When I first took the helm as executive director of the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center over a year ago, I brought with me 15 years of experience in the Silicon Valley venture capital community. I’d been through tech booms and busts, economic upswings and downturns, so I was feeling an abundance of confidence: Like anyone who’s been in a profession for over a decade, I (initially) found it easy to sit back and think I'd "seen it all.”
I was mistaken; in fact, my first year of leading the Center taught me, through the experience of others as well as my own, that when it comes to starting and leading any young entrepreneurial organization, every day is filled with surprises and unexpected lessons.
The Nasdaq Entrepreneur Center, for those who don't know, is a new San Francisco-based non-profit organization designed to educate, innovate and connect aspiring and current entrepreneurs. Since the center's 2014 inception, some 2,000 entrepreneurs have gained from its classes and programs. Through interviews I conducted with the Center’s Young Executive Advisory Board members, I myself gleaned five practical lessons that can help any entrepreneur who dreams of starting something big:
- Customer problems are solved on a continuum, not with a single solution.
- Data cannot be collected retroactively.
- Patience for your company's most important problems is essential.
- Strategy time is crucial.
- Never deprioritize your team in pursuit of more working time.
Here are the direct words of those entrepreneurs:
1. Aleda Schaffer, strategic partnerships manager, American Airlines
Customers are more than just a single problem they’re trying to solve.
Schaffer: "There are so many ways to communicate with customers now: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc. The best advice for navigating this media-rich world is to find the platforms that your customers are on and only focus on those. Target your messaging according to the platform.
"Use infographics on Pinterest, short videos on Facebook, time-relevant quotes on pictures that link to more information on Twitter, etc. Be where you need to be; just because there’s a large audience on a specific platform doesn’t mean it’s your audience.”
Nicola comments: Coming from venture capital, I was used to finding a single problem to solve. With the Center, I expected the single [biggest] problem to be an entrepreneur’s need to fund-raise -- and that this would drive the focus of our programming. But it quickly became clear that our customers needed a richer experience beyond just investor guidance; they responded to classes aimed at design thinking, sales and marketing, PR and media training and even organizational management. Don’t get me wrong -- they still wanted to meet investors, but it wasn’t a 'be all' solution.
"The 'pain' you’re solving for may need to evolve. Your customers have a range of issues they’re facing, so creating a truly useful product requires constant evolution based on feedback from customers to drive innovation forward."
2. Cliff Worley, chief digital officer, Shark Branding
You can never go back in time to collect lost data.
Worley: "We advise all of our Shark Tank investments to capture as much data as they can when their episode airs on Shark Tank. Most companies get a huge surge in traffic, and it’s the perfect time to capture as much data as possible. If they don’t capture that data, it will be gone forever. Data can work in your advantage, especially in the early stages of your business. One small insight about your customers can have a huge impact on revenue generation. Always collect and analyze your data!"
Nicola comments: In the early days of the Center, I was so focused on measuring a bigger movement -- the story of our impact -- that I missed the opportunity to collect the meaningful, measurable data right in front of us. Our impact story continues to evolve, but we’re much more focused on collecting as much data as we can -- in the moment -- so that we can have the ability to see patterns and insights as they’re unfolding."
3. Joe Musselman, founder and CEO, The Honor Foundation
Some things just take time . . . especially building a community.
Musselman: When structuring a new community or network, one of the most important and commonly overlooked aspects by new entrepreneurs is a laser-focused mentality on quality. If you’re an architect, and you’re hoping to design and build your crowning achievement, would you first locate uneven ground? Would you then lay a weak foundation? Import low grade steel? Old lumber? Scrap drywall? Questionable builders?
"No. You wouldn’t do any of this as first steps. People forget that Facebook, Airbnb and others are 10-to-15 year 'overnight' successes. A careful groundwork was laid, and in both cases Mark [Zuckerberg], Brian [Chesky] and his co-founders chose whom they brought into their world very carefully. Your business is your life’s work, your crowning achievement -- you need to foster meaningful connections, and there are no shortcuts to this. It “takes time, energy, and patience . . . growth rarely happens overnight. Meaningful and quality relationships reproduce themselves.”
Nicola comments: “Strategically, there are things you can do to inject growth potential, increase [number of] eyeballs and boost numbers. But, fostering a meaningful connection to your community takes time. When we started, our classes were small in terms of attendance -- but now they’re often standing-room only. That’s a wonderful thing to see just a year in, but we would’ve loved to see that eight months ago. We were so frustrated by the growth rate at first. But by focusing on creating offerings for our influencers and core community, we got to a great place. It just took time."
4. Jessica Straus, director, strategic initiatives, National Venture Capital Association
Clearing the calendar is sometimes the most important thing you have to do.
Straus: “Create space and time for an idea to surface, shift and be shaped by collaborative feedback. Often, my day is a flurry of meetings and calls. These sparks of connection are a good thing. To process each one, I take notes, create to-do lists and send quick ideas to our team on Slack. Together, my team and I make space to loosen the threads from the spool of these ideas. Frequently, we’ll schedule an hourlong morning meeting before others arrive. The ideas worth executing often form in a snap; then, we share them quickly to get feedback and implement.”
Nicola comments: "There are days when back-to-back meetings are inevitable, but when meetings only lead to more meetings, you have to pause and rethink the logic. I now have a rule of no more than four meetings per day. I leave an open window for myself first thing in the morning and at the end of the day, to reprioritize. Without that baked-in structure, I find important threads relating to strategy can get lost in the sheer volume of meetings. Some of the most important aha! moments have happened when I block off time to think.
5. Vincent Chang, senior manager, communications, at SmartNews
As your team grows, so does your need to have regular check-ins.
Chang: “Instead of remote working by themselves, our engineers meet as a group outside of the office, at a cafe equidistant to their homes. We also get personal time with our founders in intimate happy hours, talks, etc. Deeper face-to-face connection has made us better at remote collaboration and communication. Colleagues prioritize helping each other, even if they’re on different teams in different countries. The faster you grow, the more you need to invest in getting people to spend quality time together, rather than generic company events.”
Nicola comments: "Startups grow at hyper speed. But it’s important to find time to grab your team and get out of the office or typical collaboration settings, sometimes. This has to be one of the top priorities for a leader at all times. Not only are your team the champions of all things possible, but sustaining their health and ability to propel your company forward means being there to check in with them above anything else."