This blog post is for 18-21 year-olds who are just graduating from college and want to start their own company. I’m going to put a disclaimer for this post to absolve me from any detrimental harm that I may impose on your careers. Do what you feel is right, not what others say is right.
I am more than 10 years out of college and have been a part of 2 companies that I’ve helped start. They both failed in non-spectacular fashions. But I’ve learned a lot. There are obviously many ways to start a company and there isn’t a silver bullet or a secret recipe for success. However, I’ve always wondered if I took a more strategic approach to entrepreneurship, whether results would have been different.
Before you go down this path, know that, very quickly, the path splits into two. You’ll have to choose what skill set fits you best. Sales vs. Technical/Operations. The killer combination of skill sets between two founders is a sales-oriented founder and a technical operations founder. So choose wisely what you want to focus on because you have to go “all in” on this skill set.
Step One: Find Your Soulmate.
Whichever path you choose, find your counterpart. This person should be someone you trust and willing to go the distance with you. If you’re technical, find someone who is willing to get their hands dirty with cold calls and can handle rejection. Lots of rejection. If you’re in sales look for someone who is technical and operationally efficient. These days, computer science is a heavy favorite when it comes to technical co-founders, but honestly, depending on what type of company you’d like to start, engineering, biology, chemistry or even other non-technology industries like culinary or film are all equally beneficial backgrounds. For example, starting a pharmaceutical company might require a Molecular Cell Biology background.
Step Two: Spend 1-2 Years Working.
This is counter-intuitive. You’re probably thinking, “Why should I spend time working for someone when I want to start a company?” The answer to that question is because you need to hone your skill set. The only way to hone your skill set is repetition and the best way to get those repetitions is to join a company that will give you those opportunities.
For the Sales Co-Founder: If you can, find any sales position in an industry you’re interested in. It doesn’t matter what it pays, just get it. For software sales, you might start out to be a Sales Development Rep or an Inside Sales Rep. For medical sales, it might be an Associate Sales Trainee. Spend time learning how to do good sales and what a successful sales cycle “feels like”. Spend these years sharpening your sales sense. Get really good at knowing what the customer wants and how to address those wants.
For the Technical/Operations Co-Founder: Find a true R&D position where you get the opportunity to learn how to do real product development. A lot of technical people rush to get a job as a Product Manager or some sort of Marketing role, but there will be lots of time to get those jobs in the future. For these initial two years, learn what it takes to create design requirements, manufacture with new technologies and utilize product development tools.
Step Three: Test Ideas.
During those two years, don’t just work at a company. Continuously brainstorm and test ideas with each other outside of your job. Read blogs and books, listen to podcasts to learn how to test out ideas. Work with your co-founder to run campaigns and create project plans where you test out a different idea every 3 months.
Don’t build anything until you absolutely need to! Building products take a long time and until you have 10-50 prospects asking you to see something, it may not be worth your time. Get as far as you can with mockups, Photoshop, renderings, pictures, etc.
Step Four: Start a Company.
Hopefully by this time, in addition to having a couple ideas to move forward on, you’ll also have a skill set you feel comfortable with. Now go out there and find customers! If you have 1-5 paying customers, try applying to the numerous startup accelerators/incubators out there to get a small boost in the right direction.
I make this sound easier than it really is. When you’re in your early 20s, life isn’t so stable and it’s often difficult to commit to a multi-year plan with another person. Your priorities may shift and unexpected life events can occur that will divert your plans. Regardless of what may happen, you have to make sure this makes you happy or else it isn’t worth it. Life is too short to do something just for some uncertain financial reward. Expect to be satisfied by the journey alone, not by the outcome.