As the doors opened to the Best Buy Theater in Manhattan, a number of eager, nervous, and aspiring entrepreneurs made their way to the main auditorium. Some of them came armed with ideas they were building, others came with a fully functional product looking to possibly find other like-minded individuals to join their team, and some came, as one audience member eloquently put it, “ just to listen, and be inspired”. I had come for something similar. After working on a media sharing start-up for the past year and failing to get a spot in the summer batch for Y Combinator, I needed to take a step back, and look to those that succeeded.
I wanted to hear their insights, and most importantly, their stories. When the lights of the theater finally dimmed, and the chattering came to close, a strange realization settled upon all of us. No matter what our background was or what we were working on, we were all there for the same thing — guidance, advice, and inspiration. As a student that finds his passions interwoven with entrepreneurship, I believe there are three lessons every aspiring student entrepreneur should learn as they begin or continue their journey towards building a successful company.
1. Failure is part of the process, start loving it.
If there is one takeaway lesson out of the three, this is it. From an early age, we are taught to think that failure is a bad thing. Perhaps it stems from our primary school education or even our curve-structured universities, that enforce this notion that failing has grim consequences. However, in the startup world, it is a necessary and vital passage to go through, in order to reach success. Almost every founder who told their story talked about the beginnings, and it was layered with the same constant — failure. From Instacart founder Apoorva Mehta’s 20+ failed past products (his lawyer network being his proudest out of the bunch), to Codeacademy founder Zach Sims’ first failed product (ComeRecruit.us — matching students to companies they wanted to work at), comes a common thread that unites all these successful stories. For many students, failure usually marks a disappointing end. However, to budding student entrepreneurs, redefining this notion is important. Embracing and loving failure is loving the process of becoming a successful entrepreneur. It sometimes show us flaws with the methodologies we use, the strategy we employ, or even with the product itself. But most importantly, failure shows us a way forward by forcing us to think of an alternative route to our goal. Failing is not an end point, but one of redirection.
2. Build from passion, not for the sake of starting a company.
As students, the potential of founding a startup and calling oneself a founder or CEO is now more attractive than ever. The harsh reality is that many times, what attracts students to startups (money! power! fame!) is the same reason they are destined to fail. Today, startups represent a great equalizer for young college students. Because society often propagates the stories of young, successful founders, we begin to see a new possible road to stardom. Young millionaires no longer consist of just well endowed children, top bankers and traders, or superstar athletes who were drafted to professional sports leagues. Today, with stories of Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel buzzing on campuses and startup circles, the prospect of starting a company is all the more appealing. A cool product, millions of people using it, fame, youth, fortune — it all seems to be there. With this in mind, many begin to hack away at whatever project they believe will follow a similar trajectory. Not surprisingly, almost all fail. It is not the failing of the product that is important here, but rather the intent to make the product itself. Time and time again, we hear from successful founders that the reasons for the idea are just as important as the idea itself. You have to be genuine, and truly build what you’re passionate about. That is the heartbeat of a company. Build from passion, and it will show in the product.
3. Do not believe the hype.
The words from The Muse Founder, Kathryn Minshew seemed to resonate with many. Perhaps it was because so many of us realized that we did or are currently now, believing the hype. As we flip through TechCrunch or the pages of Entrepreneurship Magazine, we read about startups raising millions of dollars of Series A funding rounds, companies with billion dollar valuations, and founders who are massively, as Reddit co-founder Alex Ohanian puts it, “killing the game”. But this is the highlight reel as Ms. Minshew pointed out at NYC Startup School. You can not compare your day to day struggles with the companies that are showing their triumphs. When you build a product, you must get as close to it as you can. Understand your user base, understand what is making your customers come back again to your product, or why they are using it, see if your users are telling more people and if they aren't, then ask why. The closer you hone in on your product and vision, the more chances you are giving yourself to understanding the complexities of your product. It’s easy to get carried away by hot products seemingly dominating the market. But every company that exists has started out with one customer, and one product. No one talks about startups with one customer, but every startup has started there at one point. Don’t believe the hype, instead, let your product create one for you.
Build for tomorrow, and most importantly, build for yourself. Be patient, and open to new possibilities because as many entrepreneurs will tell you, the ideas that eventually defined their companies were usually never the ideas that they started with. Love your product, love the change it can make, and be genuine. Startups are not for the weak hearted — it’s a roller coaster—so stay true to yourself, and your product. Only then will you be able to navigate the twists, turns, ups, and downs that comes along with being a great founder.