Get a mentor! Actually, get a couple. One who is light years ahead of you and one who is not quite as far along to help you take things one day at a time. By Courtney Powell (Founder & CEO, PublikDemand)
My first visit to the Valley was in October of 2011. I was in Santa Clara attending a mobile dev conference when a friend suggested I stop by and chat with the partners at 500 Startups. What was meant to be a five minute meeting turned in to three days of getting to know the 500 team and then-batch founders. It was also the first real step I took to live my dream.
My original idea for PublikDemand came from a bad experience with Time Warner Cable last summer. You can watch me tell the story here. Although I truly believed that a problem existed in the consumer complaint space and that I had a unique solution, I was not totally sure how to even begin with launching a company.
I joined my first startup when I was in college. I remember vividly the first day I met the two founders. They shared their vision for the company emphatically enough, but I remember thinking that all that I saw was a small office and a yellow notepad.
Fortunately, I took the job and the company went on to raise several venture rounds and become one of the biggest players in the promotional products space, doing over $50M a year in sales. The founder was an experienced entrepreneur, a domain expert.
I, on the other hand, was 27 years old and found myself feeling alone and somewhat overwhelmed by my new idea and a growing fear of failure. Thankfully, in the year that has passed many of the fears that I had about starting my own company have faded away.
Here are a few that held me back at one point or another and a few thoughts that helped me surmount them.
I’m too young/old.
Last month I met a 19 year old that was on the founding team of Pinterest and Turntable. And he just raised $7M from Kleiner Perkins to build out Gumroad. This guy just turned 21, he’s on his second startup and just closed his seed. Don’t forget about Zuck.
On the other hand, I read somewhere that Colonel Sander’s of KFC didn’t get his first break selling his chicken recipe until he was 77.
I believe that age has very little correlation to your ability to start a successful company, provided that you have the domain or technical expertise that surpasses your life experience. There is certainly something to be said about having previous experience in things like bio tech, etc but your willingness to get around people smarter than you, teach yourself and try things will far outweigh your youth.
Get a mentor! Actually, get a couple. One who is light years ahead of you and one who is not quite as far along to help you take things one day at a time.
I didn’t go to Stanford.
?I dropped out of UT Austin my senior year and I probably could not have gotten in to Stanford based on my lopsided SAT scores (math is hard). Ivy League graduates are amazing but the only advantage they have to someone who did not go to school or went to a lesser-known institution (in terms of startup life) is exposure to entrepreneurship and a potentially greater network.
Although I am sure UT had resources during my tenure, my first exposure to entrepreneurialism was reading Guy Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad. I did not pursue real estate but it opened up my eyes to the fact that one day I could own my own time.
In general, I think that we will see a proportional decrease in the number of entrepreneurs arising from prestigious academic backgrounds. Education is undergoing a revolution.
Much like the church in the middle ages that was irretrievably disrupted by the invention of the Gutenberg press, colleges will no longer be able to charge exorbitant prices for knowledge that is now freely available thanks to the internet and its people.
I am quite confident that you can get a sound basis in finance, business, marketing, and sales by reading or listening to podcasts and more importantly, rolling up your sleeves and getting started as soon as possible.
I don’t know anyone in startups.
?The single biggest surprise I have had in moving to the Valley is the willingness of incredibly smart, talented and even well known people to take the time to share their thoughts and give me advice. It’s really mind-blowing. I find people in startups to be incredibly gracious and happy to help point you in the right direction, provided you do your homework and don’t waste their time. There are thousands of meet-ups across the globe dedicated to introducing new entrepreneurs to all manner of startup beings.
I don’t have any money.
?Work on a compelling challenge and pay your dues arriving at a marketable solution and money will find you. Should you wish to hasten the process, platforms like AngelList and the up-and-coming crowd funding legislation/platforms will go a long way in getting you connected. I encourage you to read and do your due diligence before taking money from just anyone.
My first investor came from my participation in an angel investment network in Austin. I met the organizer by attending Open Coffee (a globally accessible event) and talking to others about what I was working on. He asked me if I would be interested in pitching and then took the time to review my slide deck before I went on. I ended up meeting two of our future investors at the event. Money is everywhere. Getting funded is more possible now that at any other time in history — take advantage of it.
I don’t know how to code.
I highly suggest learning if at all possible and feasible for you in a business sense. I overcame my lack of coding prowess by learning how to share my vision with technical co-founder candidates and convincing one of them to take the plunge with me. I would suggest starting with those that you know and working outward if you don’t have any luck finding a tech co-founder. There are also many new sites and events created to help marry technical and business co-founders. Don’t take this partnership lightly - it truly is akin to marriage. Make sure you understand the values and goals of your counterparts. Times will get tough.
I don’t know how to sell.
You probably know more than you think you do. We sell all the time without even realizing it. Convincing your friend or significant other to do what you want to do is one basic example of salesmanship. Many of the worlds greatest CEOs were not salesmen at all. I suggest reading Brian Tracy or Zig Ziglar. Assuming you have a decent product or idea, the rest is mental and can be learned.
The last company I started was focused on Enterprise customers with long sales-cycles and high-touch relationships. I would never have predicted how much I really enjoy helping companies find solutions to their problems. Once I stopped thinking about it as sales and more about it as people with problems that I could possibly help solve - the easier it became to close deals.
Don’t over estimate the power of practice here. Cold call your worst leads first and practice your technique. You will learn a ton and if you do it enough, you will start letting go of the fear of “no”.
I’m a woman.
25% of the founders in this batch of 500 Startups are women. My gender has never once stopped me from doing what I wanted to. If someone responds to you negatively because you are a woman, you are talking to the wrong person.
I’m afraid to fail.
I am not sure if anyone ever truly gets over the fear of failure completely but I do believe that the fear begins to subside when you know that even if you do fail there is always a next time (at least in the world of internet startups). Be honest and diligent. If at the end of the day your idea comes to nothing, give yourself some time and just start again. [Insert bad perseverance proverb here]
I still struggle with many, many fears but making the decision to start this company was the best choice I ever made. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
This post was originally posted at Courtney Powell's blog.
About the guest blogger: Courtney Powell is Founder and CEO of PublikDemand, giving individuals a voice against large corporations and giving corporations an incentive to put their customers before their profits. Her passion for starting companies began at age 20 when she joined Boundless Network, a fledgling startup that quickly become one of the fastest-growing companies in America. She founded LeedSeed in 2009, a marketing automation firm for leading companies. Follow her on Twitter at @CourtneyPowell.