Author: Touch, Emily

The Importance of Diversity in Entrepreneurship

people sitting around a table having a meeting


The Importance of Diversity in Entrepreneurship

It’s 2020, and the world is going to look very different in the coming decades. As of this writing, we are at the end of this phase of COVID-19 and countries throughout Europe as well as states across America are slowly beginning to reopen. The pandemic may have thrown the world for a loop, but the crisis did accelerate several trends already underway, particularly here in the United States. While entrepreneurship has become mainstream the faces of those leading the business world have been changing (not fast enough according to some people), and now with Zoom and other digital tools at our disposal, communication gaps have been closed. When looking towards the next few decades in business, we will see leaders from a variety of nationalities and genders building the next generation of businesses.

We still have a way to go as the number of entrepreneurs who are female, African American, or of Hispanic American descent is not where it should be. However, there are encouraging trends, as indicates that “40% of US businesses are women-owned”and that “64% of new women-owned businesses were started by women of color last year.” Increasing the number of entrepreneurs from these backgrounds is important for several reasons we will explore below. Particularly when it comes to education, the great modern equalizer, we can all do our part in order to bring up and work with entrepreneurs from a variety of different backgrounds. It’s not a political statement or a good PR campaign to double down on diversity when looking at the entrepreneurship space, it’s simply good for business.

It’s where your customers are

When you look at the changing demographics, they present a country that is more gender neutral and racially diverse. Yet glancing at the faces of the leaders of the major technology companies, it’s clear they do not reflect this emerging reality. Silicon Valley is lagging places like Wall St., and there needs to be a lot more done to bring in people from other backgrounds so that they get a seat at the table.

Often you hear women entrepreneurs in the consumer space mention that while Amazon was started by a white Ivy League educated man, most of the purchasing decisions are made by women in your average American household. As this Merrill Lynch study documents, women make “55% of primary financial decision-maker for their household” and that “75% gained more financial-decision making power over the last 20 years.” This goes for all financial decisions, including purchasing items. Customers want to look at the founders of a company and feel that they can relate to them.

When polled, millennials place a major premium on buying from companies that have a significant social impact aspect to their business model and that includes diversity: “in its 2015 Global Corporate Sustainability report, Nielsen noted that 66 percent of respondents had said they were willing to pay extra for more sustainable brands, while fully 73 percent of millennial respondents said the same. In addition, 81 percent of millennials expected their preferred companies to make public declarations of corporate citizenship.” A double bottom line: a good product which does good has become an important factor in today’s marketplace.

Entrepreneurship can be the great equalizer

It’s worth recalling that the people who built this country were immigrants often excluded from the “old boys club”. As many of them were ambitious, they were often forced to create their own opportunities. An example is how a disproportionate number of Jews went into the entertainment industry, which, at that time, was not considered prestigious. Every generation of immigrants must work its way up the societal ladder, but there are actions we can take to help them by offering them a seat at the table.

Entrepreneurs who built this country were pioneers in every sense of the word, before the term carried the weight it does today. They didn’t think about appearing cool on Instagram or playing “businessperson”; rather, they were focused on making money and putting food on the table. The ambitious ones were the entrepreneurs who helped build some of the most iconic brands today. When all the doors were shut, they had to go through the window, and that is what entrepreneurship can be today. Regardless of your race, sex, or education level, the tools are out there if you put the work in to build a business. If anything, because of technology and the access to free education there is nothing stopping many people from learning the skills to become entrepreneurs right now.

Having different voices around the table

When you look at the postmortem of things that went wrong throughout history, decisions made by kings and monarchies, you find a uniform of similar opinions. Many times, it is a feedback loop of the same people not looking to upset a key decision maker (the term “yes man”), or simply people who think alike. It’s not a phenomenon exclusive to business; we witness it when combing through history, and even these days we are not immune from poor and single-minded decision making.

From a leadership perspective this report indicates that: “a board needs to draw upon a range of experiences in understanding opportunities, anticipating challenges and assessing risks. Rarely does a right or wrong answer exist for the many issues a board faces—particularly in an environment where silos defining industries are breaking down, constituencies are globalizing, the effects of technology are accelerating, and risk presents itself in new ways. With these lines blurring, having multiple views on the possible outcomes of an action results in a more thoughtful decision-making process.”

The reality is that groupthink is real and can severely limit your organization’s ability to make clear and long-term decisions. Different people have different experiences and outlooks on life, and how one views the world can significantly vary from person to person. As noted above, as so many businesses being created these days are user experience focused, it is important to have empathy and understand the product that you are creating for those users.

Creating a generation of heroes

This is something you see not just in the United States, but in other cultures that do not embrace risk or have strong heroes who are entrepreneurs. In the US, if you grew up in the right neighborhood, went to the right school, and knew the right people, you’d have friends who are entrepreneurs. You saw what was possible, and many times you thought you could do what those people do, and even improve on it! Many in underserved areas don’t see successful entrepreneurship as something to which they can aspire, which is why developing a generation of entrepreneurs/leaders in those communities is so important.

To be an entrepreneur, and a successful one at that, you must be able to sell people on the idea that you’re creating. A lot of times this idea could be bucking common wisdom and potentially violating social norms at the time (such as Airbnb, Uber, and the sharing economy). If you haven’t grown up in an environment where it’s permissible to take those kinds of risks, then you’re most likely not going to feel comfortable doing something like that. This Fast Company article sums it up well: “role modeling is crucial not only in terms of overcoming that initial barrier to access—quite simply, the belief is that entrepreneurship is a viable option. It also helps to remove the stigma of failure.”

Get this right before the next inequality

To play devil’s advocate, all this may be irrelevant as the next wave of technological disruption will create a divide between those who are tech-literate and those who do not know how to use emerging technologies. This will most likely skew between young people who are digital natives and early adopters and people who could be slightly older. The question is how old are those people going to be? At what age, or point in life do people throw up their hands and stop wanting to learn about the latest technological trend?

This is a topic not being addressed and is something that could be fixed, but ultimately it comes down to mindset. Digital natives have the advantage of being born to only knowing what a smartphone is and did not have to go through the recent tech and mobile revolution. We don’t want to get to a place where we are dealing with even more inequality. We have never been so connected but divided, and yet we are not taking steps to bridge that divide.

It’s not about marketing or PR these days, and about the optics of how things look in a business meeting or on the front page of a magazine. Diversity is extremely important in how we build the next generation of American companies and get ourselves out of this black swan event. This will also open the door for the next crop, the Zoomers, who are building their companies for the next generation.

How to Learn Anything During COVID-19

apple on books on desk


How to Learn Anything During COVID-19

By Emily Touch

If you’re reading this, you’re most likely stuck at home, or may have just been released for a limited time out into the world. The COVID-19 crisis is not over for the time being, even as the number of those infected with the virus decreases; there is too much uncertainty as we are still learning about this novel coronavirus. We are all aware of the perils of economic doom as our politicians and news channels like to remind us 24/7. This is of general concern, especially for those whose entire livelihoods depend on working for others.

Whether or not you want to be an entrepreneur, you may not have a choice in the coming months, as there are several trades where jobs may not be returning. Examples are the restaurant and travel industries, at least as far as we know them, according to Chris Bryant, Bloomberg Opinion Columnist. However, there is no need to panic; while we are careful about being generally overly optimistic the idea that “life happens for you, not to you” is a powerful statement and puts control of our destiny back in our hands. Entrepreneurship is a combination of skills as much as a mindset so we’ll cover below how to learn any skill so that you can control your destiny. While most things are out of our control, we can take active steps every single day to acquire the skills to thrive in this brave new world.

Break it down to the smallest parts

There is an abundance of fables about this, and whole civilizations have been built on this concept (ex. “Rome wasn’t built in a day”.) Most famous is the quote from Lao Tzu that states “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” The reason most people don’t learn a new skill is two-fold: firstly, the idea of learning (and excelling) at a new skill such as public speaking seems so overwhelming, they don’t even start. The second reason is that it sounds boring, as though you’re not making progress when you're consistently taking small steps. Take public speaking; even if you’re practicing 5 minutes every day in front of a mirror, you’re doing something, moving the ball forward. Better 5 minutes than nothing, because eventually those 5 minutes a day add up!

When legendary investor Warren Buffet was asked by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos why most people don’t utilize his simple 2% growth rule for every day, his answer was “because nobody wants to get rich slow.” The reality is that the time will pass either way, and you’ll wonder where it went. Best to take small measures every single day, even if they’re baby steps on days you feel uninspired, as they will compound. The author James Clear blogs and writes about this concept prolifically, so if you want to learn more about one of the fundamentals of learning anything, you should check out his work as an addition to this article.

Create a plan

What doesn’t get scheduled doesn’t happen. It’s nice to think about learning a new skill, and even visualizing the act. But if you want to do it consistently, it needs to be scheduled in your calendar. The hardest part of learning any new skill or doing anything challenging in general is getting yourself in a chair. Once you master that and get started the task tends to happen on its own as you enter a state of flow.

We are big believers in getting up early and tackling said task first thing in the AM, especially if it's something that is generally hard for most of us to do, like writing. A way to make your psychology work for you is to gamify this idea or create a system. Jerry Seinfeld, one of the most successful comedians of our time has a system in which he marks an X on a calendar for every day he writes. As he notes on the ‘Seinfeld Strategy’ “after a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain."

Jump into the pool - but not too deep

Learn by doing. The best way to do something, and part of the entrepreneur’s ethos, is that you learn by diving right in. This is literally the story of every first-time young startup founder who was flush with venture capital money and had to build and scale their enterprise rapidly. We suggest you set expectations with this concept so you don’t take on a task at which you may initially fail, discouraging you from trying again. While failure is part of success, we’re focused on skill acquisition here with a slow and meaningful process.

An example would be if you want to learn a skill like copywriting as a part of the suite of services you offer as a content writer. You could go online to a site like Fiverr or Upwork and bid on smaller and lower compensating offers to start building your skill set with lower expectations. True, you could jump off a cliff and learn to fly on the way down, but you could crash as well. It’s important to understand yourself and know how you deal with failure. Failure is part of life, and a topic we will cover in the future, and it’s important you understand how to deal with it if you want to be very successful. But when you’re just getting started and building your confidence with any skill, winning small victories consistently builds confidence.

Work with a mentor or a coach

A mentor and a coach both play different roles, but each could be helpful and effective in helping you cut the learning time when it comes to acquiring new skills. No matter what, you’re going to make mistakes at the beginning, and even feel stupid at times when you first start out. That’s a normal part of the process, so don’t get discouraged.

What a mentor can do is to help guide you down a path they’ve already been on. For argument's sake, let's use writing sales copy as the skill you want to develop. This is a highly sought-after skill that compensates well. A mentor could be a seasoned copywriter, and built a successful career doing this. Finding a mentor can be difficult and is a topic we’ll explore in a future post, but for now if you’re a student we would suggest you start researching and reaching out to alumni for a short phone call.

Coaches are legendary in places like Silicon Valley, as stated by Business Insider, “this is the power of coaching in general: The ability to offer a different perspective, one unaffected by being "in the game."  A good coach can be a game changer, and while many times you will have to pay one, working with a coach seriously cuts months off your learning curve. Coaches are easy to find, but the challenge is finding the right match. There are operation coaches, and ones who focus on mindset. There are also new categories such as entrepreneurship coaches and mindfulness coaches. A coach can have a powerful influence as they have access to your mind, but we have found them to be a net positive. But like all things, it’s just about speaking with several of them on the phone or in person and getting a sense of who you gel with and is in line with helping you reach your goals.

Start an accountability group

Not enough people do this, and for some people this simple act can be life changing when it comes to learning a new skill. All you need to do is find some like-minded friends who are focused on bettering themselves and set up a group, whether it’s a weekly call or chat group, and just hold each other accountable to your goals. It’s important to find people who are encouraging as part of this group and will do the work. As Thomas Oppong, founder @AllTopStartups, states, “on the power of peer accountability if you have a specific accountability appointment with a person you’ve committed, you will increase your chance of success by up to 95%.” You may feel this tactic won’t work, but once you try it, you’ll realize how much the opinions of your accountability group matter, to your benefit!

The hardest part of doing anything is getting started, but as we’ve outlined above, it's all achievable. We never said it was easy, but if you want to be successful it takes time to put in the work. However, if you practice and refine your skill day in, day out, you’ll get there much quicker than you would have believed. The most important thing is just to focus on the target in front of you and not concern yourself with anything else but completing that task.

The Most Important Skills

Skills to Help You Get Noticed by Hiring Companies in 2018 - IT Workforce Journal


The Most Important Skills

By Emily Touch

Sitting at home under lockdown does not prevent us from thinking about creating a new endeavor or starting a company after this is all over. While this is a challenging period for everyone, we can approach it in two different ways: either waste our precious time watching Netflix and scrolling through Instagram or use it to cultivate new skills. Entrepreneurship can be learned, and at its core it’s divided into two parts. The first is the mindset one needs to embrace to be successful, and the second being the actual skills an entrepreneur needs to execute against.

Learning and education are important, but what is equally important is putting into action all that we have learned. No one was able to build a world class company by willing it into existence or reading a few books. But reading a few books can, in fact, help reduce the number of mistakes (and there will be mistakes, lots of them) when building a company. We’ll cover some of the important skills that are needed when launching your endeavor, as well as the actions steps one can take today in order to build up those skills.

Nothing beats action and the experience of doing something first hand but there is something to be said about taking small steps despite the challenges stacked against us. There are no excuses, as some of these skills can be learned from a remote location on your laptop and are low cost/no cost.

Skill: Productivity

If you can’t sit in front of your computer for a relatively medium period, you probably won’t be able to accomplish much (and that includes writing a term paper.) The good news is that despite all the “hustle porn” out there, your average person cannot do more than 3 or 4 hours of real, focused work in one day. Author, professor, and focused work expert Cal Newport defines deep work as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” As an entrepreneur you’re not going to have the luxury to do shallow or busy work; rather, your time is going to be spent on building your business, and most likely in the early stages that means getting business in the door. The good news is 3-4 hours of meaningful work a day is manageable, leaving you time to do less mentally constraining tasks like checking email or chatting on the phone with potential customers.

What you can do today

It would be easy to state that getting your butt in a chair is simple, but this is a challenge for everyone, including the author of this piece. A productivity hack includes writing down on paper your 3-5 most important tasks every day and sticking with them. Not 10 or 15 tasks, just 3-5, and really focusing on what are the next steps to take your business to the next level. Additionally, when it comes to sitting down and doing actual work, sites like help your concentration, and the famous Pomodoro Method is a game changer in focusing you to do the hard and necessary work.

Skill: Communication

We have mentioned before this skill is vital. You need to be able to sell, and if you’re not able to do so, you won’t have a business. But the reality is that sales can be either in person (ideally) or in written form. Even if you don’t have a good product-market fit, or you’re not there yet when it comes to where you want to be in the business, the ability to sell will generate cash and be “oxygen” as serial entrepreneur and influencer Gary Vaynerchuk states. Though many entrepreneurs believe selling is an icky thing, this is a skill you must learn, and you can learn. No one is a natural-born salesperson, but some people are just more comfortable doing it.

What you can do today

Once we get through this pandemic, we’ll want human contact. Enrolling in a Toastmasters class or similar public speaking course could get you started feeling comfortable speaking (and pitching) in front of an audience. Even if you improve by a little bit, you’ll still be better than most people out there as no one is asking you to give a TED talk, but you’ll need to practice your pitching skills. While you’re at home, looking up a cheap copywriting course is a good way to start, and even giving a piece of content you wrote to a friend who writes well to edit is an action step. You’d be surprised how many people don’t utilize these resources, and how much they can benefit your business.

Skill: Networking

It is not what you know or who you know, but ultimately, it’s who knows you. The ability to parlay your network, and quickly and authentically create new relationships are key in building your business. No one does it on their own, and if you’re well connected, you’ll find things will move easier than if you didn’t know anyone. This has become such an important part of any entrepreneur’s toolkit that there are whole courses and communities about building relationships in order to advance your business. However, all the amazing relationships in the world mean nothing if you sell a product people don’t want to buy, or you don’t work hard. On the flipside, one phone call from the right person can open doors for you which you never imagined.

What you can do today

If you’re in quarantine reaching out to people for phone or Zoom calls is something you can do right now. Even if you’re emailing 5 people a day to catch up, it does not need to be something transactional. You’d be surprised what opportunities you’ll be able to source just by reaching out and making a connection. If you’re still in college, start networking today with your classmates but in a way that you’re looking to offer something. Relationships take time to build but are ultimately worth it. People want to do business with people they like, trust, and with whom they feel comfortable.

Skill: Hiring

This is probably the hardest thing for any founder or small business owner to do. The reality is no one is going to be as invested in your business’s success as you. Hiring is difficult and hiring the wrong people could potentially create a negative culture for your company. This skill is one that you learn with experience; we’ve seen good advice out there stating that just because you need a role filled fast does not mean you should hire the first person who can fill it. “Hire slow, and fire fast.”

What you can do today

Mentorship and speaking with entrepreneurs who have done this before is a good start. If you’re running a solo business or just working with freelancers this is less pressing, but you still need good people to do the work. Have in mind who you’d like to hire, but also remember that working with family and friends can be dangerous, so have those conversations but don’t commit to anything until you’re sure it’s a good fit.

Skill: Hard work

There is a great quote by serial entrepreneur Lori Greiner that states: “entrepreneurs are the only people who will work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week.” There are stories about people who built companies while living on an island in Bali but assume that’s not you. When you’re the boss you’re going to have to put in the work, but that does not mean burnout. Instead, remember this is a marathon, not a sprint. The reality is that as you figure things out and make many mistakes (you will, everyone does) hard work and moving forward every day will ultimately compensate for your learning curve.

What you can do today

You need to show up. Every single day. It’s part of the mindset (and there are plenty of good books on that.) Getting organized with a 90-day plan and your daily 3-5 tasks is a good start; just look to win the day. Small wins consistently add up to big successes. Many people get overwhelmed by what they believe it will take to realize their vision, but everything can be broken down into daily actions. It does sound like fluffy self-help advice, but Rome was not built in a day, and it was completed brick by brick. Learn to lean into the process and enjoy the hard work as it will give your life more meaning.

No one ever said this was going to be easy, but if anything, with what the world is going through now is the ideal time to seriously consider launching your new business, even if it is a side hustle. At the very least you’ll start developing skills that could be applicable to both an entrepreneur and someone who works a 9 to 5 job. There is never an excuse not to learn new professional skills starting today.

Entrepreneurs Rise to Challenges

man drinking coffee and looking at entrepreneurial magazine


Entrepreneurs Rise to Challenges

By Emily Touch

Fear and panic are dictating many of the decisions made during these days of the coronavirus. Those feelings of dread are justifiably centered around the concern that you or your loved ones may contact this pathogen and become ill. This double black swan occurrence impacting our public health and economy is causing according to LA Times, skyrocketing levels of anxiety for many in the United States. Even after taking all the steps needed to protect oneself from the virus such as social distancing and washing one’s hands, there are elements out of our control regarding the probability of getting infected.

A possible way to alleviate some of that anxiety, particularly regarding monetary matters, and as a hedge against more layoffs and a further downturn, is taking charge of your financial destiny. It may seem counterintuitive, but the present might not only be a good time to start a business, it may be a necessity given where we may be headed. Never in history has it been easier to plug in a computer, make a call, reach out, write a business plan, and begin executing right now on building a business. Previous limitations such as access to capital, talent, and infrastructure no longer exist. It’s true that it may be more difficult to start that business you’ve been thinking about now than it was six months ago, but without a possible source of income in the near to medium term, or a reduction of your salary, you may have no choice. Starting a business is not an exercise in improving your mental health, but any action is better in empowering you with the feeling you’re moving things forward.

What kind of business

A caveat here; while there are opportunities during this crisis in high-growth areas such as remote working/communications, digital health, and SaaS products many of them will require being backed by angel investors and venture capitalists. If you have an idea in those or related fields and can put together an MVP, (a minimum viable product) and can additionally spend a few months without a salary while you look for capital, then go for it. Otherwise, the possible business ideas we are focusing on look to generate cash from day one.

While there is a lot of “common knowledge” in the entrepreneur space of not “scratching your own itch” as covered in this Harvard Business Review article, many of us don’t have the luxury today to go out and acquire new skills. If you possess such abilities as writing copy or understanding sales it is better to start with what you have, even if that means putting a profile up on a site like Fiverr to start pitching possible clients immediately in the effort to build a business.

In a future article we’ll further cover some business concepts, but some ideas could include launching an e-commerce brand using marketplaces such as Amazon or platforms such as Shopify, personal coaching, or other professional consulting services. Given the quarantine times we are currently experiencing, even services such as digital marketing for brands who need online exposure and tutoring kids stuck at home on Zoom could be a start. If you’re reading this article you most likely have an idea or two regarding the type of business you’d like to build; the common denominator is that all these businesses have close to zero overhead to start.

Control your destiny

We’ll start with the most important and existential reason to start a business (including a side hustle) during this period, and that’s to put food on the table. If you look back only a few generations ago, before the United States’ economic landscape was filled with corporations, many workers made a living owning a store, trading, or even running a farm. They had no choice because there was no one to whom they could submit a resume. It wasn’t called being an ‘entrepreneur’ back then, but simply, ‘making a living’. They were the original entrepreneurs, and this was the way of life for generations stretching back thousands of years. To understand how much being entrepreneurial is in our DNA, the History of Entrepreneurship mentions that “the first known trading between humans took place in New Guinea around 17,000 BCE, where locals would exchange obsidian for other needed goods – like tools, skins, and food.”

Many budding entrepreneurs believe starting their own business will free them from a schedule, answering to a boss, or not having to deal with other people’s problems. This, however, is as far from reality as you can get. There will always be difficulties, often more so, when you start your own business. The difference is that you are executing against what your wishes are, building something of your own which you have equity in, and which could generate for you the biggest financial returns. For some lifelong entrepreneurs building businesses is their destiny.

Seeing opportunity in the bad

AsBaron Rothchild stated when taking advantage of bad times, “buy when there is blood in the streets”. There are always opportunities in economic downturns. Talent and eager money will flow to those who take the lead in creating new opportunities for wealth creation. Some of the world’s most iconic brands, as well as half of Fortune 500s were started during difficult economic periods including Disney, IBM, and Microsoft. Many of these companies’ founders didn’t have the luxury of analyzing a market report of when the ideal time was to open shop, they just needed to make money.

Mark Twain’s famous contrarian view that, “whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect” may apply to today’s current events as whole industries are being upended while new ones are being created. It’s not just the news stories about the travel industry being decimated and Zoom doing extremely well; it’s about savvy entrepreneurs who see around corners and will come up with new products we don’t even know we need yet, such as in the emerging social distancing economy.

Focus on creating a real business

During boom times when money is flowing many ideas that aren’t fully formed often receive funding. People buy non-essential items without a second thought and consumption is rampant as there is a perception that good times will continue indefinitely. Additionally, people who may have started businesses for the wrong reasons such as maintaining an ‘entrepreneur lifestyle’ (on social media) enter the fray. With the downturn many of these people will be out on the street if their company does not offer a real solution to consumers.

Times like this focus the mind and make entrepreneurs think about what product or service is essential, as well as the most cost-effective way for them to get it out there. What product solves people’s problems right now? This is a much more solid foundation when starting a business by knowing it was created to satisfy real market needs, with limited resources, and under difficult conditions. When the economy does improve, (and things will get better) you will have built a business with a strong foundation. Business guru Peter Drucker stated this in the clearest terms: “business, that's easily defined - it's other people's money.”

Where the rubber hits the road

This could be a trial by fire if you choose to build a business today whether by choice or necessity. Many possible competitors may lose their heads, while others will be skittish when they need to be aggressive. Entrepreneurship, and striking out on your own shows a lot of courage and character, both of which are in short supply these days.

Given the risk-averse effects of human nature, many people won’t pull the trigger on starting a business even when they have nothing to lose. While it can seem overwhelming to start, small steps every day and tenacious focus day in, day out, lead to success. It all starts with taking that first step. We don’t suggest starting a business in order to test yourself, or as some personal development experiment. Rather, you should start a business to solve a problem and create value. Making money and getting paid are the by-products of creating value for customers. However, you will learn a lot about yourself, business, and the world around you when embarking on an entrepreneurial journey.

We will look back on these days and remember where we were during the Pandemic of 2020. We will remember our actions, and the time will pass by either way while we sit in quarantine. The choice is either sitting at home anxious and full of despair as our bank accounts deplete or taking the initiative to build something. History may or may not judge you for not acting (you may have the next Facebook within you), but you may look back in regret knowing that you didn’t even try. This does not need to be a highly emotional decision, but if there was ever a time to find a new way to make a living, it is now.

Why Play With Entrepreneurship Now

books stacked on top of one another


Why Play With Entrepreneurship Now

By Jonathan Frenkel

Entrepreneurship is the path forward. During these times our economy and healthcare systems are facing an unprecedented crisis, there is a widespread panic not felt in generations, and policymakers are uncertain about tomorrow. It remains to be seen just how much this will affect the global economy, but changes will certainly take place, particularly with our supply chain, and the United States’ view of globalization.

Part of the uncertainty many Americans feel is that their jobs and, ultimately, their employers dictate their ability to put food on the table. There are only so many factors people can control; we are still at the whim of the economy, the markets, and mindsets that do not free us to explore other economic opportunities. If the economy in this country does worsen, and there are many indications that it will, having the confidence to know one can generate wealth on their own is empowering. In addition, after this downturn a period of rebuilding will happen, one that will be led by entrepreneurs looking to generate opportunities and capitalizing on markets with few competitors.

Entrepreneurs who have founded high-growth startups such as Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk as well as entrepreneurs turned investors such as Mark Cuban have been lionized in the media. While their endeavors have created thousands of jobs globally it is important to understand exactly what entrepreneurship is. High-growth venture backed startups are one (small) example of what entrepreneurship looks like, but do not exemplify the range of small businesses, agencies, and solo entrepreneurs across this country.

According to Wikipedia the definition of entrepreneurship is the “capacity and willingness to develop, organize and manage a business venture along with any of its risks to make a profit.” In simple terms, it is the process a person embarks on, knowing the risks involved, to generate wealth. There are several attributes we’ll explore below that are key regarding the definition of entrepreneurship and could serve as a guide for someone going down this path.

The creation of value

If an entrepreneur is not creating value and solving a problem, she does not have a business that will ultimately succeed. Being an entrepreneur, a business owner, or a founder is based on the same idea. It’s not about making money for money’s sake, it’s about creating value. One creates value by solving people’s problems, and when entrepreneurs understand this idea at the gut level and focus on solving big problems by driving the most value, they become very financially successful.

Oftentimes, budding entrepreneurs enter this space, particularly with the creation of a startup, in order to make significant amounts of money when in fact they should be thinking about how to create value at a mass scale. While companies certainly face their own set of unique challenges, tech companies such as Facebook have been able to create mass value by offering billions of people the ability to communicate instantly. Uber is another example, as the company fundamentally simplified transportation for millions across the globe as well as offering employment opportunities for thousands. Local entrepreneurs can do their part by focusing on a certain population and creating a product or solution which that group needs.

Being able to analyze risk/risk-taking

There is a commonly held belief that entrepreneurs are high-flying cowboys (or cowgirls) due in part to the mythology around people like WeWork’s Adam Neumann or Spanx’s Sarah Blakely. High risk, venture backed tech companies reward young founders with this aggressive mindset towards risk. The reality for most entrepreneurs is far from that, as according to this study done by MIT Sloan the average age of an entrepreneur is 42 years old. By that point in life many people have families, mortgages, and other responsibilities so they are going in eyes wide open into building a business.

They understand there are risks involved and hedge those risks (ex., keeping overhead costs low, employee remote workers, etc.) so that if things don’t turn out on the time frame they anticipate (they never do) they’ll have the financial runway to continue to fight another day. Things not working out are part of the process; many times, aspects of the business such as testing a product, getting product-market fit right, and securing initial customers takes time. There is an excellent concept by serial entrepreneur and NYU Stern marketing professor Scott Galloway on what risk means, and that is being able to “sign the front, and not the back, of checks.” Taking risks is an important part of being an entrepreneur given the low success rate of most endeavors, however being able to properly analyze risk is certainly not the cowboy behavior associated with throwing caution to the wind.

Salesmanship and communication

If an entrepreneur cannot communicate the value of her offering pervasively then she will not be able to succeed. An entrepreneur/leader must be able to sell the idea of the company’s value to possible customers, convince investors to put their money into the company, and recruit the most talented employees. We often see this struggle with great technical founders who create revolutionary products yet who are uncomfortable with the process of selling. On the flipside, we see many good salespeople who are founders selling products the market does not actually need, but who are able to convince people to buy by appealing to their emotions.

When it comes down to one skill, persuasion is the most important. That does not mean you need to be a natural born salesperson to be an entrepreneur; these skills can be learned, particularly conveying your company’s value with written communication. Public speaking is another skill which can be learned. Most people are terrified by the act so those who do it confidently will stand head and shoulders above the rest. In the sales skillset arsenal, one of the most powerful tools is active listening. This is a skill many leaders do well in order to truly understand the other side’s needs and is something you can start doing today.

Versatilely of skills/delegation

No entrepreneur who ever started their own company was exempt from doing things they may have not been comfortable with such as taxes, understanding insurance, etc. It is very much acceptable to be hopefully average at many of these tasks, if one understands the basics of what it takes to run a business and can delegate said tasks to other people. We are in a period where the cost of outsourcing so much of our back office (or automating it) is as simple as signing up for a monthly payment plan.

An entrepreneur must manage everything, not do everything, and continue to be the persuasive force driving the endeavor. For solo entrepreneurs and small businesses, a suite of low-cost tools exists. For those building large companies there are whole industries of part-time freelancers and consultants to whom one can delegate tasks. Successful platforms (started by entrepreneurs) such as Upwork and Fiverr are geared towards just that. It is important to understand that many successful entrepreneurs are particularly good with one or two skills, while the rest are delegated to those around them.

The ability to fail publicly… and pick one’s self up again

This may seem harsh to many people, but in this age of constant notifications and updated LinkedIn profiles one’s peers will know if that person has embarked on a new endeavor. In addition, as promoting on social platforms is basically free it is the first step many take in building their business. Fear of failing publicly, particularly in many cultures across the world is akin to a social death sentence. In the United States, a country built on entrepreneurs and dreams, failure may be painful in the short term, but it is nonetheless necessary to embrace. Wisdom from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech could prove to be relevant:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”

You must be the man or woman in the arena in order to succeed. This is probably one of the biggest open secrets out there, as public failure, and not personal financial ruin stops many people who aspire to execute against their dreams and build a company.

The common perception of entrepreneurship today glorifies the most high-risk venture backed endeavors, and not the unsung heroes and business owners who are shaping the economic landscape here in the United States. It is not only something positive but also vital to our country’s success that entrepreneurship is a desirable path for those looking to embark on, but it is important to understand the above concepts in order to have a chance when successfully building a business.

Top 4 Mistakes Student Entrepreneurs Make

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Top 4 Mistakes Student Entrepreneurs Make

By David Noble, Director of the Peter J. Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and UConn School of Business Associate Professor in-Residence in Management

Student entrepreneurs are outstanding sources of new concepts, and they are full of energy. Often times, people make severe misjudgments as to the real value of student entrepreneurship. The mythology of a student working day and night in their dorm room, then dropping out of college, is the dominant narrative. I would say that this is an almost impossible route to success, and undervalues all the contributions of others.

In this blog post, I wanted to set out a piece specifically aimed at those who advise and teach students, while giving those students a few things to watch out for as they begin their journey.

1. Students Overvalue the Idea, and Undervalue the Team

I get multiple emails a month asking for 30 minutes of my time to provide an evaluation on a student’s idea. In most cases, I have heard the idea within the last 12 months from another student or entrepreneur. Also, it has often been invested in 3 times by venture capitalists.

Now, if you are so early that you have never spoken with a potential customer, I can 100% guarantee that your idea will change dramatically before a product ever even sees the light of day. Now with that said, there is probably a kernel of greatness and a million reasons why your idea will never succeed. A million reasons why you will fail, is no reason not to try. As a student, you will learn more about business, product development, and communication by chasing a terrible idea than you will about doing nothing about it. Furthermore, that kernel of greatness in your idea has little bearing on your future success with this venture.

So if the idea is not as important as you think, what is important? Tenacity, work ethic, hunger, etc…

All of those things describe the entrepreneur, and if the first founder lacks any of them, the project will likely have a poor ending. Regardless, the founding team is the most important aspect of a student entrepreneurial attempt. Finding 2-3 complementary and committed co-founders tells me more about the likelihood of success than any other aspect of a student venture. The ability to build a core team committed to something larger than them, spells LEADER.

Rule of Thumb: Build a team of 2-3 cofounders that you are willing to marry.

2. Overly Worry About Equity Before It Is Time.

Student ventures should not divide up the equity of a team until such time as it is appropriate. When is that time? It depends. What does it depend on? Everything. There is no straight formula to building the proper equity distribution amongst founders.

What I do know is that student ventures generally skew towards a governance structure that is overly democratic. The strong social norm is to split equity and governance rights equally. I strongly disagree with this approach, except in very limited circumstances. I believe that someone needs to be the CEO or the boss, if you will.

A successful venture will require someone that is accountable and responsible for that success, and that person will be required to make difficult decisions that affect the founding team. Specifically, as the team gains traction, oftentimes the business will go beyond the ability of a particular founder. The vesting of any equity award must rely upon the successful performance of transparent duties and delivery of KPIs. The CEO, in conjunction with the Board, will have to determine if these requirements were met.

Finally, please do not make these decisions without the company lawyer at the table. If something seems really weird, consult a personal attorney. Do not forego legal counsel because it will cost you a few hundred dollars, this is the point where legal counsel is absolutely necessary.

Rule of Thumb: If you do not have a company lawyer yet, well it is too early to discuss equity.

3. Students (and Faculty) Move Too Slowly.

All emphasis is placed on product development (in a lab, developing code, etc.), and students want to have a perfect product before going into the market. Customer discovery should commence on day 1, and one of the co-founders should take the absolute lead on this aspect of the development of the startup. As Scott Case said in the first Werth Institute blog, “Customer or Die!” Why would a student or faculty startup be any different? You either have customers or you do not. If you have customers, you have a business…well, the corollary is true as well.

Day 1, find the customers. If you tell me you want to launch on campus or you interviewed a bunch of students, I know you are afraid. If your product has a target customer over the age of 21, then you need to be talking with people in that demographic about how they currently solve that problem. This is how you convince me and an investor that you have what it takes to understand the problem on a visceral level. Subject matter experts are great, but they do not replace the people that use or buy the product. Remember, just because you use a product does not mean that you buy it, and vice versa.

You as a student need to understand what a Minimally Viable Product actually is, and that depends upon knowing the customer. Move with all due speed towards that MVP launch. It will take roughly 10x longer than you think to get there, so when you move slowly that has an exponential impact. I have no doubt that this is the number one reason that student entrepreneurial ventures never see the first customer. Based upon listening to interviews of Zuckerberg, he intuitively got this. Customers’ insight come from customers using the project, and the faster you get to that, the faster you can get to a high quality product.

Rule of Thumb: If you are not sacrificing in other areas, you are not committed enough to the venture

4. Students Take Too Much Advice as Gospel

Mentorship is essential for a successful student venture. Early on, many people are eager to tell you all the ways that you are great and can be greater. The entrepreneur’s job is to determine what is good advice and what is not. That is hard when you are 20 years old and everyone looks successful to you.

Some questions to ask yourself depending upon the particular advice that is being given to you:

  • Has the mentor sold into or built product for that market? Or have they done so in a similar market?
  • Has the mentor raised their own funding rounds? Or have they successfully bootstrapped a company to high growth?
  • How much time has passed since that mentor has been active in the startup world?
  • Hardware? Software? Service? Where is the mentor coming from?
  • Does the mentor serve on company’s board of directors post Series A?
  • Will the mentor actually make the introductions necessary for you to raise money?

Essentially, I see a lot of mentorship happening where the mentor does not have skin in the game. Let me tell you that the level of advice, introductions, and interest skyrockets when the mentor has $25,000 or more of their own money invested in your company. If they want to be an advisor of a company that has not raised a dollar and receive equity for that role, that means they know once the deal gets real they will be blocked out.

Consider a mentor a data point. Some data points tell you more or less relevant information. You then weigh each data point based upon perceived experience, knowledge, and relevance to your situation. Any mentor that says it is their way or the highway, well you should show them the highway. They provide advice. You will need to do a lot of self-exploration, and determine where you need coaching. Then find people whom are willing to coach you. This is an efficient mechanism for finding excellent mentors.

For instance, if you are an engineer that has no idea about finance and accounting, you need to get online…find a class/tutorial etc…then ask an expert if you can call them three times for 20 minute conversations to make sure that you understand what you are learning. If you do this work thoroughly, you will have a mentor for life.

You should never ever promise advisor shares without talking to your firm’s attorney about when and where it is appropriate. A Board of Advisors is different from an “advisor.” An advisor does it out of the goodness of their heart, but a Board of Advisor member actually has significantly responsibilities to earn those shares. Generally speaking, they will agree to work for a few hours a week in a defined capacity. Sometimes they will invest their own money, but sometimes they will not. They will always introduce you to potential investors that have the actual ability to invest or they will make significant introductions in the manufacture or sale of your product. An advisor that is unwilling to open their rolodex is generally overpaid.

Rule of Thumb: Really learn a lot about your mentors’ strengths and weaknesses. This will make weighing their advice easier.

David Noble is the Director of the Werth Institute, and you can connect with him on LinkedIn. Connect with him if you would like to learn more about Entrepreneurship at UConn or you will be needing a keynote speaker for your event.