I just got back from speaking to 100 NYC high school kids about startups. The good folks at Global Kids asked me to say a few words at the NY Public Library Emoti-con festival, and I was more than happy to oblige and talk about one of my favorite subjects. I decided to give the kids some advice should they ever decide to pursue an entrepreneurial dream. The subject matter was a risk with kids this young, because the message could easily be lost, but I long ago decided with my speaking engagements that it is far better to overestimate the audience than underestimate them.
I thought I would share my “draft” from preparing for the talk, so with no further ado:
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I fell in love with startups 16 years ago in my senior year of college, when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. The word “startup” wasn’t even in my vocabulary — my dad was a writer and editor. I discovered this company in Austin, Texas run by wicked-smart kids out of Stanford who were building amazing software, living in this intense culture, and waiting for permission from nobody. Meeting them was like a lightning bolt to my brain. I had to be like them. I literally convinced them against their better judgment to give me a job even though I was totally clueless at the time. I was off to the races and never looked back, though it led me to a path that entailed both success and failure.
Doing a startup means creating something from nothing. You are literally trying to build a company from scratch, and it’s incredibly difficult. A lot of people fail. But here’s the redeeming part: it is incredibly creative, because you are building something new with your own two hands. It is incredibly motivating, because you are your own boss — you have freedom to do what *you* think is right. And it is fun because you get to tackle a new challenge every day. There are safer ways to make money, but if creativity and independence ring true in your soul, and you think you might be inspired to create your own company some day, here are a five pieces of advice I’d like to impart.
1. You need to be independent and resilient
Most people think doing a startup is crazy. You are working insane hours. You are not getting paid. You have no assurance of success. Sounds nuts, right? So to do a startup, you need to love working for yourself. That freedom, that independence, is incredibly inspiring and energizing, and you will need that energy because if something needs doing, guess what — there is no one else to do it. No job is too small. No job is too menial.
You should also expect that people will be tremendously skeptical of what you are trying to do. If people thought your idea was great, they would have already done it. You hear a lot of people saying “that will never work” — and you have to push through it. A startup is an emotional rollercoaster with incredible highs and lows. It can be a battle with doubt and fear of failure. You need to have a resilient “whatever it takes” attitude to get through it all and turn your dreams into reality.
2. Work on something you love
People do their best work when they are having fun, and there is no room for anything but your best work. The only way you can have fun working insane hours while the sky is about to fall on your head at any second is to love what you are working on. You might create something to solve a problem you yourself are facing, or you might just have a vision about an area of life or business that you are really interested in. The cool thing is that computers, the Internet, and mobile phones are literally changing everything around us. Everything is technology these days. The world is ripe for innovation. Pick an area where you have passion, because you’ll need it.
3. Your first idea is probably going to be wrong
When you first have that “wouldn’t it be awesome if we could do this!?” moment, it will feel brilliant to you at the time, you need to remember that you are probably wrong. You might be hugely wrong, or just a little wrong, but if you look at successful startups, it’s not actually about chasing the original idea, but rather relentlessly chasing something that people really want to use. So expect that your idea, while probably a great start, will need to evolve. The best way to evolve is to get out of your own head and talk to people. Don’t be afraid that someone will steal your idea. Your problem is going to be getting someone, anyone to care. So talk about your idea. Make a pretend version on paper and show it to people. Once you actually make something, get people using it as early as possible. Get feedback. Synthesize what you learn with your creative vision. Evolve and make something truly amazing in reality, not in theory.
4. Find great partners
You cannot do a startup alone. It is too hard, there is too much work to do, and no one is great at everything. You want to find people who complement your skillset, who share your passion, who work as hard as you, who support you when you’re down, who you enjoy being around, and who you trust. Finding people like this is incredibly hard. You really want to get to know someone first. Startups can take years to fully get off the ground, so if you are not sure about someone, trust your instincts and spare yourself the heartbreak and pain.
5. Find great mentors
Surround yourself with people who are better and smarter than you are. Figure out who would make an amazing mentor and chase them — chase them hard. Show them why you are special and why they should help you. You will find that the entrepreneurial community is really supportive, because everyone, no matter how big and successful their company turned out to be, has been through hard times. They’ve been two people, slaving away while everyone else said they were nuts. While you are inevitably going to have to learn a lot the hard way, having an experienced voice and sounding board can make your life so much better.
So those are the five things I wanted to impart today: be strong and independent; work on something you love; let your idea evolve into something customers love; choose your startup co-founders carefully; and find experienced mentors to help you along the way.