Entrepreneurship: One guy's experience and advice

Jeff Medeiros, MBA

Business Administration Faculty

Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to start my own business.  At 16 I sold plants and flowers by the side of the road in Houston, Texas with a Huck-Finnesque painted sign: "$7.50/each, 3 for $15." 

Then in college, I started a swim school to help pay my tuition at a local resort near the UC Berkeley campus – it ran for 3 seasons.  After college and 6 years at IBM, I quit to start my own computer infrastructure sales and services company…generating up to $250M in sales over 13 years as an IBM Premier Business Partner.  Strangely enough, I never considered myself an entrepreneur, although I understand that's the common name for people who do such things.

So what is Entrepreneurship?  According to my partner, Keith Adams …"it's about being awake, paying attention to what is going on around you, and when you see something that's not being done or could be done better, you POUNCE on the opportunity to deliver the product or service that will make things better."  It's about not taking "no" for an answer and ignoring those who say "that cannot be done."

I think of Sergey and Larry starting Google in the early 2000's, while Yahoo, AltaVista, and AskJeeves were the preeminent search engines.  What did two PhD candidates from Stanford think they were doing competing with these established million-dollar companies?  What was Steve Jobs thinking when he came back to Apple in 1997? We already had really cool MP3 players from companies like Sony – who needed this iPod thing?  And Elon Musk, launching his fancy-pants electric Tesla car right at the beginning of the biggest recession since the Great Depression….with 2 of the top 3 US automobile manufacturers in line for bailout money.  Weren't they all crazy and destined for failure?

EntrepreneurEntrepreneurs don't understand the word "failure".  What other people might see as failure is just an opportunity to learn.  There are only two outcomes: success or learning – never failure.  Watch Steve Jobs giving what (in my opinion) is the best commencement speech ever, where he states "getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me."  Huh?  Getting fired is a good thing?  You bet. 

Why us?  Why anyone?  I have talked to many people who have great ideas and who would love to "be an entrepreneur" but they are held back by their lack of will to just do it and their fear of failure.   They have all the excuses: "I don't have enough money, I don't have enough information, I don't have enough education, I don't have enough…" UGGHH, stop it already!  I promise you, you'll never have enough. 

What I do know is that the successful entrepreneurs I've met never even consider what they don't have - they just imagine what could be.  They are all, as Keith said, "very awake" and not afraid to chase their visions of a unique approach to solving a problem.  Even if, as Larry and Sergey saw with their search engine, there appear to be solutions on the market that seem "good enough" to the public. I should add that Entrepreneurship includes Intrapreneurship:  introducing innovation INSIDE an established organization. 

I've been away from UNYP for the past semester, as some of you know, working on a start-up with Keith, called Keastone.  Here's our elevator pitch - a quick, easy to understand description of the problem and solution, which can be told in the time it takes to push the elevator button and get to the next floor:

IRIIIS is a cloud-based information management hub and collaboration system. It's a single place to manage information from multiple applications like Gmail, Dropbox, Contact Management, To-do lists, and Calendaring systems.

And it's a platform too, where users can build custom applications and invite others to collaborate and share information. 

The problem statement is that there are too many disparate systems...and your stuff is all over the place and hard to keep track of.  This system connects it all together.  No more hide-and-seek.

Neither of us came to Prague to do a start-up, and I didn't come to teach.  We came to ride our bikes.  But along the way, we met some scientists who needed some help to be more effective getting things done, so we developed some software to help them.  And from that, we noticed that the software was of value in many places outside the scientific community.  And from that, we met some folks in Silicon Valley who had some extra money burning a hole in their bank accounts who thought Keastone could give that money a more exciting home.  And finally, we are now redesigning the software to scale up to millions of users!  Just a couple of guys keeping their eyes open, paying attention to what we perceived to be real problems, finding new creative ways to solve problems, never taking "no" for an answer, and understanding that when you don't succeed, you learn.

So that's my version of what makes an entrepreneur. 

For those of you who are more pragmatic, here are some of my favorite resources to help get you started.  I learn a little more from each of these guys every day:

The Lean Start-up Model, by Eric Reis – Eric introduces a very efficient concept for starting a business without getting lost in the details.  Build the simplest version of your idea, a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and get it to a sample market as quickly as possible. Make mistakes fast (and learn), and Pivot (change course) until you succeed.   

The Lean Canvas by Alexander Osterwalder. Alex wrote his PhD Thesis on business models, which evolved into the Lean Canvas, a methodology to help you capture and focus on the key elements to starting any business.  It involves Post-It notes to help you pivot! 

Harvard Business School Prof Michael Porter's book, Competitive Strategy and his related model on the Value Chain of Activities are excellent resources to help you understand the key strategic activities which cumulatively represent your value-added product or service, and the context in the market where you are looking to play. 

The Art of the Start 2.0 – by Guy Kawasaki.  If you have a big idea that requires OPM (Other People's Money), start by watching Guy Kawasaki's Top 10 Mistakes of Entrepreneurs on YouTube. Kawasaki was one of the original Apple guys and is a mouthy (PG13), BS-free evangelist, advising the next generation on how to practice entrepreneurship.  You can start slow with his The Only 10 Slides You Need in Your Pitch, especially if you're looking for OPM.

Last but not least, I highly recommend building and leveraging your network.  When I was in the US this past trip, I was surprised to realize how many people I already knew.  And if I didn't know someone who had a skill or resource I needed, then I almost always knew someone who knew someone.  Before you say "of course you know people – you've been doing this for a million years by now!" I want to tell you "But now you know me!" And what's more, you don't just know me – you know your parents, your aunts and uncles, your professors and your neighbors.  You know so many people already who would be only too happy to help you.  Just remember to ask politely before and say thank you after.  In fact, always be nice – one of my favorite books to live by which will help you create and maintain a strong network is All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum.

Here's another starting point:  Join the planned discussion on Entrepreneurship hosted by UNYP"s Entrepreneurship Center on Friday, June 5th from 10-12pm in the UNYP Conference Room (basement) at Londynska 41, Prague.  A handful of experts in start-ups from the Prague region will be on hand to talk with the attendees.  To sign up, just send a note to the program Director, Prof Aaron Johnson at Entrepreneurship@unyp.cz  If I'm in town, I plan to attend myself…and I hope to learn something myself, and meet some great new people.

So now you have enough information.  Go find something broken or missing and come up with a solution.  Don't be afraid.  The worst that can happen is you'll learn something.

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