Thoughtrepeneurs: The Poison of the Student Startup Scene

What I’m about to say isn’t new. I’m not a thought leader, a visionary, or an original thinker. None of my ideas are innovative. In fact, that’s the whole point of this article.

I came to Penn because of my love for startups and my dreams of becoming an entrepreneur. Ever since working my first ever job at NorthPage, a digital marketing startup back home in Connecticut, I knew that I wasn’t meant for the 9 to 5, suit and tie, cut and dried lifestyle. The fast-paced, high energy, collaborative work involved in growing something from the ground is cumbersome and frustrating, yet highly rewarding. Entrepreneurship is more than just small businesses to me. Entrepreneurship is a vehicle for both social and technological progress, as well as the epitome of the American Dream and free-spirited pioneering. This passion for creating is what attracted me to YouthHack Philly, Penn’s branch of an international community passionate about encouraging entrepreneurship, scaling startups, and fostering new founders. Through the Ventures Accelerator, YH’s startup incubator, as well as all the entrepreneurship panels I’ve listened to at Penn, I’ve come to a troubling conclusion.

Penn has very, very few entrepreneurs. What we do have is an overabundance of thoughtrepeneurs. Thoughtrepeneurs (the word ideapreneur was already taken) are people who think about potential businesses, instead of creating them. Oh they may have patents pending, an S corporation filing, and a website, but what they do not have is a business. Here at Penn, and especially Wharton, everyone focuses on the idea. That one brilliant, magical thought that rockets Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel from college students to billionaires in the blink of an eye. That’s just patently false: ideas don’t make great companies, great people with with greater products and the greatest implementation strategies make great companies. I’m probably the millionth person to say this; there are some great articles about echoing these thoughts here, here, here, and here. If you can’t execute, prepare to have your business become executed. Each week I see a Wharton student talk about his great new fintech startup without having written a line of code, a college student talking about her biotech startup before she’s even taken cell biology, and an engineer talking about another goddamn social media app. The same buzzwords get thrown around anywhere you go: analytics, machine learning, blockchain, crowdfunding, biotechnology; the list goes on. Instead of having a real product, kids submit their BS brainstorm sketches of ideas as patent applications then go ahead and start pitching. Suddenly Berry Stern is the CEO of Fake-AF Metrics, a cutting-edge industry leader in consumer analytics utilizing proprietary deep learning algorithms to collect, coalesce, and distribute data via a blockchain infrastructure for Fortune 100 clients. The saddest thing here is that he knows as much about this technology and business as I do stringing together random phrases!

The fault in our system lies not in our founders but the entire entrepreneurship ecosystem. Those who act as entrepreneurial support staff, such as myself, help fuel these issues by making teams create marketing campaigns and meet with Venture Capitalists before they even have an initial prototype, and by failing to vet the technology behind a single startup. The issue also lies both with the business and engineering schools for failing to educate and equip students with the knowledge and tools necessary to build actual companies where it seems like the only kids who know how to do anything before senior year are the programmers. That’s why every hot startup starts interviewing “developers” for “coveted internship positions” and a chance to be a part of the next big “disruptive technology” because they can’t build it themselves. Even better is when the freshmen and sophomore biology students create their companies that are about to cure cancer, end AIDS, and reverse Alzheimer’s. It’s all talk.

I’ve been very, very cynical for the last three paragraphs, but I still love and believe in student entrepreneurship which is why I’m not giving up on the startup community here at Penn. What I do think we need though is some prescriptive guidance, so that companies exist past the first line in kids’ LinkedIn profiles. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Your Startup Isn’t A Hobby: People just aren’t dedicated enough. News Flash—this isn’t a class, club, or community service; you don’t get to be a founder for a couple of hours a week. Real entrepreneurs live and breathe their companies; your baby comes first, everything else is second.
  2. You’re Not the COO: Everyone is rushing to slap a title on a business card. You’re not a CEO, CFO, COO, or Director of Marketing and Sales. What even is the COO in a two-person company, the other guy? Before you start talking about how much VC funding you’re gonna get and what the equity split among partners will be, consider researching your industry, building a product, prototyping, failing, learning, failing again, prototyping some more, talking to potential customers…. Until you build something new, go full time, and potentially begin earning money, you are just another kid with an unoriginal idea
  3. Capture Need Not Market Share: Your value proposition is not “If I only capture 2% of this 1 trillion dollar market, my company will be worth 20 billion dollars!!!” What problem that is so critical people are crying for a solution or just haven’t realized can be fixed, are you solving? Do people really want your product, or can they do without it? What connection does this issue have to you? What makes you the right person to solve the problem? Why even are you going into this industry or venture? Figure out these answers before you start telling everyone about your crazy awesome $1,000,000,000+ startup , and how investors should get in on the ground floor. One doesn’t enter a startup for a desire to be rich: that’s what Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Google, and Facebook are for. Go there if you’re interested in money, prestige, and early retirement.
  4. The World Isn’t Stupid: You can talk about your 200% growth rate projections, virtual lack of competition, and impending patent-protected monopoly power, but you’re not fooling me and sooner or later people will realize it’s all hot air. I personally believe you have to know what you’re doing before you start acting like you’re an expert, even though I know many others disagree. It’s okay to fail, and it’s alright to be over the age of 18 when you start your first company. You, your investors, and society will all be better off if you actually learn your business and technology before making people believe you can fix everyone’s problems. Maybe Wharton’s culture of perception = reality is true today with our very own alumnus in the White House, but a real business can only survive as long as it creates value for its customers, so you better figure out how to do that fast.
  5. Entrepreneurship isn’t All Rainbows and Unicorns: We often conflate entrepreneurs with startups, but they’re mutually exclusive. Everyone dreams of billion dollar unicorn IPOs with 6 rounds of VC funding and a 100 million users of this revolutionary new product, but that’s not what running a business really is like. Kids are too quick to neglect small businesses, the backbone of the American economy. Nobody wants to run a business that sells a product or provides a service, that meets customers face-to-face, that has a physical location anchoring itself as a part of the local community. I think we’ve forgotten what it really means to spend 16 hours a day in your store or home office balancing budgets, improving your product, finding new customers, growing your business, and earning an honest living. Those men and women are entrepreneurs too.

Real entrepreneurship requires real work, dedication, and expertise: until you put all three into practice you’re just another thoughtrepeneur.