So you Want to Found a Startup? My Advice to College Students

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Along with my job as Co-founder & CEO of AnswerDash, I’m also a professor at the University of Washington Information School, where AnswerDash was born. This week marks the return to campus for tens of thousands of eager students ready to sharpen their skills and take one step closer to achieving their dream.

For some of these students, that dream is to found a tech startup. I am familiar with that dream. I had it, too, when I graduated from Stanford in the late 1990s. It seems to me that, if anything, that dream has only grown among college students, with hundreds of them feeling it on the Seattle campus.

5 things I would tell students before they start their own company

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  1. Know thyself.This advice may sound very Zen, but above all else, startups are crucibles of intense experiences, both good and bad, and how you handle these experiences will, at times, upend who you think you are. You will make mistakes. You will let yourself and others down. You will face adversity. You will feel deep uncertainty. You will even feel lonely despite working with a team. If you don’t really know who you are, what you stand for, where you draw lines, and how you treat people, the intensity of these revelations can crush your own self-perception and devastate you. Startups strip you down and show you to yourself naked and afraid. You can only handle these moments if you know who is going to be revealed standing there. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about being imperfect and knowing your imperfections so you don’t let them destroy your chances for success.
  1. Think mission, not money. They say good founders never think about the money they’ll make if their startup takes off. Instead, they focus on their startup’s mission, and are surprised when that mission one day turns to green. If you find yourself more excited about the possibility of riches than the possibility of changing the world, don’t found a startup. Not until your passion for your mission so consumes you that there’s no room to think about anything else.
  1. Don’t hire your friends. Many early-stage CEOs will hire their friends to work in their companies. Many friendships do fine in a startup. But managing your friends will always be harder than managing others. Friends will talk to you differently, look at you differently, expect different things, and react in different ways than other employees. With every friend you hire you incur an emotional overhead you don’t have with others. And there will be a time when you put your friendship at risk for the sake of the startup. If you believe in your mission, you’ll convince others to believe in it, too. If you can only convince your friends to join you, you need to find a new mission.
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  1. Customers first... second... third. It may be tempting to hole up in a dorm room with a few co-founders and write code that, one day, will change the world. The problem with this scenario is that it presumes you know exactly how the world works and exactly how to change it. But you don’t. You are in a dorm room. To understand the world you’re trying to change, you have to get out in it. You have to talk to customers as the first thing you do. And the second thing you do. And the third… If you are selling software to accounting firms, you need to talk to accountants. If you are selling gadgets to retailers, you need to observe retailers. If your product will be used by stay-at-home moms, you need to deeply understand their daily lives. Your startup starts “out there,” not “in here.” Understanding the world is a prerequisite for changing it.
  1. Nail your product, but stay focused on your business. Many of the tech majors I teach, when talking about their startups, talk only about the product they’re building. I wait to hear about their business, and when I ask about it, they go right on describing their product. Don’t get me wrong—the product a company sells must be excellent. Any product from an early-stage company is going to be narrow in scope, and that’s a good thing, but whatever the product does, it must do better than anything else. But this product is not the business. This product is what the business sells. So beyond the product, you must think about customers, how you’ll reach them, what you’ll charge them, how you’ll support them, how they’ll switch to your solution, what team you’ll need, who you’ll partner with, when you’ll raise money, and a hundred other things. Many great products fail, but no great businesses fail, by definition.

Key takeaway: Students, you have some of the greatest energy and talent in the world. Pouring yourself into a startup after graduation is a great way to capitalize on that energy and those talents. But know what you’re getting into. Startups require you to have a level of self-awareness, passion, and vision that is rare. Don’t fear the challenge, but don’t underestimate it. As they said in Friday Night Lights, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!"

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