As the founder and director of two entrepreneurship-focused programs at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Launchpad and iSTEM, I oversaw the creation of 12 officially incorporated companies, with many more to come. It took about three years to set up our first company, but now we launch a new company every three months. To maintain this efficiency, we need to identify the right students: the rule breakers, risk takers, and obsessively passionate – like Kevin Barresi.
Kevin was a student of mine long before iSTEM/Launchpad, someone who embodied all the qualities needed to be a successful entrepreneur. He just wanted to build a vastly superior browser in the beginning. When his creation took hold in the Stevens community, it made sense to look into starting a business. Ultimately, Kevin created iubble, which made it easy to discover, organize and share web content. In 2016, iubble was acquired by FinTech Studios for a seven-figure rating, where he is now chief technology officer.
Over the years, after working with Kevin, I’ve seen many talented students come and go, and I’ve noticed that successful students possess certain traits—and which skills they need to improve—to succeed in entrepreneurship. Obsessive people gifted with technology are just a starting point; there are many other traits that set people up for real success:
(1) Grit: Roadblocks are inevitable. Successful student entrepreneurs are people who never give up, are sloppy and always find a way to make something happen. These people don’t make excuses and somehow just seem to “get things done”. I’ve seen gifted technologists struggle without this quality, while I’ve seen people with average skills build great companies because of their perseverance.
(2) Purity of motivation: The most successful entrepreneurs never started anything to make a lot of money or build a huge business. Rather, they found an interesting problem, were forced to solve it and brought this solution to many people. Starting a business is a natural progression in this journey. People who are solely driven by wanting to get rich disappear around six months.
(3) Long-term thinking: Rome was not built in a day, a week, or even a semester. Neither does Apple, Facebook or Microsoft. At Launchpad and iSTEM programs, we strive to spend two to six years working with students and building relationships for life. Those who do it for the long term will succeed. You just have to show up every day for several years and stick with it.
(4) Culture and recruitment: Reaching milestones, exceeding expectations and growing a business are results of great culture, but most budding founders confuse culture with camaraderie. “We hang out all the time” is not a culture. Culture paints a vivid picture of a future to come, by hiring great people and giving them autonomy, and creating an environment of responsibility. Without culture, and a transparent remuneration structure derived from it, it is impossible to attract and retain great talent. And you have to be willing to hire and fire based on this culture.
(5) Big ideas: Most good ideas sound crazy at first. Facebook was originally a social networking site just for poor students; Google was the 12th search engine; and you can imagine how an idea of letting random strangers stay in other random people’s homes sounds on paper. Most good ideas sound bad at first. The most reasonable sounding ideas are actually bad ideas.
(6) Diverse in your thinking: Be attentive, both in your product development and in your team. Ask yourself whether your invention recognizes the needs and sensitivities of your potential users. Surround yourself with colleagues who are not only diverse in their backgrounds, but also in their thinking. Building a team of people “like you” will not open your mind to new ideas and possibilities.
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How to start?
If you have all of these qualities, you may be wondering, “What am I supposed to do now?” While support systems like iSTEM and Launchpad can help, you don’t need to join an entrepreneurship program to build your own business. You just need to focus on building something that a small number of people can’t live without. Keep an eye out for emerging trends in society and technology, as they will likely be for at least a few years, and strive to improve the lives of the people you want to serve. Then pursue it with maniacal determination.
There comes a time when you realize you can’t do it alone. That’s no problem. There may only be one CEO at a company, but building a company from scratch is a team sport.
stay at school
Young, out-of-the-box thinkers have seen how high school leavers like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates have become the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, and as a result have sent the message that studying doesn’t help the entrepreneurial spirit thrive. Those founders are outliers, though, and the university has changed a lot since they were in school. With the right mindset, motivation and skills, the university can be a place where entrepreneurial dreams come to fruition.
College provides students with a network far better than what they would have on their own, as well as a community to get their products off the ground. For example, Kevin’s iubble web browser was adopted by half of the Stevens campus before it was acquired. Finally, many colleges now have entrepreneurship programs with expert professors offering guidance and support, and young student entrepreneurs should take advantage of these resources.
Entrepreneurship Programs and Money
If you have the opportunity to participate in an entrepreneurship program, you’ll want to do your research. Pick a program with a good track record and talk to people who’ve gone through it for a first-hand account. Choosing a program is like choosing a co-founder: you need to understand their values, long-term and short-term goals, network, and how they deal with success and failure.
Don’t just pick the one with the biggest wallet. This is your education, not a bank. Thrift will enforce discipline and focus. If you really have guts, you will persevere and find investors. You can sign up for a wide variety of startup accelerator programs, and some colleges/organizations have entrepreneurship competitions. In addition, you can research companies that have previously received funding from an investor or venture capital firm. Contact that company, build a relationship, and then request an introduction to that investor/VC company.
Ultimately, entrepreneurship is about people: co-founders, customers and investors are all people. Products and technology are just vehicles to move these three groups of people forward under one banner with a clear sense of purpose and act as your North Star.
Mukund Iyengar, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology. He is also the founder/director of two entrepreneurship-focused programs at the university: [email protected] and [email protected]