More wisdom, insight and learning from Gen-Y. I'm honored to have worked with Wyatt, Jack and Shahab since last November as they prepared, won and established their company. Wyatt won Oberlin College's Creativity & Leadership Fellowship of $30,000 to start the business after graduation. Below, the three share their lessons learned so far. Optimism for this generation rules!
Wyatt Hayman: After winning $30,000 from the Oberlin College Creativity and Leadership Fellowship our startup team set up in Lake Tahoe, California to build a business. The idea was to live in relative isolation while developing a platform for businesses to engage customers and collect their feedback. Here are three lessons that my two partners and I have learned while trying to create a growth-oriented startup straight out of college.
Jack Kearney: When you've got the skills and team to start building a product, it's really easy to get carried away and just 'go'. Unfortunately, that sort of mentality can lead to a lot of wasted lines of code. We learned a hard lesson this summer: make sure the product that you're trying to build is really needed BEFORE you start building it.
Sometimes, we'd sit down and talk about how the product would be used -- the subtle emotional connections a user would have with a particular UI element or the exact feeling they would have when they pulled their phone out of their pocket. After these discussions we'd spend time coding and let these phantom users guide the development. The problem with this sort of thinking is that you aren't your user. You can't know how someone will use your product (or even if they'd use it at all) until you put it in their hands. But building is tough, and often expensive. Learning to test your ideas as cheaply and efficiently as possible is a skill that we have only recently begun to develop.
Looking back, we should have spent the first several weeks of the summer focused on validating our initial assumptions. We should have really profiled who our product was targeting, and talked to as many people who fit that description as possible. If they responded negatively, we could understand why. If they loved the idea, they would likely give great feedback on how to make it better.
At this point I think the worst mistake we could make is to view this summer as lost time. We've built a product that we can now use to validate these assumptions -- maybe it took us longer than it could have to start doing this, maybe what we've built now is a perfect tool for the job. More importantly though, we grew so much as entrepreneurs, coders, and friends. We'll hit whatever comes next with the same enthusiasm as before, but let caution and experience guide our development.
Wyatt Hayman: Everyone told us how important it is to have well defined roles. This summer I learned how important it is to know when to forget these.
During the summer I noticed that I was clinging to my role as our leader. In the middle of the summer we decided to rethink our strategy. I showed up to the brainstorm wearing my captain’s hat and it was surprisingly difficult to take it off.
While I may have been our leader, the reasons I had this role were not relevant to the discussion. The attitudes of the group reflected my inability to shed this role. My partners resented me for acting like their superior when it wasn't appropriate. Through interactions like this, I learned that if a role doesn’t apply to the task at hand, it needs to be put aside.
To start a company you have to wear many different hats. I think there needs to be more emphasis on the surprisingly difficult task of taking them off.
Shahab Raza: I wouldn’t have expected that the subject of my one take-away from immersing in a startup project would be about collaboration. But it takes some collective skill to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Working in a startup means working with the people you’re living with, and consequently seeing every waking hour of the day. Decisions must be made under the stress of uncertainty, and the pressure of every decision being critical to the prospective success of the project. Yes, you must communicate effectively. But how do you deftly and skillfully manage to persevere in the face of a stalemate? Why, mathematically of course! A disagreement is a pair of conflicting conclusions. In your respective belief structures, there must be some sequence of successively inferential statements that lead to your conclusion. You find some common premise, and then make your respective arguments. Soon you’ll get to a point of divergence. THAT pair of statements, as opposed to the pair of conclusions, is what you need to contest. Of course rising tensions and resentment don’t factor into this game of deductive logic. That’s where it’s worth actively being able to detach your person from your belief. So that an attack on your belief is less hurtful, and you’re less defensive. In general, there’s much to be gained from losing the ego and the self, in the wake of a greater cause, quite apart from the functionality of it all. It’s one of the most exhilarating things I’ve experienced. And that’s from a summer where I went on my first ever hike and learnt how to swim!
Wyatt Hayman: We are thrilled to have been given the opportunity to pursue our dream while learning incredibly valuable lessons along the way. These lessons are just the tip of an iceberg that is constantly growing. We continue to put ourselves in positions to learn and, as the Second City team taught us at the Business Innovation Factory conference, we continue to say, “yes, and” to the possibilities. So far we have traveled from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco, to Oberlin, Ohio, to New York City, to Providence, to NYC, to PVD, and we still have a trips to Madison, Wisconsin, and Oberlin before heading back to San Francisco. There is no doubt we will have seen a lot and learned even more before settling in the City by the Bay. Whether or not we have started a successful business by the time we arrive is another question. But I can promise you we will be searching for the answer.