What If Your Parents Have No Entrepreneurial Experience?

What If Your Parents Have No Entrepreneurial Experience?

Entrepreneurship Parenting Preparation

Neither of my parents were entrepreneurs.  Both were raised during the Great Depression and never attended college.  My mom ran our house.  Dad worked in a foundry, sold candy, had a thirty-year career as a civil servant at a military installation, served as our small town’s first mayor and continued his mostly unpaid service in that position for sixteen of the next twenty years.  He has an elementary school, a community service award and the snack bar at a water park named after him.  How many people can say they have a bar named after them!  So what could my parents, particularly my dad, teach me about entrepreneurship?

The answer is “plenty”, although I didn’t know it at the time.  Despite never starting or running his own business, dad’s work ethic, ability to engage and motivate people, willingness to try new things and risk failure (if you think starting a business is tough, try incorporating and running a city), team building, never ending thirst for knowledge, problem solving ability, and focus on the customer (citizens) were all entrepreneurial traits.  Dad was old school.  I don’t recall him ever actually trying to teach me any of these things.  He taught by doing and providing examples.  The rest was up to me.  We have a fancy name for this now – experiential, project based learning.  What my dad would have called “gettin’ stuff done”.

In addition to these traits, my dad was married to my mom for forty-five years and raised us three kids with her.  He never left the house without giving her a kiss and I can’t recall him ever missing an event, mostly sports related, that I was involved in.  He treated people that worked for him with respect.  He didn’t take himself too seriously and was known to wear a dress or bathing suit with makeup and a wig (womanless beauty pageant) to raise money at a school or church charity event.  So let’s add ability to pick a great co-founder, loyalty, work-life balance, respect for others, community service, and a sense of humor to the list of entrepreneurial traits.

My dad helped found a city, but not a startup.  He scaled some fish, but never a company.  He made plenty of deals, but not with investors.  He taught me most everything I needed to know to run a startup and help others do so successfully, without ever doing it himself.  I only hope that I can have a similar impact on Joshua, our young entrepreneur. It is not lost on me that my dad’s legacy lives on in me and hopefully in our kids.  What a blessing it was to have my dad in my life.  He was my role model and mentor and I think of him every day.

THE TAKEAWAY:  For all you young entrepreneurs who, like me, had a father in your life that has helped you develop your skills and knowledge, even if indirectly, I urge you to make sure they know what a positive impact they’ve had on you and how thankful you are for them.  This also goes for those of you who were blessed with strong mothers who served as both mother and father.  For parents who see entrepreneurial traits in your kids but feel you don’t have the entrepreneurial experience to help them, sharing your time and helping them access resources that will help them will have a significant, positive impact on their development.

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. 


4 Things We Don’t See Prior to Success

4 Things We Don’t See Prior to Success

Preparation skills Startup Grind

When I see successful athletes, entertainers, artists or entrepreneurs I often think how easy they make it look to be successful.  They are so good at what they do that it can make the rest of us think that with just a little effort we too can make a one handed catch in the end zone, hit a 400-foot homerun or a three point shot to win the game, or achieve fame and wealth as an entrepreneur.  However, what we don’t see that led up to this level of achievement is important to understanding how they can do what they do.

  1. It starts with natural gifts – Early in their lives most of these high achievers figured out special gifts and talents they were born with. While it was not always obvious what those gifts were, they somehow figured out that they were faster or stronger than most of the other kids in the neighborhood, they could pick out tunes on a piano by ear, or that engineering projects or seeing things through an entrepreneurial lens came easy for them.
  1. Passion – Being naturally good at something is great, but if you don’t have the passion to make it “the thing you must do”, you aren’t likely to become world class at it. Are you willing to use almost all your free time to pursue it?  Would you do it all day if someone didn’t stop you?  Can you do it over and over and never tire of it?  Do you feel incomplete if you don’t do it?  That is exactly how many successful people feel about what they do.
  1. Perseverance – I’ve written about Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours Rule several times in this blog and I believe it is a key element in great success. The concept states that it takes a person 10,000 hours to master a set of skills.  That’s approximately 20 hours per week, 52 weeks per year for 10 years.  There are plenty of examples of how this played out with folks like Bill Gates, a host of professional athletes and others.  The point is that natural gifts and passion are great, but the perseverance required to push yourself to get better, to work on a project, finish a painting, or expose your body to intense physical training even when you don’t really want to or don’t think you can, is absolutely necessary to success.  Our entrepreneurial son Joshua (Battle Map) likes this quote from Lionel Messi, a world class soccer player, “I start early, and I stay late, day after day, year after year, it took me 17 years and 114 days to become an overnight success”.  Natural gifts and passion are inherent, but perseverance can be taught and is driven by heart.
  1. Support – I don’t know of any truly successful athlete, artist or entrepreneur who didn’t have great support from some source. Parents, coaches, teachers, and mentors all play a role in the lives of successful people.  Sometimes it’s a network of support and sometimes it’s just one person who has a profound influence.  This support must be there because there will be many obstacles along the path to success.  Without strong support, any of these obstacles, including injury, death of a loved one or friend, poverty, self-doubt, drugs or alcohol, can stop all progress toward the ultimate goal.

Young entrepreneurs, if you can combine these elements, people may one day say about you, “she’s an overnight success”, “man, he’s got it easy”, and “I wish I had her life”.  What most people will never understand, because you make it look so easy, is what it takes to get there.

THE TAKEAWAY – Finding your gifts and passion is a bit of a scavenger hunt.  You have to try many things and be open to the clues that indicate your gifts and passion. Once discovered, we must identify those who can support us and then do whatever it takes to get to better each day, each year until we achieve success.

3 Lessons Learned From a Young Entrepreneur’s First Pitch

3 Lessons Learned From a Young Entrepreneur’s First Pitch

Communication Pitch Preparation

When Joshua, our young entrepreneur, was 17 years old he had an opportunity to pitch his product idea to two experienced entrepreneurs who had just left a successful company to start their own development and digital marketing firm.  These guys were well known and respected in their field.  Initially, they agreed to speak with Joshua as a favor to me to help us decide whether Joshua’s app idea was viable and worth pursuing.  Joshua sent them some information on his product and business plan, and they all three eventually ended up around our kitchen table to discuss it.  They quickly realized that Joshua had done his homework.  He knew the market, the customer segments, how to implement and market the product, and he thoroughly understood the technology that would deliver the features that customers wanted.  He was prepared, and because he was, he earned their respect and got their attention with his pitch.

So what can young entrepreneurs learn from his experience?

  1. Know the product – Joshua spent hundreds of hours researching phone technology, app features, and UX/UI design before this meeting. He had the original idea when he was 15 but didn’t have the coding experience to do it himself.  As part of his pitch, he had simulated screen shots, a list of features that he knew, based on his coding and phone technology research, could be developed, and some customer data to help validate whether this was something potential customers would be interested in.
  1. Know the market – Joshua’s idea was an app that combined the features of console based first person shooter games and outdoor games like paintball and airsoft. This was a hybrid product that didn’t exactly fit in either existing market.  Instead, if successful, it could create a whole new market that combined the most popular features of games in the two existing markets.  Essentially, he had to research both markets and understand everything there was to know about crossover gamers who were active in both console and outdoor gaming.  Further, he needed to understand what it would take for gamers who played only in one market to cross over to the other.
  1. Know how to communicate your idea – Having a good idea is not enough. Lots of good ideas never see the light of day because their originators can’t create a compelling story that explains in simple terms what their product does, why it matters, and also gets customers excited about it.  Knowing your audience and hours and hours of practice are the keys to making this work.

Ultimately, the two guys Joshua pitched around our kitchen table, Joe Saumweber and Michael Paladino, the cofounders of RevUnit, liked his product idea.  They were impressed that he already knew the answers to tough questions about the product, market, and development plan.  Their confidence in Joshua’s ability to make this work grew as the conversation continued.  So much so that they eventually agreed to become cofounders in Innovis Labs and build the product with Joshua.

THE TAKEAWAY:  Despite the apparent overnight successes in startup land, there is no substitute for the hard work it takes to be successful.  Thousands of hours of research on product development, market research, pitch practice, etc . . . .  Turns out that the old saying about luck being the result of when preparation meets opportunity is actually true.  Opportunity is often serendipitous and you can’t always create it.  However, there is no excuse for not being prepared and that is completely up to us.