Twitter’s IPO, a record-breaking S&P 500 and more & more Harvard Business School graduates going to start-ups rather than Wall Street, all signs that perhaps we have reached the tipping point for acceptance of entrepreneurship as a “credible career route”. The past several weeks have been filled with amazing insights and terrifying gauntlets from Ivy League alumni leaving the Crimson Oak team filled with energy. Going from cockroach-filled apartments to securing $100 million exits. Spending 20 years networking and then activating it to fund a revolutionary Silicon Valley-backed healthcare venture. Recognizing the tremendous generational impact you can have through your venture on your first team – your family. These stories left us with deeper respect for two of the most coveted universities in the world: Cornell and Harvard. Be treated by our six secret insights or remain scared of your potential entrepreneurial future.
Having an Ivy League degree or an MBA certainly isn’t a perquisite to being a successful entrepreneur – indeed some of the most famous 'treps have been drop-outs. However, with over 92% of tech entrepreneurs being holders of bachelor degrees, a college base education and its community can be a source of competitive advantage. Drive, accountability and EQ are all critical individual traits for a successful entrepreneur to possess. Community, not simply a network, is still a critical ingredient. These six insights focus on the perspective or the relationships needed to be a successful entrepreneur.
1. Coward’s Humor - Cynical Criticism
How many times have you had your idea shot down with a rhetorical question or the raised eyebrow dismissive of your naïveté. Yahoo! – the self-acclaimed largest start-up – is in a bit of resurgence with new leadership and increased M&A activity. During Cornell Entrepreneurship Summit Yahoo!’s CMO noted that cynical criticism can be a mask for detractors who fear trying the unknown: coward’s humor. Don’t be distracted or defined by someone else’s fearful ridicule.
2. Building Trust & Integrity Takes Time – No Short-cuts
Advisors often emphatically advocate that to accelerate your career or your venture you must network. In their enthusiasm for the unleashing the power of the network, many take on a mercenary persona in building relationships. Thrusting 1,000 business cards upon seminar attendees or sending immediate LinkedIN invitations shortly after the releasing your hand from an initial handshake are all symptoms. Patience seems to be a lost virtue. From a Harvard Seminar on Start-ups we learned from Albert Santalo, the founder of CareCloud.com who raised tens of millions of dollars from patiently cultivating a network for 20 years! He reflected that building personal relationships and having a reputation of trust and integrity takes time but is definitely worth it.
3. The Business Reflects You – Stand for Something
Whether you are noodling on a contemplated launch or about to execute a “pivot” for your existing venture, remembering that your business reflects you is easy to get lost in the midst of focusing on operations. In particular, with the rise of internet access - 78% of America's population has internet access and there are now over 145 million smartphones in the country - you likely have a digital trail. Ensuring that your individual online profile meshes with your venture’s values is important less it result in customer dissonance. Dissonance or tension also exists as you company grows. The economic argument of increasing valuation of your venture is compelling. But at times it may grate at your "true north". With each investor, large client or trans-formative partnership, becoming unhinged from the venture’s founding principles becomes more likely. During those ethical flash-points, remembering the wise words of Cheryl Swirnow, CEO of Sherpaa - a healthcare start-up, may be helpful: your business must stand for something and ultimately, it reflects you.
4. Cockroaches and Maxed Credit Cards – The Scary Part of Entrepreneurship
Rarely in the discourse of the entrepreneurship is cataclysmic personal risk discussed. Modern day deities – Zuck, Larry, Sergey, Jobs, Musk (no need for full names any more such is their omnipotence) are worshiped. What a treat it was then to be told the scary truth by a courageous entrepreneur Jessica Crolick Rolph, co-founder of HAPPYBABY Foods. Early on sacrifices were made - like living in a sketchy neighborhood in an apartment filled with cockroaches. At the depth of her and her fellow co-founder's financial crisis, there were maxed out credit cards; a decision to get other employment to sustain herself; and long, arduous hours . Unlike so many other silently buried struggling ventures, this venture prevailed from its struggles and had a successful exit with the French food giant, Danone, acquiring the company for a valuation of $100 million.
5. It All Starts with Shaping Your Dream – Stubborn and Determined Vision
Some of the technology trends for the next decade seem straight out of science fiction movies. Wearables, “Google Glasses” and 3-D printing are a few of the spectacular technologies expected to transform society for the next decade. Beyond all being mind-blowing in their technology, they are all tied together by something all too human – a dream by the founder(s). The difference between the idea being relegated to passing cocktail conversation or being hailed in a boardroom discussion is often the stubborn and determined vision of the entrepreneur. Joshe Wolfe of Lux Capital, investors in Shapeways.com - a 3-D printing e-commerce venture, brought that point home with a stunning presentation of future technologies borne out of individuals' dream.
6. You Never Do it Alone – Family, Team and Community Matter
The rugged individualism of the entrepreneur, while based in truth, hides the pillars upon which the entrepreneur stands. Your family, your team and your community are essential to your venture’s success. They fuel your fire, temper your ego (nothing as humbling as being reminded to throw out the trash while preparing for a multi-million dollar investment presentation) and stand tall while others dangle / hide in pressure situations. By extension your team and community are also critical to your success. Cornell’s unprecedented $4.75 billion fundraising initiative is staggering in its ambition – only overshadowed by its determined alumni who are well on the way of fully funding it. Harvard Business School's supportive alumni community is well-documented. Elements of its venture ecosystem are less heralded such as the great work done by the Harvard Business School Angels group. A more recent example of a new venture made possible by individual leadership and critical partnerships is Cornell’s new Cornell Tech MBA which in of itself is borne out of a partnership of New York City, Cornell University, Technion of Israel and with additional support from Google.
Each Fall season brings with it great American traditions: Homecoming reveling with classmates on college campuses and Thanksgiving dining with our families and friends. Regardless of your alma mater, your community can be tremendously supportive. Contribute to its sustenance. The returns will be ample. As the young founder of a non-profit, Practice Makes Perfect, Karim Aboulelnaga, reminded the audience of an African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The scariest thing may be not even trying to fulfill your dream. Grow & Lead.