the seller, the lead generator, so on and so forth. However no one should be a specialist and be limited to a small part of the operations of the company, everyone must be involved in everything as much as possible until it starts getting detrimental. The reason for this is that the team should recover and pick up the slack immediately if one of the members decides to leave. So a bunch of allrounders with a bias towards complementary specializations is the need of the day here.

7. Network

It’s never too early to start networking. The network is very important for a startup and it allows you to reach prospective clients while finding partners who you can complement and who can complement you. However one must be weary of the kind of people you need to network with. Often you will come across people that look very good on paper but in reality turn out to be nothing more than bandwidth hogs. The yard stick for any strategic partnership is the amount of mutual benefits. The point cannot be stressed enough, put your connections into perspective. The contact should be beneficial not detrimental and when you are a naive student who is full of energy its pretty hard to differentiate the beneficial and detrimental prospects(its hard enough for the more experienced ones). Help out your peers whenever you can and when you need your back scratched really badly someone will help you out.

8. Mentor

Find a mentor. Better yet find a set of mentors. The tech startup community is by nature very helpful, accommodating and forward so if you prove you will not be a waste of their time you can find good mentors. It is wise to learn from the mistakes and successes of others. Putting your mentors on a pedestal however might not be a good idea and at the end of the day all advice should be taken as just that advice and nothing more. It is you who must consider your every step from all angles and ultimately decide what to do even if it means going against your mentor’s advice. So take all advice from your mentors with a pinch of salt. Also as a rule a lot of advice that people dole out is nothing more than bullshit(including me(not)). One should offer a stake in the venture to the mentor if you think he is valuable enough to the future of the company. However this kind of stake will attract a lot of charlatans and pretenders who can’t add any real value and yet will promise you the sky.

9. The sponge

Be a sponge and absorb all the information that you can about starting and running a business. Your ventures future depends upon how well and how fast you can negotiate the learning curve that a startup requires. Do you know what cost-benefit analysis is? What about product lifecycle? And a gazillion other things. So learn, learn, learn and convert that knowledge into action as fast as possible. Take care that you aren’t caught flat footed on any issues that you should know. If you don’t know ask ex:”should our venture be a partnership firm or a LLC?”

10. The Sitdown

This is probably the most difficult thing you might have to do before you start your own venture, Convince your family that this is a good idea. Ofcourse first they are going to point at you and start laughing as if you just told them that

Ze Look

you would be an astronaut, that is until it sinks in. Once they realize you are not kidding their expression changes and their jaw drops with their mouth wideopen not believeing the words coming out of your mouth. Then you get ‘the look’. What is ‘the look’? you ask. Well it is the most dreadful heart melting expression that makes grown men cry. You know

the sort of look ‘puss in boots’ gives shrek in shrek 2. But don’t let this stop you, explain to them that you have thought his through and tell them what your plan is. Tell them that you know there is risk involved and have not ruled out failure as an option. Tell them this is what you’d like to do and that anything else would make you feel trapped and unhappy. And because they are your family and would want the best for you, they will agree if your idea isn’t something a numbskull concocted on his bad hair day.

11. Get a rich girlfriend

Better believe it, once you start your venture you can’t afford to have a normal girlfriend. For one thing your phone bill alone will bankrupt your company. So get yourself a rich girlfriend if you have to. Infact don’t think “girlfriend” think “angel investor”. Ofcourse it would help if the angel is hot, beautiful and wants to pamper you every chance she gets. And the best thing is you don’t have to get her gifts citing your nonexistent startup revenues.

Anyway my shitty attempt at comedy, and the fact that i could only think of 10 good things and had to fill the list with one sexist thing aside this was a pretty long article. So be vocal about your opinions people and if anything seems like bullshit please call it. Bye Bye.

-Suman

What my one & only job interview had taught me about entrepreneurship…

I’ll not be a bozo to lie to you & tell that what I had done in my job interview(2 years ago) was totally preplanned. Most of it just happened. However whatever happened was precisely the way I think now, it should be played. It was my first successful pitch to a company to whom I promised I would definitely leave them in 10-15 years time to go setup my own company… 😉 And now two years after acing the interview & getting that job, I will be now vain enough to tell what I think I had done right then…

Dream Big

This was first on campus job interview I was appearing for, and I was competing against the best minds in my class for the job. On paper I never had a chance, not one in a seventy. My grades werent spectacular and I was a Computer Vision Technology student who was sitting for the recruitment drive of a Database company. I was not even on the outliers factually speaking. But the end result was I made it. The reasons why I think I could is what the remaining part of this post consists of. However, that leaves me one simple conviction. It never hurts to dream big.

Play to your strengths

I always am/was a hardcore C/C++ guy. Java never was my cup of tea. It is now but again I cannot do it with the same raw passion I have for C/C++. But I knew that the recruiting company majorly recruited Java guys, C/C++ ones had almost no chance. I even actually started to prepare reading up on Java and started working on it. It was only after struggling for one full day with a new language and after a peptalk with my friend did I realise the truth: trying to play to the company’s questions was never going to help me.

The only best way to survive was to completely leverage my own strengths. All I did during the interview was to be careful to never let the interviewer step out of my core areas of strength. I made it a point to make him interview him in my areas of expertise(C,C++,Data Structures) and never let him move into a field I had no inkling about. That just about saved my day.

Every startup is in a searing hurry to make its inroads into a specific area and learn about it as much as possible and do work on it. Its not uncommon to find that the founders try to work out of their areas of expertise. And hence a startup with technology guys at its helm will lose its mark if it makes its core area of business as commmodity market or finance, when actually its strength is in providing the technology. Now just imagine how long it would take for a pure finance or pure commodity market startup to come and just kill you? Not long.

Its personal; Not business

Why do you think customers love people that take personal care of them? Why do you think a low cost airline like Paramount Airways with its cost almost twice as its nearest competitor Deccan Airways have good occupancy rates? Its simple, the higher cost is made up by the personal attention given to each and every passenger. As in the Pinko Marketing, they say, Markets are Conversations. Markets are about conversations between sellers and buyers. Any startup that can understand this simple concept has already won half the battle. The ability to be able to make meaningful conversations with your customer, understanding their needs and necessities just about concretizes their survival.

Inspite of it being a job interview, I was carrying on a conversation with my interviewer(s), they never were Q&A sessions… learning about `their` own experiences in the company, `my` role in the structure, et al which actually made the process for each of us much easier and of course brownie points for me for looking like an excellent communicator. yay!

Its not about what you can. Its about who you are

When getting funded VCs dont fund the ideas, they fund the founding team. Have a compelling business plan, amazing revenue projections, virtually virgin market, have a lousy team and 10/10 the team will never get funded. No business plan will ever make up for a brilliant, excellent founding team.

There was never a chance of me succeeding if I looked to my potential employers as just another guy with a skillset. If that was the value I was bringing to the table, I was making a rookie mistake, 30 other guys in that same room could boast of better credos than me on the spot. Instead I presented myself as a self motivated team player with no fear of learning new technologies or skillsets. They were not looking for my skillsets; they were looking for me.

No competitors; No money

Every startup guy dreams of capturing a virgin market virtually unexplored till now. They spend all their savings and considerable amount of time just developing this product in stealth, and finally after 9 gruelling months, they get it out and all they know no one’s interested in this product. Where did they go wrong? Though the product had great IP value, it did not solve any issue the target market had. They frankly never had a chance there; there wasnt no market at all. More startups fear only one thing more than the ‘stealing’ of their ‘world-changing idea’; of having to deal with competitors. They rightfully should be too; but nothing more is gratifying than the the jostling rush of competitors into your market because it validates your one single conviction: you are making a product for a market that exists!

I was in for a shocking treat when I learnt that every bigwig in my class was shooting for the company. Before them I definitely didnt stand a chance, but then it validated my one simple conviction(to not to appear for two previous companies’ recruitment drive): it was now a job `worth` fighting for.

Exceed Expectations Consistently

For a startup to survive it is extremely important that it exceed expectations consistently everytime. A startup is no place for mediocrity atleast never in its early formative years [after IPO of course its a different story altogether ;)].

My strategy to the interview was simple. To impress my interviewer, I followed only one directive: Prove consistently that I knew my subjects substantially much more than he expected me to. It was a simple strategy, but it worked wonders.

Evangelise your vision/plan/idea

When asked about to tell about myself, I insisted regularly that my aim was to setup my own company 10-15 years from now which was my long term goal and my short team goal was to learn everything i can from the organization. It was baffling to them atleast to listen from a fresh graduate speaking of his own company when he was actually appearing for their job interview. It was a jolt but it was a vision that helped translate positive feelings towards my candidature.

There is no point in having a startup if you yourself dont belive in your idea. Even though evangelising is a tricky business, if you yourself dont evangelise it better shut shop and go back to momma.

Never Give Up / Keep Adapting

In my fifth round of my interview I was asked a question I barely remembered having done 4 years ago. Though I could not get the answer right, I had refused to give up, I used up all possible strategies I knew I could to arrive at a convincing solution. It was a simple answer, but Im vaguely sure the interviewer did notice the fact that I was sticky as gum when it came to leaving the problem and going to next.

A VC loves a startup that never gives up easily in the face of adverse situations. Also every startup that faces difficulties must change its course of strategy as per the new demands of the situation. Only these mercurial startups survive the onslaught of the market.

-Kopos(poorna)

PS

There are a hundred other things that I did right there and of course a million mistakes that I was lucky to not to be thrown out for ;). This definitely is not a post in vanity but just some lessons I thought that can draw on the analogy between two high stake, highly tense situations.

Entrepreneurship for students I : 11 reasons why you need to start now

The end of your “good life” is tumbling towards you like an avalanche. For 20 odd years you have been living off your parents genetic imperative to feed you. But now that well has dried up, worse still everyone is expecting you to stand on your own feet. I know, I know, if life was fair we could all be mooching off of our parents our whole life. But guess what, life is a female dog. So now you need to get your act together and decide what you’ll do for the rest of your life. Well if you are one of those rare people who have a passion for entrepreneurship, look no further. Just sit back and let me convince you why starting your own business right now is not as crazy as you think it is.

This is going to be part I in a series of articles on entrepreneurship for students like the following….
Entrepreneurship for students I : 11 reasons why you need start now
Entrepreneurship for students II : 11 things to do before you leap
Entrepreneurship for students III : 11 Myths about student entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurship for students IV : 11 things to expect before you leap
and more ……….

First i know there must be a searing question that has been eating you right from the moment you saw the title(and even if it didn’t i bet its eating you now.). Why 11? well the simple reason is im sick of “10 tips” lists all over the internet and im also sick of “12 steps to” programs derived from AA(alcoholics anonymous) framework. So (me + judgement call) = 11 points baby. And also im going to spare you the pretentious jedi bullshit that poorna has been slathering his articles with (“Young padwan”). Don’t tell poorna but he thinks he’s ‘obi wan kenobi’ or ‘yoda’ or something. As for me i have a much better grip on reality and know that the only way is the way of the dark side. So you may refer to me by my title “darth vader”. That’s “Sir Darth” to you poorna. Anyway enough about the ways of the force, let’s get cracking on why you need to start now. First let me give you a preview of what your life is going to be like if your passion is entrepreneurship and you don’t start right now. The non-entrepreneur life cycle…..

Normal Life Cycle

1. Your not getting any younger

This is simultaneously the simplest, stupidest and the most logical reason why you should be getting into entrepreneurship right now. If you want to be in the startup business then its going to be tough on you physically and psychologically and 50 isn’t exactly your most energetic age. And as a general rule the older you are the less likely you’ll be starting a venture. Even paul graham is of the opinion that 20ish is the ideal time for someone to get thier own software startup. Besides my bias towards starting early, many points below will also make the case for starting as early as possible.

2. Ability to live like a hobo(Low Burn Rate)

While we are students we have this unique supernatural ability to live on an almost non existential cash flow. This is the Top ramen, Bathe once a week, what is detergent? lifestyle. But these powers somehow vanish once you become a corporate stooge and start spending heavy and fast on even the basic necessities of life. Water becomes a latte grande, a bus ride becomes 10 gallons of gas(petrol), lays become a ‘power lunch’, your annoying company becomes and ‘expensive date’… so on and so forth. This ability of students to sustain themselves with a very low burn rate over long periods of time becomes indispensable when you are an entrepreneur trying to bootstrap your venture.

3. Golden Handcuffs

I call this pehnomenon ‘the dream killer’. Most wannabe entrepreneurs get drawn into this trap like a moth to a flame. You are a year or so into your job and you have gotten used to your healthy pay check and the amenities it affords you. Even though your job sucks and that’s not what you want to do you still do it to keep your lifestyle going. Wether you work or just pretend to work, you will have a check waiting for you always. Your used to the instant gratification lifestyle and are terrified at the prospect of this stream of income drying up. Which is what will happen if you quit and try to start your own venture. You then fall into this endless circle of wanting to quit of your job, but realizing in the back of your head that you have golden handcuffs on and you dont want to let go of them. So start your venture once you graduate and avoid chasing the carrot they dangle in front of you.

4. Only you get screwed

When you are a fresh graduate and your venture or ventures fail, its you who gets screwed and no one else. But if you fail in the same fashion 10 years later your spouse, your children’s trust funds and all your dependents will feel the impact. As you can see most people have a very small window of opurtunity to fail, from their mid 20’s to their early 30’s beyond which people around them start to bare the brunt of the failure. This is the reason why there are so little first time entreprenuers that start when they have a young family.

5. Can’t loose what you ain’t got

When you begin with nothing(no capital) and try to bootstrap your venture like most young entrepreneurs do, you have little to loose other than your time. On the other hand if you launch a venture after you have been working for a couple of years, more often than not you are going to have a higher intial investment and burn rate. Here the young entrepreneur can afford to fail and as a result is able to tackle high risk high rewards ventures. However when a major investment of capital your own capital is involved high risk ventures don’t exactly seem that attractive. A fresh graduate has better downsides to most ventures than someone who has worked for a couple of years. However they share the same or similar upsides to most ventures.

6. Not constrained by the system

‘Thinking outside the box’ is a popular industry mantra that everyone preacher. But this however becomes difficult to do if you are part(employee) of the system. The tendency of any system is to maintain its inertia and that’s the reason why innovations always seem to come from small groups that are isolated from the system. Do you think larry and sergey would be wanting to build a better search engine if they were working for yahoo. For a student this proverbial “Box” is still just a word. As he/she hasn’t been exposed to a constrained thought process he/she is more likely to come up with an innovative or “out of the box” solution to any problem that might present itself.

7. Diverse options

You are fresh out of college, so what product are you going to build. Well your guess is as good as mine. This is the beauty of being a young entrepreneur. You have the basic skill sets and the ability to make a good product and you can choose any direction you wish based on the market, oppurtunity, know how. If you however have been working for a couple of years for a storage solutions company, we can bet good money that most people can predict which market your venture is going to be aimed at. This is because you are comfortable with your area of expertise and your market and cannot take the chance of venturing into new and unknown markets. Once again the student entrepreneur wins out as far as the sheer number of chances he can take with different markets and products.

8. Fail early fail often

Though few people realize it, failure is a very important part of an entrepreneur’s life. There is no better way to keep you grounded in reality than a failure. The earlier and the more often you fail the better it is. Failures in the early stages wont impact your upcoming projects and products as much, while at the same time providing an invaluble experience. If you are however a late entrepreneur you can’t afford to fail, but that does not mean you are not going to fail. So a student entrepreneur can take many shots while late bloomers get to take only a few.

9. High risk tolerance

As i said earlier the younger and the more bankrupt you are, the more ridiculous your ventures can afford to be. It is often the case that “Great Ideas” look like very “Stupid Ideas” (Scott adams agrees). When steve jobs and steve wozniak went to hp execs with their home built computer they were laughed out of the office citing “Who would ever want a personal computer?” When sergey and larry approached yahoo to tell them they can improve search results the reply they got was “who’s looking for a better search engine? People don’t care.” I bet any VC would be rolling on the floor laughing if you pitched a “Blogging” platform to him some time in 1998. High risk ventures allow you to in rare cases look ahead of the curve and even define the curve in sometimes. As already seen young entrepreneurs have a high risk tolerance and this affords them the latitude to attempt high risk innovations.
10. No more mundane jobs

You definitely dont have to be worried about getting stuck in a job that doesnt challenge and tingle your intellectual and physical potential. When you are a young entrepreneur you are like an entire company onto yourself, so you’ll have tons of work that will allow you to meet your potential and exceed it. You’ll often find that you have skills that you never knew you had(not like flying or laser eye beams). When you compare this to your usual mundane job which seems like an endless cycle of being someone else’s codemonkey, it’s a no brainer which you would be rather doing given the choice. On the oneside you have strobe lights, cubicles and an endless supply of work that doesnt lead anywhere. On the other side passion, challenges, risk and your chance to make the world a better place(atleast for some people, most importantly yourself).

11. Bragging rights

Ok your at a bar, this totally hot chick is sitting next to you. Both you and another unfortunate being make a move on her at the same time. So you have this awkward 3 way discussion going on…

Poor guy: So what do you do?

Hot Chick: Im a model.

You: You mean like a model model, with the swimsuits and everything (drooling)

Hot Chick: Yeah. So what do you guys do?

Poor guy: Well im a project leader for a random MNC with an Obscure Sounding product.

Hot Chick: Really! Interesting, and you?

You: Oh nothing much, Just have a big, large, huge(garage) company of my own with employees(your cofounders and you) and stuff. (Ofcourse she doesn’t know your company doesn’t have revenue yet)

Hot Chick: Really! What do you guys make?

You: you know google? we are in the same business(you make an intranet search application).

…………… and so on while the project leader fades into obscurity. But ofcourse later the hot chick’s boy friend shows up with his ferrari. But for now ur invincible.

And on that note we conclude this installment of student entrepreneurship. We leave with the life cycle of a student entrepreneur. Contrast it with the normal life cycle.

Entrepreneur life cycle

-Suman

PS: Leave comments on the following.

Q1) Does this article series suck?

Q2) Does the extermely orange header image suck?

Q3) Darkside or the jedi way which is the way of the force?