From my perch at Harvard Business School, I can tell you one thing about the future of American business: it will be built by entrepreneurs with great visions and real grit, not just a fancy MBA. Before you change the world, though, there are a few things that you should do, which I have learned from my early career and the experiences of other dreamers and doers across America.
A wise man (Jay Z) once said, “It ain’t for everybody.” He was right, and it doesn’t have to be. Being an entrepreneur is en vogue, but doing it for the wrong reasons can be just as bad as, or worse than, not doing it at all. My two-part test:
- Do you have a great idea?
- Are you working with someone you are convinced is extraordinary and sane?
If neither of these conditions is met, go get a great job. If you have one of the two, consider taking a chance. If you have both, you can really make magic happen.
So often we stand at the threshold of doing something truly great, something we were put on this earth to do, and we let fear—both of failure and of success—stop us dead in our tracks. The great difficulty, someone wrote, is to say “yes” to life. But at some point we all will die and there will be nothing left to say yes to. Do it now.
When Wynton Marsalis decided to jump and become a jazz musician, his father told him, “Don’t ever have something to fall back on, because you’ll fall back.” I’ve found the same to be true when it comes to starting a project, movement, or company. If you’re not 100% in, you might as well not be in at all. So put your McKinsey cover letter away—consulting will always be around; your unique opportunity to change the world may not.
The first thing I did when I was hired to help run a startup was go out and buy three or four books on business and management—from The First 90 Days, to Reality Check—devouring them and taking copious notes that I planned to use on day one. Day one came and I never saw the notes again, not because the books weren’t great, but because they had very little to do with the daily grind of getting things done. Books help us do a lot of things, but they don’t hire people or get new clients, so focus on that and then give Jim Collins a call.
I know, this defeats the whole purpose of going to Yale in the first place. But if you’re going to change the world and be a non-obnoxious person while you’re doing it, you’re going to have to eat a few slices of humble pie and acknowledge the fact that nobody cares where you went to school if you have a great idea and a kickass team. This is a good thing. Listen more. Brag less. Retire your blue blazer and khaki pants—there’s always your 20-year reunion for you to pull them out again.
For 5,000 years, debt has been ruining empires and individuals alike. Don’t let it ruin your freedom and flexibility. Pay back the loans you already have as quickly as possible. Be frugal. Shop sales. Learn how to cook, or at least how to make a good sandwich. Throw away all the credit card offers you get in the mail. Don’t spend a quarter of a million dollars on business school. Read Napoleon Hill’s chapter in The Law of Success on personal debt, and thank me later.
The first Christians stole half of a book from Judaism. The founding fathers stole ideas from the British, the Romans, and Enlightenment philosophers. Even The Beatles stole! If it was good enough for Jesus, George Washington, and Paul McCartney, it’s good enough for you. As you try to make something out of your great idea and kickass team, don’t waste time trying to reinvent the wheel. Use the wheels that already exist and invent something else. Austin Kleon’s book, Steal Like an Artist, is a great guide to stealing in the most productive, ethical way possible.
You know how to write a business plan—tell them the problem; tell them how you solve it; tell them how you’ll make money; etc.—and you’ve done tons of research to figure out how to pack as much data into a presentation that will hopefully impress investors before it bores them to death. Great.
But every other entrepreneur worth her salt will have this too. What will set you apart is a story—the “why” to all the “whats” of your business plan. Not because people don’t care about facts. Not because the data doesn’t matter. Tell me a story because I want to envision a future that is drastically better than the past and the present. Tell me a story because the facts and the data can change. Tell me a story because your brand has to be more than just a set of products or services that people pay you for—it has to enable those you serve to be better, to be whole, to be great. Otherwise, it’s just a 20 page presentation with no life and no chance of changing the world.
One idea: write your deck with a Sharpie on 20 pieces of blank paper. Write in large letters so you can only fit the most compelling and important line or two on the page. We’re most creative when we’re active, so keep drafting until you’re exhausted and your story makes somebody cry.
A politician friend of mine who is trying to build a private law practice told me not long ago, “I’m advice-d out.” I totally understood what he was saying. You’re a bright, interesting person, who may or may not do something cool in the world. Lots of folks will set aside 30 minutes on their calendar to talk to you—they might even buy you a meal and introduce you to one of their friends. These people often become mentors, and you should cherish them.
But what you need right now is a champion, someone who is out there advocating on your behalf—getting their friends to give you free legal advice, having a serious conversation about seed funding, telling you when you screw up and helping you fix it. Learn how to tell the difference between the two, and save yourself a lot of time that you could spend getting things done.
One note here: never be a user and don’t burn bridges. Look for win-wins and be genuine in your interactions. Your most valuable asset is your reputation and no startup is worth ruining that.
Entrepreneurship, like life, isn’t easy or fair. You will make mistakes. You will be disappointed. You may even fail. But if you look at any great figure or effort in the history of mankind, you will see that these mistakes, failures, and heartaches were central to a final triumph. Your failures are commas, not periods, so don’t give up every time you lose a battle—just win the bloody war.
Bonus: Post this quote on your desk or wall and read it every time somebody thinks (or you think yourself) that you’re finished:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” ~Teddy Roosevelt
Good luck and Godspeed!
This excerpted from Insights: Reflections from 101 of Yale’s most successful entrepreneurs, a collection of essays compiled by Chris LoPresti.