Why are young entrepreneurs taking over the tech world? Who gets these kids charged with the kind of passion that induces investors to open their tightly held wallets? They lick their chops like old men lusting after eager young virgins. We’re going to take a closer look at this phenonemon.
I’m at Northwestern’s all-day conference put on by “entrepreneur@nu,” their in-house accelerator for student startups. This session is called “Tech for Non-Techies.” I asked Bill Blaire to cover the keynote address. I want to be here, at this session. I want to hear Mert Iseri who’s on the panel. I’ve seen him present at the Levi mastermind group with his parner Yuri Malina and I already visited their skunkworks on the Northwestern campus for a closer look. These guys are recent grads, young and untested. But I’d be pleased to work with them no matter what the venture. (Well, almost.) Right now, they have something exciting by the tail. But if it morphs in an entirely new direction, it’s a good bet they’ll succeed just as well at whatever that is. Consultants are gathering like wolves but Mert and Yuri don’t need them–not yet, as you will see.
So here I am to hear Mert but I’m in for a surprise. I see what looks like an entire panel of Merts. Yes, every one of them is as electric as my favorite young entrepreneur. They each come from a different background, a different expertise, a different culture. But the reckless abandon is there in all five of them—and it’s addictive. I love it. Truly I do. So do the investors.
THE JOCKEY OR THE HORSE?
My belief in two young entrepreneurs begs a familiar question. Which is more important—the jockey or the horse? I’m backing the jockey this time. Am I right?
I mention this to David Culver of Extraordinary Success – www.extraordinary-success.com. He responds with an interesting comment: “Last time I checked,” he says, “nobody won the Triple Crown, finishing without a horse.” He goes on to say he’s seen plenty of enthusiastic entrepreneurs flame out. But I’m rooting for these two jockeys anyway.
I believe the entrepreneur is more important than the product or service at the very early stages. I believe this to be true especially if the leader is young. There’s no doubt these young entrepreneurs are smart–scary smart. But more than that, they’re having a whale of a good time. They think business is a blast–a rush. They’ve found a new drug. Instead of greed, they’re driven by joy. Look into their eyes and tell me you want to compete with them. I believe that the young have earned a number of advantages over those who call themselves “seasoned.” I can cite a few good reasons for these beliefs:
1—An early stage product and an early-stage business model will go through multiple iterations during the maturation process. I’m talking huge changes happening fast. Seasoning doesn’t prepare you to handle that kind of rapid change—quite the reverse. But the young seem wired for it—especially students who have no responsibility outside of their class work, their venture.
2—These kids bootstrap on the shoulders of a university-provided ecosystem. Free labs. Free PhD-level advisors. Free prototypes. Plenty of collaboration. We’re talking about a new kind of accelerator. As lean startups and with modern technology they can get up and going quickly. It no longer takes 20 years and millions of dollars to get a company on track. Old folks are financially responsible. These kids have little to lose.
3—They live in a Bohemian community of highly intelligent and creative people, wild new ideas, and a spirit of shared innovation. They feed on each other’s ideas and enthusiasm. They multiply each other’s output. Avaricious old men don’t do that. We chain ourselves to our desks. If we ever come up with a new idea, we immediately build fences. And how many of us want to go back to our college-day living standards? University students don’t live under such burdens. Hey, they finally got out of Mom and Dad’s clutches—that’s enough for the time being, right?
4—The university now teaches them an important lesson: Permit yourself to fail. Failure merely affords the opportunity to change direction. It’s called “pivot.” Under circumstances like those, the process isn’t that scary. Philosophically, it’s a paradigm shift. I was never told to fail anywhere between kindergarten and grad school. Were you ever told such a thing?
5—These kids are untamed and impulsive. They learn a lot and learn it fast. But it’s what they don’t know that makes them fearless. Old farts know better. Knowledge breeds risk-aversion. That’s why we don’t start companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, or Microsoft.
6—Do any of you recall the malaise of the ‘70s? No gas–no jobs? Cottage industries sprang up all over. It was a practical way to earn the money to buy peanut butter. That phenomenon is happening again. Unlike computer games and other labor-intensive projects, mobile apps and web-based services are a kind of cottage industry. So this isn’t really new—it’s just different. And it’s a whole lot more exciting than selling macramé at an art fair.
A NEW CLASS OF ENTREPRENEURS
These kids are wildly enthused—their creativity is launched by the fuel of an adrenaline rush. Sparks fly around them. Fireworks. One commented that he’ll probably live only another 15 years because he never sleeps. Is this sounding like a recipe for a new class of successful entrepreneurs? I think so. I’ll ask again: Do you expect to compete with them? Think again.
Has Northwestern found a way to teach the joy of creative drive? Sure looks that way. And why shouldn’t these kids be enthusiastic? They don’t know any better. They’re fresh. Untried. No tire tracks across their backs. For the most part, they have yet to get knocked around by the world. And here they are—at one of the most prestigious schools on the planet, and they’re learning the entrepreneur game from professionals with every possible resource at their fingertips.
When I attended this school they taught venture capitalism. I remember the day they brought in a couple VCs. Those guys had a peculiar message. It was their job to steer us away from venture capital and point us in safer directions. The LBO was the big thing back then. Debt was cheap and easy. Times change. It’s not so simple to borrow any more. I’m convinced that the lousy economy is stirring up the recent explosion of new ventures. And it’s plenty lousy right here in Chicago. Adversity breeds creativity. Northwestern is nurturing it.
If youth is winning out over age and experience in this one arena, I cheer them on. What they’re doing was unthinkable when I was their age. And you have to admire them—they’re doing it so well. This is a highly creative response to tragic circumstances. Jobs are scarce. For many, entrepreneurship is the only career path open after graduation.
OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES
I’ll give you the takeaways from what was a wildly dynamic session:
1 – BUILD A GOOD TEAM—You don’t have to be a tech wizard to work for a tech startup. The purpose of being technical is to build a scalable product that works. A good initial team is made up of three elements: a developer, a designer, and a “Husla” (the business end). These are complimentary skill sets. Each personality type is actively seeking the others. A world of opportunity opens up when you view the future this way. For example, a pure developer focuses on building a solid product but may not be sensitive to other issues. A startup also needs a designer to translate that code into a good customer experience. It also needs a businessman that can sell product and run the operation. Fill out your team with all three elements. One panelist admitted that he hadn’t taken math since HS. He stayed up all weekend and got help from students and a prof for a math test. He failed utterly. Then he visited a huge conglomerate and found his talent in the marketing process. Where do you fit? You need to discover what value you bring—your CORE competency. Work on that element. Translate it into language that customers and decision makers understand. Find somebody smarter than you are in the other areas you need—people that are passionate about your idea. Friends if possible because co-founding a new company is a close relationship. If you don’t know who to bring onboard, get a team of advisors to help you vet people. The university is a great resource for that.
2 – LEARN AS MUCH AS YOU CAN—One panelist developed a mobile app. But when he started out, he didn’t know anything about coding. So he learned all he could. Lots of listening. Lots of reading. Lots of playing with other apps. Another had to learn about payment processing to be able to empathize with customers. Another needed to learn about the medical industry and spent a lot of time searching on Google. If you know a little about disciplines outside your expertise, you make a good team leader. Don’t despair. Just knowing Java is awesome. Yes, top developers know lots of languages, but new languages come along all the time. Keep learning so you’re ready for the next opportunity. How technical do you really want to be? Learn the foundation. That understanding helps you find the tech people you need.
3 – GET A TECHNICAL CO-FOUNDER—You don’t need to be the company tech guru. Find a technical co-founder. Outsourcing all the development just doesn’t work. You need a CORE capability to do itty-bitty things and reduce the need to hire outsiders. Outsourcing everything uses up seed money too fast and isn’t the most efficient way to make small changes. It’s especially not a practical way to create a winning unified design. In-house technical competency allows you to put out fires on the spot. You can orchestrate your outsource money more intelligently. You stand a fighting chance of building an end product that isn’t a hodgepodge of aimless code. Also, a co-founder can hear ALL of your ideas–every one of them.
4 – DON’T KEEP SECRETS—Inventors are typically afraid to tell anybody their idea. These kids believe that’s the wrong way to think. They say, there are ten people already working on your idea and they’re smarter than you. If your idea is so simple that it’s easily stolen, then it’s already been invented. These kids believe you should tell everybody your idea and get as much help and feedback as you can. In their world, entrepreneurs love helping each other. Any one of them may have 63 ideas here and 64 ideas there. Impossible to work on them all. They actually need to filter their ideas. What kind of company do YOU want? Are you passionate about solving THAT problem? Get yourself involved in the crazy growth of the Chicago tech community. If you have an idea, go for it. Here’s how far they’ve carried this philosophy: They say, “It’s better to grow the pie as a whole than to fight over individual slices. Instead of taking a fighting stance, gather a community and be the hub. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Make your competitors your friends.”
5 – HAVE A LARGER PURPOSE—Out of all the insights, this one startles me the most. It goes like this: It’s easier to get people excited about saving 100,000 lives than to get them to believe in a device. Be committed to the PURPOSE not the SOLUTION. Otherwise, when you fail you’ll give up. I’m talking about a cause—something you believe in passionately—a larger purpose that keeps you trying when others fail. It’s crucial to hold strong beliefs, loosely held. Go to the customer. Show what you have. If the response is, “I won’t pay for that.” go back and find another solution that serves the PURPOSE. Before working on an idea, ask: “Am I solving an important problem?” The problems that you have in your own life are probably the same ones other people experience. Learn from your personal pain and passion. If you’re working on a larger PURPOSE, other people have the right to work on it too. You will actually welcome it.
6 – TELL A GOOD STORY—Somebody at Northwestern is teaching these kids to tell to do that. They’re poised. They’re concise. They’re on message. I will add to that, “WRITE a good story.” In consulting, I use a complex mindmap that asks one embarrassing question after another. If a client can answer all the questions, I know it’s a real business. One question in particularly seems extraordinarily difficult for entrepreneurs and nobody had ever answered it to my satisfaction. Then Mert did, and got it right—an immediate and strong response—just as if he’d rehearsed it. Amazing.
“My entire life, I wanted to solve problems.” – “A lot of people don’t want to be consultants—do what you love.” – “When you’re a student you can take big risks and try new things without knowing what you’re doing.” – “Are you scared? JUST BUILD IT. You’ll be depressed for a little while because you’ll fail, but when you finally succeed, there’s no feeling like it.”
My thanks to Northwestern’s entrepreneur@nu entrepreneur.northwestern.edu for a brilliantly organized event, all the way from advance parking to orange-vested staff that pointed me in the right direction to a conference sparkling with excellent planning and execution.
And special thanks to the young panelists of this session—a group of people who can teach us all:
Elizabeth McCarthy, Moderator
Jeremiah Serapine of GrooveBug – groovebug.com
Stella Fayman of Entrepreneurs Unpluggd and Fee Fighters – entrepreneursunpluggd.com and feefighters.com
Zach Johnson of Syndio Social – www.syndiosocial.com
Mike McGee of Codeacadamy – www.codecademy.com
Mert Iseri of SwipeSense – swipesense.com
Check out their sites carefully. They’re just as polished as big money but kids on a shoestring built these.
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