5 Keys for Growing Into the Startup Founder Role

5 Keys for Growing Into the Startup Founder Role

Education Entrepreneurship Leadership Preparation

A startup founder needs a vast skill set to be successful.  Many startup founders 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 founder 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 plane 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 startup founder get the experience they need to fulfill their executive 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.  In addition, they might also give you some guidance that will keep you from making a costly mistake.  I often say that I wish I could have learned some things in a less expensive manner along the way.  I probably would’ve had I listened to the advice I was given.
  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.  The founder role, especially the CEO/COO functions, require a vast skill set.  It’s a journey to get there.  Have an intentional development plan, execute the learning processes and you’ll grow into the role.

3 Ways a Gap Year Can Pay Off

3 Ways a Gap Year Can Pay Off

Education Preparation skills

There is much discussion these days about the value of a gap year.  A gap year is a term used to describe a year, granted by the university that has accepted a student, between leaving high school and entering college that students can use to work, do projects and generally experience the world before officially entering college. Many institutions of higher education offer a gap year and some, like Harvard, even encourage it.

For me, GAP is an acronym that stands for Get A Perspective.  Left up to me, a GAP year or two would be mandatory and here is why:

  1.  Helps pinpoint gifts and passions – Those who read this blog frequently (thank you so much to all three of you) know that I place a high priority on starting the discovery process early in life to identify your gifts and talents. Unfortunately, a purposeful path of discovery is not the norm and most teens find themselves unaware of their gifts and talents at a time when the education system requires them to choose a college major and a career that will put them on a particular track for the next 50 years.  It is not surprising that most of us spend 4-6 years, and leave college with a sizeable debt, pursuing a major that is mostly unrelated to our eventual career.  A 2013 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York pegs that mismatch at 73%.
  2. Provides opportunities to serve – My observation is that most teenagers are pretty selfish and serve as the center of their own universe.  There are a number of scientific studies that attempt to explain this phenomenon in terms of neurons, receptors and hormones but basically it comes down to “everything ain’t connected yet”.  Natural maturing processes will eventually change this situation but I believe a good dose of refocusing priorities and real world decision-making could jump-start the maturation process.  I’m not talking about backpacking across Europe to “find yourself”.  I’m talking about taking a year or two to serve others, solve real world problems, and figure out your gifts and talents.  A few examples include waiting tables and saving money to go on several mission trips, working in a startup, pursuing multiple paid internships, volunteering at non-profits, programs like City Year, or even military service.  This period should not be a random event but a purposeful pursuit of discovering passions and gifts, and developing skills while serving others.
  3. Figure out what you don’t like – This may be as important as figuring out what you do like.  It is important to sort out what you seem to have a passion for but aren’t that skilled at, what you are naturally skilled at but don’t care about, and what you absolutely never want to do again.  There were not great choices for summer jobs in my small town growing up but I learned some very valuable lessons working as a laborer during the construction of coal-fired power plant.  These kinds of experiences motivated me to go to college because I did not want to be doing this to support a wife and kids when I was 40 years old. Spending time with a relative who was a lawyer and internships in college working in local government helped me to hone in on what I thought I wanted to do.

Unfortunately, the idea of a Get A Perspective(GAP) year or two before we make big decisions about college and career will likely not catch on any time soon.  Most education institutions are still on an agrarian calendar, higher education has become a big business that doesn’t like disruption, and we have become accustomed to the SYSTEM pushing us along.  As parents, most of us are going a hundred miles an hour with our hair on fire and it’s simply more convenient to follow the formula than to engage and manage our children’s education and discovery process ourselves.  I’m not sure whether Joshua, our young entrepreneurial son, will have a few GAP years spent trying to build a startup before eventually pursuing college, or whether his GAP years will evolve into an entrepreneurial life.  I do know this, it will be on his terms and he now has an understanding of what it will take to achieve his goals.  He’s learned a great deal about himself, business and life since leaving high school a few years ago.  The decisions he makes going forward will certainly be more informed, goal oriented and long-term.

THE TAKEAWAY – A purposeful GAP year or two can make a big difference in college success.  Why do you think Harvard encourages it?  Some parents fear that if their kids don’t go to college right out of high school, they may not go at all.  I believe this period, if it is done in a purposeful way that helps define strengths, weaknesses, and interests, can result in an optimized college experience, a more meaningful career and a more fulfilling life. Get in the GAP and discovery yourself. 

 

27 Great Sources for STEM and Entrepreneurship Education

27 Great Sources for STEM and Entrepreneurship Education

Education Entrepreneurship STEM

With school starting back, and education on our minds, I thought it might be a good time to provide a list of resources that can help parents and students pursue STEM and entrepreneurial endeavors.  This is not meant to be a comprehensive list.  Find one near you and engage in the programs or volunteer to help.

  1. Y.E.S – The Arkansas Economic Acceleration Foundation, an affiliate of Arkansas Capital, created the Youth Entrepreneur Showcase (Y.E.S.) for Arkansas business plan competition in 2005 to introduce young Arkansans in grades 5-8 to the potential and opportunities of entrepreneurship.
  1. EAST – The EAST program, a project based learning program that teaches kids coding, video production, how to use design and GPS mapping software, and develop websites, is already in 200+ schools around the state.
  1. Arkansas Innovation Hub – Nonprofit organization with a maker space (lots of cool 3D printers, microprocessors, etc . . .) dedicated to talent and enterprise development in an environment where Arkansas entrepreneurs and innovators find support for success.
  1. Art Connection – A student art program located inside the Arkansas Innovation Hub.  Students learn painting, sculpting, digital design, and much more.
  1. Noble Impact– An education initiative that exposes students to relevant experiences and tools that enable them to navigate a world defined by uncertainty with an entrepreneurial skill set and a public service mindset.
  1. STEM Coalition – A statewide partnership of leaders from the corporate, education, government and community sectors which plans, encourages, coordinates and advocates policies, strategies, and programs supportive of excellence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teaching and learning in order to expand the economy of Arkansas and produce higher paying jobs. There are STEM Centers located around the state.
  1. 100 Girls of Code – The mission of 100 Girls of Code is to achieve gender parity in STEM fields by introducing more young women to code and computer engineering at a young age. We seek to inspire more girls to pursue a future in STEM.  There is also Northwest Arkansas Chapter.
  1. First Robotics – The mission of FIRST is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting Mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.
  1. Best Robotics – In these project-based STEM program students learn to analyze and solve problems utilizing the Engineering Design Process, which helps them develop technological literacy skills.  Programs in Jonesboro, Harrison, Little Rock and Ft. Smith.
  1. Arts and Science and Kids MuseumsArts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas – Pine Bluff, Museum of Discovery – Little Rock, Mid-America Science Museum – Hot Springs, and the Amazeum – Bentonville
  1. Arkansas Out-of-School Network – A network of after school programs around the state.  A few notables include:
    • 4-H State Robotics team
    • Adventure Clubs of Bentonville, AR
    • Bella Vista Boys and Girls Club – strong STEM focus with NASA curriculum
    • O. Kelly Middle School (21st CCLC after school program) – robotics focus
    • The Camp Pfiefer program – environmental STEM related projects
    • The Saline County Boys and Girls Club – Benton – entrepreneurship focus, partners with 4-H
    • Horatio Elementary School – 21st CCLC – focus on Coding
    • The Audubon Center, Little Rock – focus on environmental stewardship

Joshua used online resources extensively to teach himself how to code, develop websites and smartphone apps, build printed circuit board and electronic products, and produce video.  If you confine your learning to the formal classroom, you are missing out on valuable, self-paced education.  In addition to this list of Arkansas area programs, check out this list of online sources for subject matter education and skills development from our friends at Entrepreneur:

  1. CodeAcademy – This great resource offers free interactive programming sessions to help you learn programming languages such as HTML, CSS, Javascript and PHP. You can save your progress as you go with a free account. Learning to code can help entrepreneurs fix bugs if they don’t have a developer, or even go down the road of building their own website or products (such as apps).
  1. HubSpot Academy – The free certification program offers courses on inbound marketing, including website optimization, landing pages and lead nurturing. These skills are a must for business owners as they try to grow their business and online presence.
  1. Moz – If you want to learn search-engine optimization to make sure your website is as visible as possible, check out this treasure trove of resources from SEO leader, Moz. Besides having the free Moz Academy, there are also webinars (live and recorded), and beginner’s guides to SEO, social media and link building.
  1. LearnVest – The most successful entrepreneurs know how to manage their money both on a business and personal side. In addition to having extremely affordable finance classes, LearnVest also offers some of its classes for free, such as “Building Better Money Habits” and “How to Budget.”
  1. Niche consultant courses – The Internet has made for a coaching boom, which is extremely helpful to entrepreneurs who want to learn how to start or better a business in a specific niche. Some great coaches and organizations that routinely have free courses and e-books on building a business include Natalie MacNeil and MyOwnBusiness. Try searching “niche keyword” + “business course” to find one most applicable to you.
  1. edX – This free site currently has over 300 courses on a variety of topics, including “Financial Analysis and Decision Making” and “Entrepreneurship 101: Who is your customer?” These courses not only cover business in general, but can also you help learn more skills that are applicable to your industry, such as big data or environmental conservation.
  1. Khan Academy – This free learning resource was created to give everyone access to education in math, science, art, technology and more. There are over 100,000 interactive exercises to put your education to practical use. Even though many of the courses are geared toward high school students, there are several courses that would be good for anyone to have a refresher on, such as taxes and accounting.
  1. MIT Open Courseware – These are actual courses taught at MIT and offered for free on the site for viewing and reading at your discretion. The school put together an entrepreneurship page that lists available courses that are beneficial to new business owners. Courses include “Early State Capital” and “The Software Business.”
  1. Kutztown University of Pennsylvania – This university has almost 100 free on-demand college courses that are extremely applicable to entrepreneurs, including ones that cover business planning, operations and management and small-business tax.
  1. Coursera – Much like MIT’s Open Courseware, this site has 114 educational partners that provide free courses to almost 10 million users. One benefit to Coursera is that there are very specific courses that fit perfectly into particular niches, such as “Data Management for Clinical Research” from Vanderbilt University and “Innovation for Entrepreneurs: From Idea to Marketplace” from the University of Maryland. Its wide network of partners allows for a greater selection.
  1. OpenCulture – This site isn’t an educational platform on its own, but rather collects and shares free resources from around the web. Its list of 150 free online business courses is a great resource because it offers classes from iTunes U and other lessons on video and audio. The site also has lists of free audiobooks, certificate courses and other online courses.
  1. YouTube – It’s probably unsurprising to most users that YouTube is one of the world’s largest search engines, as there are literally videos on just about anything you can imagine. From TED talks to recorded presentations on building a business, it’s a great free resource on just about any topic.
  1. Alison – This platform offers free online courses from some of the most well-known names on the internet today, including Google, Microsoft, and Macmillan. With over 4 million users and over 600 courses already, it covers topics such as economic literacy, personal development and business/enterprise skills.
  1. Saylor – The Saylor Foundation offers tuition-free courses and also works with accredited colleges and universities to offer affordable credentials. Its course offerings are similar to what you’d see when working toward a bachelor’s degree.
  1. Podcasts – Even though it’s not an official course, podcasts are an amazing (and easily digestible) way to become a better entrepreneur. Podcasts can be listened to via streaming on your computer (if that certain podcast offers it) or via iTunes for iOS and apps such as Podcast Republic for Android. Podcasts such as Entrepreneur of Fire already garner thousands of listeners every episode and are a great way to learn the most up-to-date information and strategies possible. Another good list of entrepreneur podcasts include Think Entrepreneurship’s.
  1. Instructables – This online site has step-by-step projects and videos shared by folks making everything from lamp shades to robots. Joshua has used this resource extensively for inspiration to create his own projects.

THE TAKEAWAY – While the classroom is a tried and true traditional source of learning, there is so much more to learning outside of textbooks and lectures.  STEM and Entrepreneurship are best learned by DOING.  Use these online resources, join a program, or get your own team together and go BUILD SOMETHING.  Outside the classroom, even if you happen to fail, you learn.  Keep trying.

 

6 Signs You May Be Afflicted With Entrepreneur’s Syndrome

6 Signs You May Be Afflicted With Entrepreneur’s Syndrome

Education Entrepreneurship skills

Entrepreneur’s Syndrome can strike at any age but symptoms may be detected early in the young. While this condition can be cured by stifling creativity, the best treatment is to deal with the symptoms.  While I am not a doctor, I have done extensive research on this subject and feel qualified to comment on this syndrome which has reached epidemic proportions in some parts of the world.  Plus, I played a nurse once in a skit at a school fund raiser.

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. Young entrepreneurs are like that.

When he was very young, he would take apart the toys in McDonald’s 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.  “Asking parents for money is usually a deal killer” he said . I knew then that we had an entrepreneur on our hands. Either an entrepreneur or a con man.

The signs that you or your loved one may be afflicted with Entrepreneur’s Syndrome:

1. Curiosity about how things work – Taking apart everything from toys to VCRs is normal.  THE TREATMENT: Get inexpensive electronics, mechanized, digital equipment, toys and appliances from garage sales and Goodwill so they don’t take apart the good stuff.

2. Seeing 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. There are days when I think we should have never encouraged them to speak.  THE TREATMENT: Encourage and talk to them about their observations and thought processes.  While, as parents, we can’t allow these young, potential entrepreneurs to be disrespectful, they likely feel a bit ackward that they think differently than others and they need an outlet to help them figure things out.

3. Problem solving – There a pattern of problem solving that evolves into dealing with more and more complex projects that accompanies maturity.  THE TREATMENT: Help them think through the problem but do not take the lead or help them avoid failure.  Be patient.  If they fail, they may get frustrated, disappointed, and appear to lose confidence. Be supportive.  They will figure out what to do next.  Failure is part of the learning process.

4. Free time spent researching and learning – Those afflicted will spend some of their free time exploring the world around them to understand new technologies, and to teach themselves how to do things. THE TREATMENT: Be guarded about where, and from who, they get their information.  Some great sources are not necessarily age appropriate.  We allowed Joshua to use the internet extensively but he couldn’t have a laptop in his room until he was an older teen and he was required to be in open areas of our house where we could observe what he was doing any time we wanted.

5. A sense of economics, the value of things, and product development – In my experience, those afflicted with Entrepreneur’s Syndrome have an innate sense of value. While they may not have the in-depth knowledge of how to price a product or service, they generally have a sense of what a good idea looks like as well as profit and loss.  THE TREATMENT:  Whether it’s a lemonade stand, hacking iPhones, building websites, or building an early version of a hardware product, the afflicted must have opportunities to put their sense of economics into practice.  Insure that what they want to do is not illegal or immoral and turn them lose.

6. Communicating their ideas – Those affliced with Entrepreneur’s Syndrome generally have 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. Great ideas aren’t worth much if you can’t communicate their value.  THE TREATMENT: While our personality is a gift, good communication is a skill.  The afflicted need guidance and practice in order to properly tell their story, communicate their ideas, and get people to care.

THE TAKE AWAY:

Parents – As challenging as this affliction 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.  Our job is to provide opportunities for them to discover and explore their gifts and passion, to build knowledge and skill, and let them fail along the path to discovery.  This is the only TREATMENT that works.

Young Entrepreneurs – If you have some of these symptoms, 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.  TREATMENT – Solve a problem and build something.  It’s the only treatment that works.  Start today and you can lead a long and happy life doing what you love.

3 Education Strategies for Young Entrepreneurs

3 Education Strategies for Young Entrepreneurs

Education

When our entrepreneurial son Joshua was 15 years old we were talking about engineering school.  When he was 18 we all agreed that going to college was not the best route for him despite relatively high ACT scores, a high grade point, being the Vice President of his class at Catholic High in Little Rock, AR, and having multiple college scholarship offers.  If you’d have told me when he was 15 that he wouldn’t go to college right out of high school, I’d have said you were crazy.  However, having researched college programs around the country and having some knowledge of the inner workings of our education system for high school and college, I believe there are some strategies that young entrepreneurs should consider.

  1. Set your priorities – When Joshua was in high school, we made business pursuits a priority equal to his formal education. His grades suffered a bit but we were willing to accept that for him to pursue his entrepreneurial goals.  Follow the traditional path of high school and college, but recognize that most entrepreneurial knowledge and skills development happens outside a classroom.  Striking the right balance is challenging but it can be done.  Be prepared for most people around you, especially educators and parents who believe in the traditional path for their kids, to not understand your choices.  Traditional classrooms may be a good place to convey knowledge, but knowledge without application is limited to talking about concepts not putting them into action.
  1. Go to college but focus on building your product/company – The college part of this balancing act is to attend part-time, to select an area of study that will be less challenging in which to get a degree, or to accept mediocre grades that will still permit achieving a degree. The part-time approach allows you to make progress toward a degree but at a slower pace.  The strategies of majoring in a less challenging field of study or accepting lower grades just to get a college degree is a recognition that the real skills and knowledge acquired outside the classroom are of equal or greater value as a college degree.  This is a bit of a hedging strategy in which one gains real world entrepreneurial experience while also meeting the requirement by most employers that requires a college degree.  Use online sources to maximize your schedule flexibility.
  1. Delay college – Focus 100% on building a product and growing a company. The is the reverse of the traditional path whereby getting real world experience comes prior to formal education.  Many colleges now offer a gap year to allow students who have been accepted to attend to delay their entry into college.  While I like this concept, the timeline is controlled by the university.  Building a company doesn’t follow a schedule.  If college is your first priority, but you want to get a little real world experience before you go, work in someone else’s startup.  If you are serious about your own startup, give yourself a time constraint for achieving a certain level of success.  If those milestones are not met, then consider your other options.  You can always go to college and you will likely be a more mature, focused student.

Joshua has chosen strategy #3.  He’s been out of high school for two years and has not taken any college classes.  The company made no progress for nine months due to involvement in a trademark legal dispute. Given that challenge, Joshua could have started college or taken classes.  Instead, he used that time to design hardware complimentary to the company software and to investigate other market opportunities.  If his entrepreneurial pursuits are successful, I’m not sure he will ever pursue a college degree.  I do know this, if and when he does pursue more formal education, he will do it on his own terms.

THE TAKEAWAY:  Make formal education work for you.  If you are serious about entrepreneurship, develop a strategy, set priorities and timelines, maximize your schedule flexibility with online courses, and make it work.  If you pursue a degree, it may take you longer than your classmates from high school.  So what!!  Don’t let that make you feel like you are behind.  Your real world experience will win out in the the end.  Besides, if any of them eventually start a business they will likely be in their late 30’s.  You may have built several successful companies by then.