9 Startup Lessons Learned From a Serial Entrepreneur

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By Stella Huh (Founder, SecondLeap)

When I started on the entrepreneurial journey over two years ago, I had this naive notion that I could do everything on my own and that I needed to keep my ideas a secret.

Three websites and a startup incubator program later, I learned some lessons I wish I knew at the beginning as an entrepreneur.

9 Lessons I Learned About Starting a Startup

Lesson #1: An idea is worth nothing.

A company consists of many moving parts at any point in time — an idea is simply a starting point. Given an idea, it snowballs into many different ones and you can go in a 100 different direction. The outcome depends on many variables, akin to what makes predicting the weather an inexact science. Imagine you have an idea for a building — the HOW, WHERE, and the CONTEXT are much more important than the WHAT. It’s very easy to have ideas — you can have a 100 ideas a week.

There are almost seven billion people in the world. The chance that your idea is original is virtually zero.

This is why an investor will never fund a startup simply based on an idea, but examine other factors such as the team (ability to execute), the competition, and early traction. In fact, some investors don’t consider anything else except for traction (# of users, paying subscribers, etc.)

When a company becomes successful, you often hear people say “I had that idea too!” But that’s like saying “I had the idea for building a resort in Vegas too!” Share your ideas and find that others will shed a different light and foster new ideas to lead to something you haven’t thought of. It’s people, not ideas, which make a successful company.

Lesson #2: Don’t fall in love with your ideas or your product.

If you’re looking for funding, traction is everything (unless you have built a successful company before). Investors could care less about your product as they see thousands of them every month. They do care about your product, indirectly, through traction.

Ideas are not worth anything, and being able to build things is not enough. So don’t worry about adding features and making them perfect. Keep launching and see how the features “take.”

As Thomas Edison said, “Vision without execution is [delusion].”

Lesson #3: Maintain optimism and patience, but be wary of unrealistic expectations.

Entrepreneurs start out on our ventures because we think we have a good chance of succeeding. We hear of many stories of perseverance and success like those of Tony Hsieh of Zappos and of AirBnb and think that if we persevere, we will succeed like they did.

However, there are about 20 failures for every success story. We never hear about the failures. Beware of false encouragement. People are skittish about telling their acquaintances that their boyfriends/girlfriends suck. Same with startups. Take a moment every so often to step back and reflect so you see a better bigger picture of how much users like it and where your startup is going.

Lesson #4: Be prepared to work at least two years with a very small salary.

You must have a personal financial runway to work on your idea without a salary and still be able to eat and live under a roof. Many of the guys have girlfriends or wives who can pay the rent. If you don’t, then be prepared to couch-surf.

Lesson #5: It takes a village to build a company.

It’s all about the division of labor at a startup. Seek people that complement your talents early on. Bring in the right people who are passionate about the problem your startup is trying to solve.

Although Mark Z started Facebook and seems to get all the credit in the media for its success, it’s highly likely that the key sticky and viral features such as status updates, photo tagging, and notifications that left all other social networks in the dust came from the team, not him.

Lesson #6: Make sure your founding team includes someone with a strong product sense.

Engineers are not the most gifted in common sense. This is why having diversity and having different perspectives is an advantage.

Lesson #7: “UI is the new IP”

According to one prominent angel investor, user experience is the new intellectual property. It’s no longer about algorithms, but user experience.

Lesson #8: Surround yourself with a strong support network.

The emotional highs and lows of a startup are incredible and they can happen within a few days of each other. Just remember, “this too shall pass.”

Reach out to as many entrepreneurs as possible. They are in the same boat as you and they know how difficult it is, so you will find a lot of support and help from your network of entrepreneurs. My AngelPad classmates and mentors were and still are. I have also found a few entrepreneurs who I didn’t even know that well who were so very helpful in making introductions and taking the time to meet with me even though they are really busy with their own companies.

Lesson #9: You must be comfortable with uncertainty .

I think this is one of the reasons why we find so few female entrepreneurs in technology. I have been staying with my sister for 6 months now. It’s like I’m in college again — sleeping on a twin bed and getting by with only a luggage of clothes I brought from Los Angeles. In fact, I still have my place in Los Angeles that I’m subletting. As one person said, “Entrepreneurs have to live like a cockroach.” Many women would not find this lifestyle appealing at all.

On being a Woman Entrepreneur

It’s a really great time to be a woman entrepreneur. Investors love seeing women because female entrepreneurs are so under-represented in technology. I know of one team who suddenly started getting investor meetings because they made the woman on the team CEO.

To investors who are used to seeing endless streams of guys coming in their doors, they welcome woman-led teams as not only a refreshing change in landscape but see it as a great opportunity to better tap into the more than half the users of many startups (think Facebook and Groupon). There’s a “cool” factor in funding a company with a woman in it.

There is 1 woman out of 10 entrepreneurs in technology, or fewer. The chance of getting into a startup accelerator is about 1 in 100 applications. That means the chance of having 2 female co-founders in a startup accelerator is roughly 1 in 10,000 aspiring startups! That’s why you rarely hear about them.

I think reasons why there are so few women in the startup scene are threefold. First, girls don’t think computer science is sexy, so they don’t choose that as a profession. Second, working around guys all the time is not exactly their idea of an ideal job. Third, they tend to be less driven by money than guys are. I think these are also the reasons why there are even fewer female investors.

After college, I had many friends from different walks of life who had to go back to school to get the jobs they wanted. They were stuck in unfulfilling jobs as their college education was not enough.

50% of college kids drop out for perfectly logical reasons — because a traditional college education, except for the best ones, do not help people get the jobs they want, so I knew there was a big need out there for schools designed for careers. And there is this big vacuum because there are plenty of sites for high school and college kids but not for people who need to update their skills or go back to school to change careers.

This is Why I Started SecondLeap

SecondLeap aims to help people make informed decisions about their post-secondary education that lead to more fulfilling careers. Funded and mentored by Angelpad, a startup accelerator started by ex-Googlers in San Francisco, SecondLeap suffered a setback when my co-founder left (his wife had a baby and his financial runway had run out due to higher expenses).

I welcome new people to SecondLeap who are are great at front-end development and biz dev. If you’re interested in working on Second Leap, drop me a line any time – stella [a-t] second leap {d_o_t} c-o-m.

About the guest blogger: Stella Huh is Founder of SecondLeap. Prior to SecondLeap, she worked as a product manager and developer before starting ChartAvenue (Wikipedia for charts and their underlying data) and CareerJots (career reviews and happiness predictor). Her passion is in product development and likes being a jill of all trades. Stella holds B.S. in Computer Science with honors from Caltech and a M.S. from Stanford University. Follow her startup on Twitter at @SecondLeap.

  • http://pixability.com Yelena Kadeykina

    Stella, thanks so much for sharing It is a great read and a very comprehensive one. One more thing which I find critical is execution…As you pointed out an idea is worth nothing, I believe it all comes down to good execution.

  • http://www.rdjlaw.com Ronald D. Jackson

    I enjoyed reading your “startup lessons” blog post, especially your point about the importance of recruiting an exceptional team.

    Based on what I’ve seen over the years, I agree that it’s the (right or wrong) people who make or break a new venture. Also, your point about the importance of “traction” and investment is right on.

    One thing I will add is this: As a product gains traction, it is important for startup founders to watch for signs of “team implosion.” Keeping the team together and focused can be difficult, but it is essential. With a little success (traction), it is tempting to take one’s eye off the bigger prize (i.e., pushing the venture to the next level).

    In many ways, startups & founding teams are like marriages: Recruiting a top-notched and BALANCED team, and then retaining, and nurturing it is key to innovation & success! People make the world go!

    Best of luck, and keep sharing your experiences!

  • http://robs-blog.com Robert Reiz

    I enjoyed to read this article. But I believe the idea i as important as the execution. The most important skill for a CEO is to have a clear vision AND to be able to transport the vision to other people.

  • http://www.antiventurecapital.com/ Peter

    Most advice articles of this type consist of nothing but recycled material. You get a sense of deja vu that you have seen it all before dozens of times. This article actually adds some new advice. I especially like 4 and 7.

    Thank you.

  • http://www.ExitPromise.com Holly Magister

    Stella,
    It is very obvious you are a seasoned, serial entrepreneur. Your points were well made and welcome.
    So often, I have observed a company’s founder just gives up when their first shot at executing their “idea” runs into trouble. What they seem to miss is the reality that the troubles they confront often may offer a better solution/product, if they look hard enough!
    Thanks for the thoughtful article and sharing so much!
    All the best,
    Holly Magister
    http://www.WomenEntrepreneurs-ExitPromise.com

  • http://www.39Shops.com Chirag Jobanputra

    Excellent blog post, many start-ups try and estimate everything in advance without experiencing the customer. This is mistake, my take on this, hit the market as soon as you can and start interacting with customer without worrying about numbers. Numbers will fall down correctly with the experience.

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  • http://www.MicheleRuiz.com michele ruiz

    Great info. Thank you for sharing!

  • http://www.facebook.com/cnovate Dr G

    Love this post. Like mentioned earlier, an idea is a good as the execution. Women entrepreneurs naturally wants to do it all but asking the right people for assistance proves bigger rewards. Thanks for sharing
    Goldie,
    Consultant, CareNovate

  • http://www.modernhumanity.com Jenn VR

    Great article – appreciate your honesty and love your ability to keep moving forward.