Ah, youth. Early signs of future success sometimes appear to be obvious, but so many do not live up to their potential. Like the highly recruited college athlete who appears to be the “next one”, early promise can fizzle or flame into disappointment with one missing ingredient…wisdom.
Merely surviving the battles of the early years of a professional career, athletic or entrepreneurial, can often buy enough time so the young person with promise can acquire the one ingredient that can help turn the promise of youth into reality. That one ingredient? Wisdom.
Yesterday’s Business Insider blog post by Amy Levin-Epstein featured tips from 6 entrepreneurs under 30 years of age. By themselves, the tips from these “youngsters”, are insightful. However, since it has been at least a few years since I was under 30, I realize that these simple “tips” are merely the “tip” of the wisdom iceberg that they reveal. There is addtional depth to several of these that are worth exploring. To wit:
Erica Zidel, age 29, founder of Sitting Around, a company that makes parents’ lives easier through a complete end-to-end childcare system, provides this Tip: “Talk to your customers. Don’t assume you know what your customers want. You’ll be surprised — and most often, you’ll be wrong. There are many ways to solicit user feedback: email, surveys, focus groups, etc. Get creative, get out there, and listen.” TechonomicMan says: Talking to your customers is a good tip. However, listening to your customers is wise. As the founder of your company, you must 1) ask your customers questions about their business and then 2) listen to their answers. Listen to the specific words they use when describing their problems. Ask them for the name of other customers that may have the same problems. Of all the time you spend with a customer, a successful meeting should have you speaking for only 30-40% of the time. Most of that should be spent asking questions or clarifying answers. Your mission in these information gathering meetings is NOT to explain all the features of your product.
I’m not a big fan of surveys. You can’t gather the depth of knowledge you need as the founder. Social media can sometimes be useful for listening to your customers, but only as long as you, the founder, are personally actively involved in the listening.
Taryn Scher, age 28, founded TK PR, a public relations and event planning company that specializes in luxury lifestyle brands. Her tip is to “Have a mentor. Everyone should have someone that they look up to that can offer them advice from time to time. Maybe you offer to buy them lunch for two hours of their expertise. Everyone needs a sounding board — someone who has been in the business longer and been through similar experiences. It will be the best $10 lunch you’ve ever spent.” TechonomicMan says having one mentor is good. Having a small group of mentors is better. Having a small group of mentors who are mostly older than 28 is most wise. A smart founder will select and ask 3-5 people to serve as advisors. The advisors should have a fairly diverse set of backgrounds. The group should be treated essentially like a Board of Directors (assuming you don’t already have one of these). You should ask them to be willing to meet once per quarter for a few hours at a time. You should promise to prepare an agenda for the meeting ahead of time and provide materials ahead of time (a week ahead is best). You should be prepared to ask them for input on key issues. Some small amount of warrants or stock should be provided for a year of service in this manner. If you’re building a tech company and don’t have, or can’t find, people to agree to do this, I would argue you will struggle throughout many aspects of your business.
Antoine Azar is 29 years old and founded 2XM Interactive, which creates mobile apps and interactive touch installations. His tip is to “Be very careful when starting up with co-founders. This is even more serious than a marriage. If all co-founders are not perfectly clear and aligned on the goals of the business, the business will fail. I’ve seen many start-ups with fantastic products struggle to near-death only because of co-founder issues.” TechonomicMan says: The number of ways in which founder issues can sink a business is perhaps larger than the number of stars in all the galaxies in all the universe. You’ll sometimes hear advice like “be sure you get a good shareholder agreement”. This is wise, but will not prevent co-founder issues. It will, rather, define the sandbox in which the co-founders fight. A recent piece of advice I saw that appeals to me is to found the company yourself. Then, hire partners for specific roles. Reward them with founders stock, even considerably large amounts of it if warranted. If you are already talking with a partner about “co-founding” a venture, go through an exercise in which you both, separately, write down the mission or vision or goals of the business. Separately write down the definition of “success”. Then compare them and discuss them. The discussion should surface key issues that could arise later when too much is at stake. If you consider success to be a big exit in 5 years and your co-founder talks about running a 1,000 employee business to hand down to his kids…you’ll have surfaced an issue that you can then 1) unwisely ignore; 2) use as a reason to not co-found the business with this person or 3) prepare some smart documents that allows you to sell your share to the co-founder under agreed-to conditions at a time when your definitions of success diverge.
There are some things in life that must be learned, but that cannot be taught. These are the things that should be classified as “wisdom” and wisdom can only be obtained when you know the difference.