Taking the first step

FootstepsIn the words of the great philosopher, Nike: “Just do it!”

In today’s fast-paced, market-driven economy, launching a startup and getting to market quickly is an essential first step for a successful new venture. My experience as both an educator and entrepreneur has identified two crucial mistakes entrepreneurs frequently make when just starting out.

The first is simply the delay that often follows the fear and uncertainty of starting a new business, a preoccupation with the risks involved, and often overanalyzing a comprehensive business plan, in a fruitless effort to achieve perfection. Entrepreneurship is, by its very nature, not the execution of a detailed business plan. Rather it is the pursuit of a viable and sustainable business model. Entrepreneurs live in a world of ambiguity and constantly changing environments. Waiting until we think we have all of the answers is a recipe for disaster. So my first piece of advice is simply: get on with it!

The second failing, in my opinion, is in thinking that, since our product or service will most certainly be loved by the broader market universe, our real mission is simply to get the word out. Not!

I recently produced an event as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week. In several of the panel discussions, which included successful entrepreneurs, attorneys and venture capitalists, some of the most dramatic stories came from the failure that resulted from thinking we have created the greatest thing since sliced bread. In truth, we can only know that we have a viable business when our customers tell us we do. Failure to get customer validation and feedback early on will only lead to our limited resources chasing bad alternatives.

Here at the university and as an educator, I realize that students lack the business experience and literacy necessary to evaluate critical business scenarios, and it is clearly the mission of colleges and universities to provide those requisite skills and training. Many university degree programs, including the one I am privileged to lead, do a great job of providing students the business literacy they will need, whether they choose the path of entrepreneur or work inside existing companies as an “intrapreneur”. Universities also provide a safe laboratory environment, in which students can conduct research, examine typical business scenarios, and make business decisions – all without the disastrous consequences that could result from poor decision-making in the real world.

Of course, in the “real world”, it’s about much more than the difference between a grade of “A” or “B”. It’s about survival. And it’s about learning from mistakes made along the way, in order to avoid making the same ones in the future. With that in mind, I have two pieces of advice for college graduates or any entrepreneurs determined to launch startups:
1. Know what you don’t know. As an entrepreneur, your sole focus should be on creating the products and services your customers are telling you they want. You will likely need help with issues outside of your area of expertise. That means you don’t need to spend your time creating contracts and researching complex legal issues that would be handled more effectively and efficiently by an attorney, for example. If you’re a tech-savvy creator but not good at sales, finding that salesperson is essential.
2. Create a system for constant customer feedback. Listening to customers and tweaking your products and services to meet the needs of the market is the key to your startup’s success. And once customers see and appreciate your responsiveness, you are well on your way to a successful future.

Are there a million other things an entrepreneur needs to know and learn along the startup journey? Absolutely! But you have to start somewhere, and starting always begins with a first step. Are you ready?

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