College vs Startup

College vs Startup

School vs Job vs Startup

I never thought we’d be in this position.  If someone would have told us three years ago that we would actually be okay with Joshua, our teen CEO, not going to college directly from high school, we’d have told you that you were crazy.  Gwen, his mom, still wants him to go someday as a backup plan.  Something true entrepreneurs seldom have.

Our thinking was that a legitimate opportunity for Joshua to start his own tech company was not one he could pass up.  If the business becomes a lifestyle business or fails, then Joshua can still go to college.  Most of us go to college to gain knowledge in an area that hopefully starts us down a career path, typically working for someone else.  If you have an opportunity to start that career path early and make some money quickly, why not take it.  What convinced us was Joshua’s clear passion for technology, his insatiable appetite to learn the necessary skills and to do so on his own time, and his obvious gift to see new products and solutions clearly in his mind.

Due to the timing of his startup effort, he still applied to colleges.  That, as it turned out, was almost a full time job all by itself.  He focused on schools with highly ranked entrepreneurship, design or technology programs.  He applied to a dozen or so schools, was accepted to Babson, Baylor, and Rensselaer Poly, and offered over $100k in scholarships. Early on, we thought Joshua was headed toward Electrical Engineering as a major but his experience in the ARK Challenge business accelerator uncovered his passion and talent for product design.  At that point we realized that no matter what Joshua ended up majoring in, he is, and probably always will be, an entrepreneur.  My experience is that college curriculum doesn’t teach that very well.  We thought that if he was in an entrepreneurial environment, he would immerse himself in that culture and access the resources surrounding it to continue to create and build products and companies, no matter what was going on in the classroom.

So we went through the application process but never pulled the trigger.  Since being selected for $150k investment in the ARK Challenge, his company has raised an additional $100k in investment and Joshua is running the company full time.  For now, college is not on the radar.  Until his company starts to bend the growth curve, his mom still holds out hope for college.  Should he go to college, he won’t need to major in entrepreneurship, he is already earning that degree.

THE TAKEAWAY:  Be open to non-traditional paths, regardless of how intimidating they may be.  The rigidity of high school and college schedules, and their associated academic requirements, make it difficult.  If the passion and drive are there, it can work and you are not alone.

The Perils of Being Independent for Young Entrepreneurs

The Perils of Being Independent for Young Entrepreneurs

Signs of Entrepreneurship

I have quipped that “we raise our kids to be independent and then we don’t like it when they make their own decisions”.  This is never more true than with energetic, driven young entrepreneurs.

Gwen and I raised our teen tech CEO, Joshua, to be independent.  Our job was to prepare him for life in a world that can be very challenging if you don’t know how to assess situations, make decisions and do things on your own.  I believe we succeeded, but maybe too well.

Some of the pitfalls of being independent and being a young entrepreneur with a natural sense of invincibility are as follows:

  1. You don’t know what you don’t know – This can give young entrepreneurs tremendous courage since they typically are totally oblivious to the possibility of failure. It can also put founders in some pretty serious situations with limited options, all of which are bad.  Be honest about what you know, and don’t know, and seek help to fill the gaps.  Surrounding themselves with people smarter than they are is a common characteristic of successful entrepreneurs.
  2. Independence doesn’t mean never depending on anyone else or sharing with others – This can really have some downside since entrepreneurs seldom know everything necessary and must depend on others to succeed. Also, entrepreneurship is a challenge both mentally and physically.  Entrepreneurs need others that they can trust will listen to what is going on with them and provide some unbiased insight and unconditional support.
  3. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness – In fact, it is a sign of intelligence and courage when they have done all they can do to figure it out on their own.

The Takeaway:  Young Entrepreneurs must teach themselves how to do many things and be responsible and accountable for their actions.  However, this does not mean that one should go it alone.  Just the opposite is true. Young entrepreneurs need others around them to fill their gaps in knowledge and skill, guide them, mentor them, and be a sounding board and willing listener for their ideas.  Stomp the accelerator and drive hard, just don’t forget about the pit crew.

Growing Into the Role of Startup CEO

Growing Into the Role of Startup CEO

skills

There is a great deal of hype around being a young startup CEO.  The fact is that most startup entrepreneurs are in their late twenties to mid-thirties.  By that time they have typically gained some experience from being responsible for projects, selling, communicating with co-workers, bosses, customers or vendors, developing plans and strategies, developing and managing a budget, and maybe even managing others and hiring and firing people.  If you are a young entrepreneur in high school, college or somewhere in between, you likely have not had the opportunity to learn from these experiences.  Reading about the theory of management and how business works doesn’t count.  While some of the principles apply, the execution is far more complex and you can’t always Google the answer.  Turns out – soft skills are really important.  I’m still not sure why we call skills “soft” that are critical to success and sometimes hard to learn.

A great idea, a large market opportunity, and a great story are compelling but ultimately mean nothing without the ability to execute.  Successful execution for a young startup CEO requires clawing your way up the learning curve by combining experiential learning, quality mentorship, research  and, as Jim Collins says, “getting the right people on the bus” (“Good to Great”, Jim Collins – a must read for young entrepreneurs).  Like most everything else entrepreneurial, it is like building the plan while you are flying it.  If you use all the resources at your disposal you will, hopefully, finish assembly and learn how to refuel while in-flight (funding) or learn how to land before you need to.

So how does a young entrepreneur get the experience they need to fulfill their CEO role?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Get a job working in a startup – Yea I know, part of the reason you want to be an entrepreneur is so you don’t have to work for anyone else. I hate to break it to you but everyone works for somebody else in some way.  Ultimately, business owners answer to shareholders, customers, or the bank.  Get over it, keep the big picture in mind, and go to school in a startup.
  2. Get a job in any business – Sorry, I used the “j” word again.  Learn about how a business operates and perform some of the functions like project management, selling, customer service, etc . . . and don’t say you don’t have time.  Prioritize and make time.  It’s part of accelerating the learning curve.
  3. Identify trusted mentors – They can help you learn the details of certain aspects of business by shadowing them or having in-depth conversations about best practices.
  4. Research topics – Watch videos, attend webinars and seminars – you know, the same level of energy and extensive research methods used when you wanted to learn how to code, make something or buy an expensive piece of electronics.
  5. Use all your contacts – Use your contacts and the contacts of your mentors to identify the right people to help you move forward. Figure out a way to engage them, get them committed to the cause and “get them on the bus”.  Young entrepreneurs cannot do it alone.  Even if you could, you don’t really want to.  For me, success is even sweeter when experienced with team mates achieving a common goal in challenging circumstances.

The Takeaway – Your technical skill and product knowledge are important but insufficient to turn a good idea into a successful company.  You need the skills and knowledge required for execution and operations.  As with software development, you can’t be good at all the languages so get some help to fill in the gaps.

Investor, Adviser, Mentor, Dad

Investor, Adviser, Mentor, Dad

Parenting

The relationship with our son, a teen entrepreneur, is  . . . well . . . complicated.  Our relationship with him is not only complex, but ever changing.  Over the years my role has morphed from traditional dad to investor, business adviser, and mentor.

Early on we noticed Joshua’s intense curiosity for understanding spatial relationships, electronics, coding, and business concepts.  To my amazement in some cases, he understood concepts that I didn’t teach him specifically and he wasn’t taught in school.  At that stage, my dad job was fairly traditional.  His mom, Gwen, and I were guidance counselors, disciplinarians, coaches, chauffeurs, spiritual guides, teachers, explorers, and part time benevolent dictators.  As it became more and more clear that Joshua was on a non-traditional path for his age, my relationship with him became more prominent.   To this point his mom, a fantastic elementary teacher, was his greatest influence regarding essential life skills like relationship building, etiquette and manners, girlfriends, organization and faith formation.  I served as male role model and athletic coach.   Gwen and I both provided character development and shared the role of benevolent dictator.   I was the one with more specific knowledge of business concepts.  He needed more of the business knowledge that I could offer beginning about age 15.  It was a changing of the guard, in a sense, and that change had an impact on all of us, both positive and negative.

Gwen struggled, and still does a bit, with how her relationship with Joshua changed.  Some of this change would have happened anyway as a young man seeking independence tries to distance himself from his parents.  Compounding that natural evolution was the fact that much of our family conversations were about business language and concepts that were initially foreign to my wife.  If she and Joshua had been working on an education project, I would have had the same challenge.  To make this situation even more challenging, in the fast paced world of a startup, events and transactions occurred daily about which Joshua and I neglected to inform his mom.  There was no daily briefing so when she dipped into the startup world every few days she felt lost because she didn’t know what was going on.  As though that trend was not enough to make a mother feel sad and out of touch, because Joshua and I spoke multiple times a day on business topics, I was also the parent that he informed about everything else that was going on with school, friends, where he was and where he was going.  It was up to me to keep Gwen informed and I did a poor job of this and, at times, still do.  This had the effect of putting a strain, not only on the relationship between Joshua and his mother, but also on my relationship with Gwen.  Not good.  If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!

Other than my relationship with God, my relationship with Gwen is the most important one in my life.  If it’s bumpy, everything else just gets harder.  That’s why, when we realized how this journey was changing all of our relationships, we made a point of doing a better job of involving everyone in daily communications.  We have also helped Gwen learn the language and concepts of business so that she has a better understanding and can contribute to our startup conversations.

Lesson learned:  Go out of your way to involve both parents, extended family and friends in this journey and help the young entrepreneur to be sensitive to the evolution and complexity of these relationships.

Early Signs

Early Signs

Signs of Entrepreneurship

As parents, how do we recognize the early signs of entrepreneurial talent and passion?  Our son, Joshua, has always been curious about how things worked and, as he’s grown older, had his own ideas about how things could be improved. It was obvious that he saw the world around him differently than most people. While many of us fly through our day taking many of the products and services we use for granted, Joshua always seemed to have an idea for a better design or a new product.

When he was very young, he would take apart the toys in Happy Meals to see how they worked. When he drew pictures for school projects, he portrayed unusual angles and multiple dimensions. Once, when we returned from a vacation, he asked if he could have the disposable Kodak camera. After downloading the pictures, it didn’t take him long to discover the power supply by completing an electric circuit with his finger. That got his attention!

He spent much of his free time, from about age eleven, researching electronics, learning how to code, building printed circuit boards, and watching YouTube and Instructibles to learn how to do things. In his early teens he taught himself how to “jail break” iPhones (a hack that overrides the built-in limitations of the phone and allows for greater customization) and sold his services to his classmates. When we discovered he was doing this, which was followed by a discussion of why it was a bad idea, I asked him how much he charged and how he knew how to price it. He replied that his pricing varied a little bit because he charged an amount that made it worth it for him, but one his classmates could afford without having to ask their parents for the money.  That was a deal killer. I knew then that we had an entrepreneur on our hands.  Either that or a con man.

The signs you may have a young entrepreneur on your hands include:

1. He/she is curious about how things work

2. He/she sees the world differently – Notices things others don’t. Sees problems and solutions.
Caution: This can also lead to strong opinions, fierce independence and significant confidence. This all sounds good until, as a parent, you have to manage and direct it. I have always told my wife that our kids being skilled in communication when they were young was cute until they became teenagers and used it as a weapon. Some days I think we should have never encouraged them to speak.

3. You notice a pattern of problem solving that evolves into dealing with more and more complex projects as they mature

4. They willingly use their free time to research how things work, to explore the world around them, to understand new technologies, and to teach themselves how to do things

5. He/she has an innate sense of economics, the value of things, and what product development

6. He/she has a personality that allows them to pitch their ideas and to get others interested in buying their product or service, or helping with developing the solution

THE TAKE AWAY:

Parents – As challenging as all these signs may appear to be, the one thing we don’t want to do as parents is to stifle the creativity and innovative thinking of our kids. The SYSTEM will do enough of that.

Young Entrepreneurs – If you have some of these characteristics, you may be feeling different than many of your peers.  Never stop exploring and creating.  Seek out groups of like-minded people.  The IDEA group – Innovators, Developers, Entrepreneurs and Artists.  Be prepared though.  It’s a very diverse, sometimes edgy bunch.