Becoming An Entrepreneur
Being an entrepreneur sounds like a distant dream for many of us. We often think if we are not the founder and CEO of a successful startup, we are not entitled to that crown. However, this is a big misconception of entrepreneurship. Yes, every entrepreneur is keen on success, but entrepreneurship is not about that at all. It’s about growing, pursuing, and getting closer to the vision. It’s about becoming, but not being.
I recently did a survey among my friends and friends’ friends who’ve either launched a startup or are considering launching a startup. My goal was to get a sense of what may be the top needs and pain points for them to overcome the zero to one phase. One of the findings suggested that those who are considering launching a business consistently struggle with overwhelming information and risk calculations, which deter them from taking any real action. This is not surprising to me. Though I’ve worked with startups in the capacity of co-founder, executive, consultant, and advisor, I still tremble from time to time to really commit my time, money, and resources to work on my own vision. Overcoming mental battles and kicking off is extremely hard.
I have observed and have been inspired by those who took action to fulfill their dreams. Some have succeeded by going IPO or being acquired by a corporation, and some are still struggling with expansion, growth, and financing. Some projects are very small and in its early stage, with the founder as the sole contributor. What is in common and matters most is that every person has taken action, big or small.
If you are considering launching a business and you are struggling about how to kick off, I hope you will find my simple three-step approach to be helpful.
Be a visionary
Be a creator
Be a connector
I. Be A Visionary
It is important to gauge how determined you are to do a startup. I agree that not everyone is called to become an entrepreneur. If you have a strong conviction of how the world can be better tomorrow compared with how it is today, you are a visionary. And if you feel strongly about the steps needed to realize your vision, that could be the springboard you need to kick off your business.
In my survey, many interviewees expressed their confusion about how to design a good product, how to find a market fit, and how to differentiate their business offering. They wanted to work on solving the problems they’ve found. It’s not a wrong approach, but it’s not necessarily the right one for you. There are numerous problems in the world. Why the business is worth your time over other things should be asked by the founder. A good way to answer this question is to consider whether it has to be you and not others to work on the business. And even if it fails, you can have the confidence that all the time and money spent was worth it.
One misunderstanding is that vision has to be very big and it needs to be tech-forward, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. It could be very discouraging for non-tech people to become visionaries. When the ideas start to form, especially among those who are not from technical backgrounds, people might have underestimated the potential and looked in the wrong direction. The publication Innovation Trends Report 2019 (by Bret Waters from Stanford University) made available by Alchemist Accelerator indicates that design thinking and human-centered design are the number 1 and number 3 innovation frameworks required. I’ve seen artists, psychologists, lawyers, and other non-tech professionals and experts that started with nothing but a dream and proceed to work on their ideas. They leveraged other resources to complement the skillsets they don’t have, but they were firm about the vision and leading the execution to realize their vision over time.
II. Be A Creator
A critical step to become an entrepreneur is to take the step to execute the idea. Many great ideas were not given the chance to even try out. It’s the phase to examine the idea under the current market situation and try out what could be the best prototype or MVP (minimum viable product).
The first step before committing substantial resources and time to the project is to do market research and even with some trials to narrow down a vision to one or a few directions. Now, it’s important to consider what strengths and resources you have and may possibly invest in the project. All roads lead to Rome, but it’s important to find the short and easy one for you. The external market research may be conducted through surveys and interviews with customers and partners. I found the industrial and macroeconomic content from the following platforms to be very useful to understand the market data and trends:
the prospectus, quarterly reports and annual reports by public companies
A technical background founder can build up a prototype by herself/himself, but a non-technical founder cannot. In an ideal scenario, a non-technical founder can team up with a technically skilled founder to work on the project by contributing different strengths and skills. The reality is that it may take a long time to find the right one. In this situation, I would highly recommend trying out some features of the prototype by leveraging the tools and platforms available in the market and not to wait for everything to fall in place to get started. Two founders I knew started their businesses with SquareSapce and GoDaddy, and they are expanding and growing. There are many cloud-based solutions for small businesses. They may not be the best solutions to start your business, but they are one of the options.
Another struggle for many people at this phase is to balance whether to quit their day job and commit full time to the project. Unless you are very clear and determined, starting as a side project after working hours is not a bad idea, provided that this doesn’t cause a conflict of interest with your current employer and the employment contract allows so. Many ideas may die upon execution. Many people may even realize that doing a startup is not what they wanted. However, if you want to work on your projects badly enough that it starts to influence your commitment to your day job, then it might be time to consider a full-time commitment and turn your side project to a real startup project.
III. Be A Connector
When you are building the prototype or even doing market research, it is a good idea to reach out to people who may help your startup. The first group of people seek out will be your founding partners and key employees. This may take even longer time than to find customers and venture capital firms. The top need from my survey was hiring the right people to join as early key members. Two takeaways are to find the ones who can complement the existing team’s skills and find the ones who are right, not necessarily the best.
Early-stage startups are in a weak position to market itself to anyone, especially hiring. Thank to all the global social media platforms like LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Medium, and Facebook (and Wechat and Weibo for Chinese), it’s easier than ever to build branding for a startup. Many of these platforms are free or low-cost to start with. Creating a social media presence to communicate and connect with people who are interested in working in, partnering with, or even investing in the companies can go a long way.
It is also important to use private introductions to make connections. Many people surveyed gave feedback that they are too shy to ask for help. Chances are, people are more willing to help than you think. These connections are even more important as your personal contacts know who you are and what you can do. Your chances of finding the right help become much higher. Talking to your friends, your ex-colleagues and alumni who may provide valuable suggestions, insights, and connections could bring many opportunities.
I really like Michelle Obama’s book <Becoming>. It taught me that above all, growth matters the most. As I shared in the beginning, entrepreneurship is not about the state of “being” but about the spirit and actions of “becoming”. It’s the failures, not the successes, that sharpen and grow you, to get you excited about entrepreneurship. Make your vision come true over time by taking baby steps.