Technical Skills Build Products, Soft Skills Build Companies.

Technical Skills Build Products, Soft Skills Build Companies.

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I few weeks into the ARK Challenge Accelerator in late 2013, Joshua, our teen entrepreneur, creator and cofounder of Overwatch, went to his first real business meeting with a branding company. The branding company guys were familiar with the product space and were enthusiastic. Joshua was psyched about the meeting because it was the first step to legitimizing the product and he knew that branding would be a key to success.
When I spoke to Joshua after the meeting, he was still pumped up. He described the meeting as a success. The branding guys were very engaged and already throwing out ideas. Joshua could not have been more satisfied with the meeting. He repeatedly said, “Dad, they were so excited to work with us”.

As I waded through the enthusiasm I began to ask questions about the meeting. “So who will be in charge of your project”, I asked. “I’m not sure”, replied Joshua, “We spoke with Mike (not his real name)”. “Ok, what are they going to produce for you”, I inquired. “Well, we talked about a logo, branding materials, business cards, website . . . you know, all the stuff we need for branding”. I could see where this was going, so I continued. “When will they deliver all the branding stuff”, I asked. “They said it would be a few weeks and they’d let us know”, said Joshua. “They were really excited, Dad”, he added. “And what was the cost estimate”, I inquired further. I was pretty sure I knew the answer to this one at this point. “They said they would let us know, but it wouldn’t be much. They were really excited to work on this project”, he said.

When this interchange concluded, I was not happy. How could anyone go to a meeting with a vendor and come away having no idea what who was in charge, what they were going to deliver, when they were going to deliver it, and how much it would cost? Baffling. How could Joshua not know to ask these questions?

Easy . . . he was seventeen and no one had taught him about project management, running a meeting, or the key elements of business communication. Sure, he communicated well for his age and he could pitch with the best of them, but these other skills were not intuitive. Thinking about it later, I probably didn’t acquire that knowledge and experience until I was in my late twenties. Some say I’ve still got a ways to go.

This one was on me. I just didn’t realize that, as bright was Joshua is, there is so much in the business world that he has not been exposed to and can’t learn from YouTube or Linda.com. These things are learned through instruction and practice.

I’m sure that my frustration was apparent as I told him to never leave another meeting without know Who, What, When, and How Much. I felt like I had let him down by not giving him some guidance ahead of time. However, it did serve as a wakeup call for me as a business advisor to him and others, to never take these so called “soft skills” for granted with young entrepreneurs.

THE TAKEAWAY – Young Entrepreneurs: Learn and practice the skills of communication, project management, and decision making just as you do your product development skills. Technical skills build products, soft skills build companies.

“I just wanted to prove I deserved to be there”

“I just wanted to prove I deserved to be there”

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Imagine your startup company is selected to participate in a business accelerator with the opportunity to receive $150,000 in investment funding.  You are ecstatic, right?  Doing back flips!  Over the moon!  You call everyone you know and share the excitement, right?  Well maybe.  If you are a barely 17 year old high school student about to start your senior year, you likely feel like the dog that caught the car.  You’ve chased this thing but now that you caught it, what do you do with it?  Besides, few of your friends really understand what you do and what this means.

“I just wanted to prove I deserved to be there.”  That was our son Joshua’s mantra after being selected for the ARK Challenge Startup Accelerator.  Upon arriving at the accelerator, meeting the other startup teams, and sizing up the competition, his priority was more about gaining respect than winning.  He figured he had no chance against the other ten teams.  He was the youngest by six years.  Most of the participants had at least one college degree, and several of the teams had companies that were already making money.  In addition, Joshua’s co-founders were busy running their own app and web development company, so he participated in the accelerator activities by himself most of the time.

“The training, mentors, and access to resources were great; but I also realized how much I didn’t know.  My focus was on soaking it all in, getting smarter, and holding my own.  I didn’t want to embarrass myself and I didn’t want people involved in the selection process to feel like they had made a mistake by selecting me,” Joshua said.

The ARK Accelerator had 92 entries that year from 15 countries around the world and 15 states in the United States.  The application included written documents and short videos on the company, team, and product; as well as an interview process.  Joshua took the lead on the application process with the support of his co-founders — even editing the videos for submission.  In addition, the timing of the accelerator did not fit the school calendar.  This was a clear indication that this accelerator was not conceived with the idea that anyone still in school would participate, especially high school.  Joshua had to ask his principal at Catholic High for permission to participate in the accelerator since the program would cause him to miss the first month of school in the fall.  The principal agreed, but, in true Catholic High form, had Joshua commit to work with his teachers individually to ensure all of his assignments would be turned in on time despite his physical absence from the classroom.  Joshua agreed and complied.  His grades suffered due to the work load of a full-time business and school, but he complied.  A good economics lesson in opportunity cost and a good lesson in doing “whatever it takes” when you believe in something.

THE TAKEAWAY:  The idea of a teen CEO and founder participating in a startup accelerator, designed for more experienced founders and companies, was improbable.   However, we shouldn’t allow our dreams and goals to be limited by our logical assessments, our assumptions for why “it will never work”, or our concerns about how difficult it will be.  When we take the road less traveled and push ourselves toward a goal, we unlock something inside us that expands our horizons and gives us even greater courage.  Joshua’s decision to apply for a startup accelerator, as improbably as it was, has changed his life and put him on a path toward entrepreneurial success.  His was the only U.S. based company out of three selected for investment.  The other two were from India.  You can’t win if you don’t play.