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Lessons from 3 years of startup mentorships

Came across a tweet sharing a summary of lessons a mentor learnt while advising various successful startups and I thought I should post it here to share and as a reminder to myself. This is adopted from a post on Business Insider and I’m gonna do a checklist of the project I am working on:

  • Develop a vision. Too many startups are too focused on the first features of their product. They need to give their project a wide berth. Especially during the tough stretches, it’s important to be able to look to a bigger horizon, to have a “mojo” which gives personality to the company. (Author’s Note: The Vision for Lunchsparks in to connect and help users network with professionals that are relevant to them. We believe in the power of networking and that nobody should spend their lunch alone. Checked!)
  • Know (and love) your key metrics. You can’t win if you don’t measure. From day one, even if your numbers are flat, it’s incredibly important to understand what are the important metrics for your business. I can easily feel if an entrepreneur is credible if she can, with a few figures, explain her business, her market, her customers, her strengths and weaknesses. And I can also feel if she, personally, is mature enough as an entrepreneur once she understands that metrics are her friend. That’s what allows you to steer your company, to evaluate yourself and your team. Starting a company is like building a small race car: without metrics, the competition will pass you by! (Author’s note: This is something really really new to me. We have not come by any numbers and we have no financial plan for Lunchsparks. We dive straight into the project because we believe in it and we know it will work. Maybe I should pay attention to this. Not Checked!)
  • Run fast (for a long time). You can’t be faster than the world. If you think you can be “successful” in 6, 12 or even 18 months, you’re wrong. In reality, it’s likely that the first 12 to 18 months will only be laying the foundations. It takes a long time to till the field, until at one point, everything speeds up magically. It’s a marathon, but every day has to be a sprint. (Author’s note: This is a reminder that things should be sped up. Progress for Lunchsparks are quite stagnant recently and we are relying on our tech co-founder to build the backend before we can proceed. I should try to do something to push him harder. Not Checked!)
  • Always be positive. Always. When you’re meeting with customers, leads, investors, when you’re pitching, when you’re discussing your competition, when you’re talking with random people, when you’re sending out your newsletter… Only ever announce good news, and smile! (Author’s note: Checked! I am super passionate and I believe in our product. Nuff said.)
  • Stay focused and avoid distractions. Events, mile-long to-do lists, social networks, trendy buzzwords, unnecessary features, writing a business plan, startup competitions… Through all that, an entrepreneur has to steer the ship and focus on what actually matters. Show some willpower and cut out anything unnecessary. (Author’s note: I have been carried away with a lot of things lately: new business ventures with friends, exploring new ideas, going for networking sessions as well as workshops. I really, really need to focus and prioritize. Not Checked!)
  • F—ing do something! Instead of spending your time thinking, test a bunch of things out, always be doing something. I’ve seen too many brilliant guys miss the bus. I think you have to be a bit of a horse, you have to act first and think later sometimes (even though thinking for a minute doesn’t hurt). (Author’s note: Checked! I always believe in doing things fast. And things are moving quite ok recently. Had quite a bit of progress considering the fact that I just came back to Singapore 1 month ago and we are looking for Alpha testers right now.)
  • It’s all about people. It’s hard to really be by yourself to start a company. Whether it’s co-founders, employees, freelancers, partners, peers… You’re going to have to learn to be social, to network, and more broadly to understand fellow humans. And to love it so much it becomes a second nature. (Author’s note: Checked! If there is one thing that I learnt in Shanghai was that I learnt to network and ensure that it became a daily routine. Thats the whole gist of the project that I am working on right now as well. )
  • Learn to fail. Failing is good. It’s like getting slapped in the face, it makes the blood flow! When starting a business, all of us screw up a lot, sometimes minorly and sometimes majorly. We’re all very talented at screwing up. (Author’s note: So far I have yet to face any failures with regards to the project that I am doing. I foresee more on the way though. Not Checked!)
  • Celebrate (even small) victories. Starting a business hurts. There are very few of those simple, happy moments. Everything is about being out of balance, leaping into the unknown, taking hopefully-calculated risks. And there is no payoff for a while, except for the vague feeling of being free and doing something meaningful. So you need to learn to celebrate and talk about the small victories. (Author’s note: Will have a mini celebration with my cofounders when Alpha is launched. =) Not Checked! )
  • Sell your project to your relatives. It’s fundamentally important that your close friends, family and loved ones be behind you 100%. They need to understand you and support you. So take the time to explain carefully all the things that go on in your brain and what they have to do not to add pressure. And don’t forget to take care of them, too: save special moments to unplug (yes, it’s hard) and spend quality time. (Author’s note: My relatives are in Malaysia. Maybe when I gain more user base first and we’ll work from there to garner their support. Not Checked! )
  • (Do not) listen. This is what’s most paradoxal. You’re going to have to learn to listen, to open your ears, and to draw deep from the experience of others. But you also need to learn to not let others influence you too much. Stick to your vision, define your plan yourself, and only then ask for advice. Everyone is always going to have their two cents, and their advice is often going to be contradictory. Pick a handful of mentors and trust your gut. (Author’s note: Checked! Nuff said.)
  • Know when to pull the plug. Life is long! After my first startup, I thought I’d seen it all. I was a bit lost, full of frustration, of meetings, of joys, successes, failures… And then months go by, and you find new things to do, you grow up. And sometimes, you need to just end it, figure out what went wrong, and get back in the saddle and do better. (Author’s note: As this is my first major project, lets hope it doesn’t go down the drain.)



Diploma or Dropout: The Entrepreneur’s Dilemma

Adopted from Mashable

What do Bill GatesSteve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg all have in common?

Well, lots of things. The three are some of history’s greatest innovators and they’re super-rich, super-successful entrepreneurs. But perhaps most intriguing is the absence of a university degree on their impressive resumes.

All three enrolled in college (Jobs at Reed, Zuckerberg and Gates at Harvard) but ultimately chose business over books. Add Michael DellPaul Allen and the Twittercofounders to the list, and it almost looks like entrepreneurial success is the norm for college dropouts.

These unconventional career paths have led many, such as Flickr founder Caterina Fake, to speculate that dropping out belies an entrepreneurial streak. Plus, it makes sense that being young and debt-free can lead to creative risk-taking.

Of course, mega successful dropouts are one in a million. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 57% of first-time students complete a degree within six years. It goes without saying, not all of these former students make it big. However, given this uncanny trend, we took a look at the reasons creative types ditch the classroom for entrepreneurship. We spoke with three young entrepreneurs who have left school in the past six months to learn what it takes to innovate without a degree.

The Thiel Fellowship

In May, Facebook investor and PayPal founder Peter Thiel launched the “20 under 20 Fellowship.” It awards $100,000 to students to pursue entrepreneurship. The motley crew of 24 fellows (20 total teams) will substitute traditional academics for two years of tutelage under Thiel’s oversight. While the benefactor has two degrees from Stanford, he’s infamously outspoken on the overhyped status of higher education. Thiel believes his fellowship will help solve the bubble of underemployed American degree holders and nourish the creative spirit in the America’s business environment.

All of the fellows are positioned to innovate in trendy topics. Three delved into biotech, two in career development, two in economics, three in education, four in energy, three in information technology, one in mobility, one in robotics and one in space.

Business Is Calling

Andrew Sutherland says leaving M.I.T. after three years of studying computer science was one of the hardest decisions he ever had to make. He has been working on his company, Quizlet, since his sophomore year of high school when he developed the program to study for a French test. Quizlet is an online study tool allowing students to create and share flash cards.

This summer, Sutherland realized he had to either choose his business or his schooling. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to do both well,” he says. “I saw how big Quizlet was getting, how many people were using it and how big an impact it could have for millions of students.”

Wesley Zhao similarly withdrew from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania two weeks ago when he decided to devote his energies to AvantCard, a site reinventing gift card giving. AvantCard’s co-creators, Ajay Mehta, Jesse Beyroutey and Dan Shipper, are not leaving school to pursue the startup.

“I think you just get different things from being in class and going into business,” says Zhao. “I definitely think you learn things in class but you learn more practical skills by doing it yourself.”

For 19-year-old Zhao, the decision isn’t risky because he knows he can always return to school. He plans to go back someday to pursue a degree, however, he no longer intends to major in entrepreneurship.

Sutherland also hopes to return to college, noting that he had a great time meeting friends and studying computer science. He believes M.I.T. does a great job of fostering entrepreneurship, easily allowing students to take leaves of absence and subsequently return to campus.

The Classroom Is Lacking

Dale Stephens left Hendrix College in March to pursue his blog-turned-social movement UnCollege. Halfway through his freshman year, Stephens started writing about his frustrations with higher education.

“I found smart people writing term papers, not changing the world,” he says. “I was working on theoretical homework rather than seeing the direct application of my work in the real world.”

Stephens was awarded a Thiel Fellowship to pursue his work as an educational futurist. He initially applied with a proposal for a budget transatlantic airline. Although his proposal was rejected, the committee approached him after he left college to work on UnCollege. Stephens, now based in Silicon Valley for Thiel’s mentorship, is using his seed money to publish his first book, “Hacking Your Education,” which he describes as a practical guide for gaining the skills schools aren’t teaching. The release is scheduled for early 2013.

While his book is in the works, Stephens says universities around the country have reached out to him as a consultant. “Tech is changing faster than they can. It’s really inspiring to see individuals working within the system, genuinely interested in building a better university of the future,” Stephens says.

True enough, college dropout will free up a lot of time for you to focus on what you want to do in your life, but thats provided that you really have something that you want to focus and that you are sure what you are doing, because simply giving up your education puts your future at stakes. There is really too much opportunity cost. For Singaporean, since they need to go through the national service, by the time they go through a 4 year degree program and step into the society, they would be 24/25 year old, depending on whether did they go through polytechnic.

So to foster the spirit of entrepreneurship, I think that the Singapore tertiary education institution plays a crucial role, not forgetting also the role of polytechnics in promoting entrepreneurship. Tertiary education institutions play important part in shaping the workforce and also a nation. They are the forefront of quality human capital. The good thing about the tertiary institution in Singapore is that they are doing quite well and are very supportive of the whole idea of entrepreneurship. Singaporeans or people who are studying here in Singapore should really be thankful and appreciative and really make full use of all the various resources and programs available. =)