Entrepreneurship was a very big topic during my time studying at Skidmore College – and for good reason. Shep Murray (Skidmore class of ’93) and his brother Ian were gaining national attention for their fast growing start-up, Vineyard Vines, and Darren Herman (class of ’04) started several successful companies before he even graduated. These recent mega-success stories definitely had an impact on the student body. Campus was a-buzz with aspirational entrepreneurs talking about, debating, and/or keeping secret their coveted business ideas.
Most of my classmates thought the key to entrepreneurship was having a really good idea. It wasn’t uncommon to hear people talk about how they have the best business idea – or how they are waiting to think of a good idea before starting a company. I always knew they were wrong. Ideas are cheap. Everyone has ideas. I felt like I couldn’t walk 10 feet without bumping into someone with a good idea. I thought the secret to entrepreneurship was execution, taking a good business idea and having the drive and dedication to bring it to market.
I now know that we were all wrong.
Starting a business definitely involves having a good idea and it certainly involves dedication and execution, but neither of these things are as important as finding customers who are willing to buy your product.
Steve Blank is the de-facto thought leader here. He states subversively that start-ups are not just smaller versions of large companies, but rather they’re something entirely different. A start-up is really a “temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model” – in other words, a search for customers to buy your product.
The operative word here is “search.”
It’s usually the part of the story that people leave out when they talk about their wildly successful start-up, but the search for customers is really the hardest part. Not only does it usually involve a lot of unsuccessful pitches, awkward customer meetings, and outright frustration – but it also involves actually changing your product and value proposition until you find something that sticks. These changes or “pivots,” along with the dedication to stick with it through dozens of failures, are the real keys to entrepreneurship.
I now know that the idyllic start-up stories that inspired so many of my college classmates are almost certainly an exercise in revisionist history. The real road to start-up success is full of bumps, potholes, and wrong turns.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my recent foray into the world of product discovery and entrepreneurship. I’ve had excellent coaching, great support from my network, and amazing, passionate colleagues. It is the best job I’ve ever had – and it’s taught me one very important lesson. Winston Churchill says it best:
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
Note: I’ve found these two reference materials to be very helpful in my entrepreneurial journey:
Let me know what other materials you’ve found useful.