This isn’t a step-by-step guide to starting your first company; there are a million self-help books and TED talks with people who will tell you their “guaranteed method” to starting a million dollar company. But rather it’s a collection of the most important lessons I learned in my experiences as a college entrepreneur that I wish I had known from the get-go.
1. You’re Going to Need More than a Good Idea
Everyone thinks they have the next big idea, the next great product, the best app, so on and so forth. But before you begin the process of turning that idea into something tangible, it pays to do a little research. You don’t need to drop five grand on a full market analysis, but maybe taking 10 minutes to Google your idea, and variations of your idea, to make sure someone else hasn’t beaten you to the punch. Even if something like your idea exists, your version of it could still be better, so learn the ins and outs of the situation.
2. You Can Do it Alone, But You Won’t Want to
Originally I was going to title this section simply “You Can’t Do it Alone” because while technically true (even sole proprietors need outside help from time to time), it doesn’t exactly cover the scope. Having a partner or a team makes the entire job much more manageable; the old adage two heads being better than one is very true here. Of your own learning, experience and resources, you simply can’t cover all of your bases by yourself. Having a team diverse enough to make sure every job gets done, and done well, is critical for success. It’s also important to stress that your chosen teammates need to be just as passionate about your venture as you because starting up isn’t easy and it takes a lot of drive to stay the course. One last piece of advice on the subject: avoid going into business with close friends or family. It is far kinder to turn someone away at the beginning than to risk ruining a relationship over business squabbles.
3. Everything is Going to Cost Way More and Take Way Longer Than Expected
This is a lesson I’ve had reinforced time and time again. When my partner and I first started in September 2016, we thought surely we’ll be ready to launch our Kickstarter by Thanksgiving, which then became early January, which then became March. In fact, when a competition mentor told us to shoot for a May 1 deadline, we thought that was far too much time, but now our final deadline is May 10, and we’re still scrambling to get everything ready on time. In addition to an ever-present time crunch, every single thing you plan to do is going to cost you more than anticipated; just accept it. The only thing to be done about it is to make sure you have excess room in your budget to account for additional costs and give yourself enough time to realistically accomplish your goals,
4. The Law is Not on Your Side
Now this section only really applies to you if your idea happens to be a tangible product; but another thing I’ve learned in all of this is that patent attorneys are the bane of my existence. Now they may be plenty pleasant individually and outside of work, but professionally they’re a pain to deal with. Not only are they frustrating to work with, but it’s gonna cost you each and every step of the way. So here’s some free advice: the US will grant you a preliminary/provisional patent that protects your idea for one year from the filing date until you can submit a full and finalized patent. During this period you can work on it, meet with patent attorneys, raise funding and so forth. Unless you want a Chinese or European patent. Contrary to popular belief, Chinese factories do respect patents, but only Chinese ones. If they infringe on a US patent, it isn’t their problem. But if you want a patent in China or Europe, you cannot publicly disclose your product or idea (and anything more than a whispered conversation in private could ruin your chances) until you have a patent pending within that country’s patent office.
5. Manufacturing is an Absolute Nightmare
Again, this section also only applies to physical products, but here’s a not-so-fun fact: the words “made in America” don’t guarantee that the factory is going to be producing a high-quality piece (even though they’ll certainly charge you the high-quality price). This is especially true when it comes to consumer electronics. A reputable factory in China will produce higher quality goods at a fraction of the cost. The issue being, finding a good reputable factory in China. For every actual factory you find, you’ll run into 2-3 brokers who will promise you the world without necessarily being able to meet your needs. If you can afford it, it is advisable to actually travel to China, to the region that manufactures your type of product (Shenzhen in our case) and visit factories yourself. If that is time or cost prohibitive, messaging suppliers on Alibaba is a good start.
6. You Might Think You Know Best, But You Probably Don’t
This is a lesson in humility. No matter how experienced you are, or how sure your intuition is correct (and with more experience, the better your intuition gets), it always pays to get a second or even a third opinion. This is partially why having a diverse team is useful because the conglomerate of experiences allows you to make the most informed decisions based on previous experience. If you’re making your venture solo, or your team’s combined knowledge is insufficient, don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who you think might know. In my experience, most entrepreneurs are more than happy to share their insights and experiences with a newcomer (provided it doesn’t come at a cost to their own ventures) and often industry professionals can be pressed to give their two cents if you ask nicely enough.
7. Experience Trumps All
Even if you’ve read every article, watched every TED talk and heard every lesson in this article, you still aren’t guaranteed success. It take years of trial and error and hundreds if not thousands of mistakes and hard lessons for you to begin to develop the intuition to be a great entrepreneur. Even then, you’re still going to be at the mercy of luck and opportunity. My first entrepreneurial venture was selling soda out of a duffel bag in seventh grade, through high school I ventured into shirts and hats and vinyl; but none of those brought any real success. It wasn’t until I started my photography business after high school that I first saw a business model make a noticeable profit, and it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I had a business with the potential to actually make real money. My story there isn’t entirely unique, my partner Aidan had a similar adolescence, and I know of others who started up and crashed nine times before they got it just right and became millionaires. If there are two things that a good entrepreneur cannot be they are: afraid to fail or too proud to learn from their mistakes.