Lessons from visiting 15 startups in 4 days
Last week, I was in San Francisco with 14 of my Chicago Booth classmates visiting Bay Area startups. You might be wondering what MBAs are doing in Silicon Valley. I’m still figuring that out myself and will write about it in the near future. In the meantime, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, shares her opinion on the value of MBAs in tech here (spoiler: “not necessary”).
Overall, the trek was a tremendous experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for a week in Aspen (where many of my classmates were). We met with people at all levels; from early hires to PMs to CXOs and founders. The companies ranged from a 4 person outfit in a co-working space to a 1,200 person, post-IPO “startup” taking up 4 full floors of a massive building on Market St. The industries included anything from fintech (where my personal interest lies) to women’s fashion. The breadth and variety of the startups we visited were astounding! Kudos to our trek leaders.
Through it all, I learned a ton and came out of the experience a more thoughtful and introspective person. These are my 5 biggest takeaways.
- Less talking, more doing. Many of us throughout the trip asked founders for their secrets to success, as if a single thing was responsible for it all. What came up over and over again was bias towards action. The founders all had it. You have an idea? Test it out. Interview potential customers. Stress test your hypothesis. Build prototypes. Release it into the wild. Learn and repeat. Ideas are cheap and talk is cheaper.
- Understand the other person’s perspective. Whether it’s a customer, an interviewer, a venture capitalists or a date, you need to understand what the person on the other side of the table wants and what your value proposition is. It’s amazing how often this simple and powerful insight is lost on us (myself included). Many MBAs think they deserve a job at MBB without questioning what they bring to the table. It’s hard to be honest with ourselves, but the more often we do, the more we can grow.
- Network, network, network. How did you meet your co-founder? A friend from college introduced us. Who was the developer that helped bring your vision to reality? My friend’s little brother is a computer prodigy, and I recruited him. Where did you go to hire your last project manager? I shot an email to my school’s tech club and the applications poured in. Either build a network or join a network. You get the idea.
- Start small, think big. It’s tempting to build everything you want into your first product, but given finite resources, that’s just not viable. A number of startups openly acknowledged that their current business model or product offering is just a beachhead. Often times, their products are just one way to address a broader problem or vision (e.g. building a payment platform with the broader goal of making all financial transactions and interactions digital/seamless).
- Great products sell themselves. I was amazed by how often founders had no clue how their users were finding the product. They didn’t even have marketing people. It turns out that when you have a great solution to a pressing problem, the customers just flooded in, magically. And sometimes, the solution doesn’t even have to be that great, just good enough to address the major pains.