My Advice to Aspiring Entrepreneurs? Build Something!

I’ve been connected or introduced to a handful of aspiring entrepreneurs recently, folks that have lots of work experience, but no experience starting a company from scratch.  And the first question is always the same, “I don’t know how to get started”.

Ten years ago my advice might have been different, likely starting with the creation of a well thought out business plan that you use to raise money around based on the concept and research alone.  But today the costs of starting a business continue to plummet, particularly the costs to actually build a Minimum Viable Product or at least a prototype.  Simplified programming languages, open source code and dramatically reduced cloud-based hosting, processing and storage costs through services like Amazon EC2 and S3 have not only reduced the costs to build, but more important have enabled thousands of entrepreneurs to start businesses without the need for an outside cash infusion.    And there is no better way to share your vision and get others excited about your idea than to physically demonstrate it with a powerful product experience.  Gone are the days of million dollar investments required to get a demonstrable product, complete with features and functionality.

So the answer to the question is simple – Build something that you can use to:

  • Get others to actually use and thus prove value and traction,
  • Share with investors to get them excited about your product vision, and
  • Reduce the “cost of money” if and when you actually do raise capital

But what if you as the entrepreneur don’t have the skills to code a prototype or build a product yourself?  Easy, get immediately integrated into your local tech community events or get networked and find a technical co-founder.  Notice I didn’t say go find a engineer and convince them to build you something on the cheap or even free in exchange for “some shares”.  Rather, do your homework on the market opportunity, tell a compelling story and share your vision in a way that gets them excited and committed, even if part-time, to the success of the product which will inevitably require lots of iterations to get “right”.  Why should they be a co-founder?  Because engineers are the world’s scarce startup resource and, in my opinion, often the most underestimated from a strategic standpoint given the importance of technology in company building.

It’s really a subject of a future post and I digress, just go get a technical co-founder and thank me later.

Lifelong Learning With MIT – For Free!

Ten years ago the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began OpenCourseWare, a program to publish educational materials from all of its courses freely and openly on the Internet.  At this ten-year milestone, the program has 90% participation among faculty, sharing 2,000 courses with over 100 million individuals worldwide.  The program’s objective over the next ten years is to serve 1 billion people.  Wow.

While these courses do not bestow degrees or certificates, there are some incredible stories about how these world-class instructional materials are changing lives, particularly for the under-privileged and those in remote locations throughout the world.

It’s been 14 years since I completed graduate school at Kellogg and while I actively read to keep stimulated, there are areas, particularly in technology, that I could really stand to dig a little deeper to make me a more effective leader.  So I have just started an undergraduate, self-paced course through MIT’s program called Introduction to Computer Science and Programming that educates on the role computation and programming can play in solving problems, including application using Python programming language.  Lots has changed since my undergraduate FORTRAN programming class in 1987.  It should be fun!

43% of OpenCourseWare users are self-learners and 40% of them use the service to “explore areas outside my professional field”.  There are lots of areas of curiosity and interest for me in these 2,000 courses.  Particularly areas I know nothing about but have a curiosity to learn.  Anthropology and Urban Design are two areas I know squat about, but with a small amount of time and access to such great educational resources, I can get a cursory introduction.  Heck, why not Genomics and Computational Biology while I’m at it?

The world truly is at our fingertips.

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