“You don’t need to paddle as hard for the bigger waves”
That’s what Kaoki, my surfing instructor, told me during my first surf lesson on the shores of Maui two weeks ago. It was as if he was some executive coach because everything he said to me made complete sense from a business perspective. In the back of my mind I was still trying to digest the Facebook IPO and how a small company realized over $100B in value in just a few short years. So when he started talking about the “waves,” some things he said became immediately clear.
“You don’t need to paddle as hard for the bigger waves.” The pre start-up days of a start-up company are among the most exciting and also, the most terrifying. This is the moment when entrepreneurs decide what they are going to build and what market they are going to be in. Often times this can be very paralyzing to an entrepreneur because their choices are unlimited, so the fear sets in when they start asking, “but what if I choose the wrong idea?” So as an entrepreneur, the real question you should be asking is “what if I choose the wrong wave?” Start by looking at very large markets or quickly emerging markets. You will have more room for error while also having more upside potential. Another friend of mine said, “it takes the same amount of work to build a successful company in a big market as it does in a small market.” He’s spot on. Start with a bigger market. Start with a bigger wave.
“Surfing is 90% paddling and 10% surfing.” In order to actually stand up on a wave, you need to paddle and you need to do so in a way that gives you a chance to surf. In any startup, this is what matters most. Putting in the time, work, dedication and focus beforehand so you can enjoy that sweet fundraising event or successful exit later on. Without the right type of paddling and focus, you’ll never be able to enjoy a wave.
“Don’t just paddle, push the water.” Writing emails for the sake of writing emails is rather meaningless. This concept applies to just about everything you do at your job. When you are trying to get something done, do it with reason. If you don’t have one, ask yourself why you are doing it in the first place. If you aren’t “pushing water” you may never get up on a wave and you’ll just be some person sitting in the middle of the ocean, or industry, bobbing up and down on a fancy looking boogie board.
“Be patient. The good waves will come.” If you are patient, committed, and hardworking, you will eventually find yourself starring at a great opportunity. The question is, will you be prepared? Will you “push the water” and put in the work so that you can stand up on the board and ride it out?
Our society celebrates the buzzy and bubbly – acquisitions, funding events, mergers, new hires. As entrepreneurs, most of the buzzy stories we read are rather useless. They serve no practical application to help grow our respective businesses. This is why great entrepreneurs get out in the field and engage in as many conversations as they can with those they respect. They want to hear firsthand how people have succeeded and how people have failed. They search for tried and true lessons so that they can apply the takeaways to their own ventures. And in this process entrepreneurs uncover key insights that may lead to a critical pivot in a business model or perhaps may lead to a simple validation of an already held mindset. From my vantage point, all of these little stories serve as an important backdrop for anyone looking to build a great business.
So here are three short stories from three up and coming New York City startups. Maybe you’ll uncover a gem of insight that will help transform your business or project.
“No Silver Bullets” by Aaron, CEO & Co-Founder of Tutorspree
The hardest lesson I’ve learned since co-founding Tutorspree is that there are no silver bullets – even when charting something as amazing as the future of one-on-one learning. It may seem a bit strange that I need that as a lesson when everything else I’ve ever done has required huge amounts of hard work. Intellectually, I had no expectation that a startup would be any different. But emotionally, entrepreneurs are continually confronted with stories in the popular press full of the one huge a-ha innovation/decision/partnership that “made” a company. While I know that those may be possible in extreme edge cases, that they’re nowhere near the norm, and they create an irrational expectation that one is just around the corner.
The truth is that start ups are hard, they’re a slog, they’re a huge amount of all consuming work – but that’s also why they’re amazing. You don’t find a single silver bullet – that’s the just the story people tell afterwards, you find a whole bunch of little steps and you figure out how to string them together until you have your success. And looking back, that’s a bigger achievement than a single fell swoop, which might be as much luck as anything else. That’s a lesson I take into work with me every day, and it is a critical piece of what makes this the life I want.
“Motivation by Inspiration” by Mike Dirolf, CEO of Fiesta
For me, motivation has been the principle benefit of working from a co-working space in New York City; collaboration is a distant second. It’s great to have smart people around to ask for help and feedback, but it’s far more important to see how hard those people are working and to be inspired to keep up. At almost all hours of the day the space is filled with people working as hard as they can to turn their fledgling companies into successful businesses. It’s impossible to walk into the place and not feel energized.
A little over a year ago I set out on my own and was ostensibly working from my apartment. The reality was that I had a lot of trouble staying focused. About a month later I moved into a co-working space; since then staying motivated hasn’t been a problem. Now that Fiesta is growing and I’ve brought on a co-founder that external motivation might be less essential, but I’m convinced we never would’ve gotten this far without it.
“Colloboration” by David Reich, CEO & Founder of Assured Labor (Disclosure: David Reich has no relation to Dan Reich
Our company, Assured Labor, is an unusual start-up. Started at the MIT MediaLab, Assured Labor connects employers in emerging markets with local sales, operations and administration candidates using cell phones and web technology.
We have a staff of 15 (including our outsourced engineering team) distributed between Mexico, Brazil, Pakistan, Nicaragua and of course, our headquarters in New York City at Dogpatch Labs. We’ve often been asked why we keep our headquarters in New York while all of our operations are based in the emerging markets. The answer is collaboration. Our New York base allows us to collaborate with the world’s best engineers and business innovators, ensuring we can outcompete our local competitors. I’ll give an example of each.
Engineering. While we have been happily working with an outsourced technology team based in Lahore, Pakistan, we keep our senior technologist and product manager in the US. This is for two reasons: first, this is where the worlds top talent is, and second, to provide our talent with the opportunity to collaborate with likeminded entrepreneurs. In our incubator there is no shame in asking questions or fear that collaborators (from other companies) will steal our idea. This ecosystem allows our engineers to learn from peers other and build better services faster.
Business Innovators. Over the past year dozens of startups have come through Dogpatch Labs, each with it unique ideas on how they’ll monetize their business. I’ve seen Groupon models, Ad based models, Subscription models, Freemium models, Co-marketing models, and a dozen more. Each month notable experts come through Dogpatch to meet us, ranging from the Scott Heiferman of Meetup.com to Eric Reis the author of “The Lean Startup”. But best of all I’ve had the opportunity to learn from my fellow founders while sharing my opinions on what I’ve seen working both internationally and in the US. As technology is only part of building a successful startup these opportunities to collaborate with business innovators is a tremendous advantage.
Beyond the opportunity to collaborate in engineering and business innovation the collaborative environment of our co-working space has provided us with introductions to investors, employees, interns and partners. We also lean on each other for energy and motivation, sharing in each other success. While few things can match the business learning that comes from sitting with your customers, few things can match the business building to be gained from collaboration with other entrepreneurs, in the trenches, working to change the world.
Starting a business is very hard and to be successful I think you need to have a certain set of characteristics, one of which I’ll call the “insane maniac” trait.
I by no means think you need to be certifiably crazy to start and run a business, but I do think you need to be able to handle the stresses of entrepreneurial life and to do so requires a mentality that, in some cases, you can just flat-out call crazy.
Paying people with money you don’t have
Working 24+ hours straight
Flying across the world and back for one meeting
Buying assets with money you don’t have
Living with no income, but lots of expenses
Distributing flyers room by room, in hundreds of rooms for hours on end
Obsessing over a problem or idea during all hours of the day
Walking around for weeks with inventory in your backpack in hopes of making a sale to random people
Stocking boxes of inventory in your bedroom to the point you can’t move
Writing 50 page business plans at 3am
Diagraming an entire network of one’s business contacts
Selling something that doesn’t exist
Learning chinese to have one phone call
Learning how to write code from scratch to in order to build software
These are just a few things I’ve either experienced or witnessed firsthand by other entrepreneurs. So I think if you have partners you can trust, but can also operate at a borderline crazy yet obsessively steady pace, then I think you have a good foundation for building a business. And it will be with people that are crazy enough to make it work, whatever “it” is and whatever “it” takes.
I’m thankful to have been able to start businesses with people that fit this mould (even if only a little): Joe P, Lauren R, Steve W, Jesse S, Reese P, Dan S, Jeremy R, David N, Tom W, Corey C, Andrew F.
If you are in college you should start your own business because there is no better time to do so.
When I was in college working on thecampusatlas.com I remember thinking how great it was to have the flexibility of a student and to have the resources of a college university in order to get things done. I was surrounded by exceptionally bright people from all different backgrounds and areas of expertise who were willing to provide guidance.
“There is no better time to start a company than when you’re in school,” he said.
After all, college students don’t require a lot of money, their housing often is paid for, and their peers often are willing to hustle at all hours to meet deadlines. “You can’t beat that when you need to have your attention focused on the company,” he wrote in an e-mailed response to a question.
Furthermore, academic institutions have the resources to educate entrepreneurs on any single area of a business or topic and by leveraging the various academic resources to build your business, you actually obtain a wider knowledge base of information then originally intended.
As a student, you have the ability to build your own business in a safe, low-cost, resource-rich environment and if it doesn’t work out you still hedged your bet because you’ll most likely graduate with a degree.
Starting a business is very hard. In a matter of 24 hours your emotions can range from thinking that your business will be the next Google, to thinking how moronic you were for even contemplating the idea in the first place.
In order to start a successful business, I believe you need two components above all else.
“How should you behave? Well, do things in a group. Don’t do things by yourself. Groups are stronger, groups are faster. None of us is as smart as all of us…..” – Eric Schmidt, CEO Google.
2. The Entrepreneurial Snowball Effect
Beyond having a team, you need a group of people that can feed off of each other. People that together, build continual momentum regardless of the challenges by feeding motivation to and from others in the group. If one person starts some momentum, others can build and build upon it until slowly, that once “idea” begins to grow into reality.
From my experiences, most people have great ideas but fail to see the execution through all the way. And the few that do see execution through quickly stop at the sight of any real obstacles (I’ve been guilty of both in the past).
If your lucky enough to find the right team with an entrepreneurial snowball effect, take your idea and just build something.