Reflections on entrepreneurship education, learning to code, business validation, finding co-founders, & time management :: A shout-out to - and empathy for - founders diving in and juggling it all
Author’s note: I posted this originally on Reddit in /r/Entrepreneur here after noticing themes from all the comments, DMs, LinkedIn messages, etc.. from my post in that subreddit a couple weeks ago. Feel free to chime in on either one of those threads, hit me up on LinkedIn here, or shoot me an email (email@example.com). Thanks!
For a bit of background, a couple weeks ago I posted a few thoughts here in /r/Entrepreneur from my past couple of decades of building and investing in businesses. Thanks for all the encouraging feedback and thoughtful questions.
I was flooded with notes from battle-scarred entrepreneurs that 100% resonated with the first point, especially: i.e. that direct/indirect conflict is the primary cause of operational inefficiency and business failure.
Obviously developing a worldview of empathy, generosity, and compassion (which I recommended, and still do) this is easier said than done. From my experience, however, I’ve seen people from vastly different walks of life pull it off; so there is hope for all of us.
Overall, a key thing I look for in founders now is their ability to resolve conflict, regularly acknowledge their own weaknesses, and constantly seek out their blind spots. Combining these traits with deep domain expertise, product sensibilities, and the ability to recruit a well-rounded team is a winning formula.
I'd like to give a big shout-out and high five to those of you on that path. Keep going!
Five common topics/themes
I noticed a number of recurring questions come up and I wanted to share a brief recap of each from my perspective:
- Entrepreneurship education
- Learning to code
- Business validation
- Finding co-founders
- Time management
Obviously these themes come up a TON here in /r/Entrepreneur. There are a wealth of posts to explore, but overall - like many of you - I can deeply empathize with trying to juggle it all. Here are a few reflections:
I listed out a few books in my comments here and here, but in general it’s important for entrepreneurs to embrace the principles of Lean, Design Thinking, Human-Centered Design, and the typical contents of pre-seed and seed pitch decks. It’s helpful to focus on the basic framework of a deck, even at the very start of an entrepreneurial journey, because it forces you to extract the most important aspects from the various “canvasses” and traditional business model curricula out there.
Also, at a more basic level, I linked previously to Naval’s content regarding wealth and leverage creation (still highly recommended), but anything that gets you thinking about the difference between spending time/money on liabilities (i.e. things that lose you money while you sleep) and assets (things that make you money while you sleep) is all you need. For me personally, when I was a teenager I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad (which I know comes up a lot in /r/Entrepreneur, and - if you don’t want to read the book - you can get the basic gist of it in this Amazon review). Overall, most “how to get rich” books and principles out there simply educate you how to create a snowball effect with leverage.
No matter your age, spending time learning and practicing the above topics is helpful for advancing your education as an entrepreneur.
Learning to Code
Similar to the importance of reading, writing, arithmetic, and logic as foundations for education, I’m a firm believer that everyone - especially entrepreneurs - should be exposed to the fundamentals of computer science. Software has eaten the world, and will continue to do so. (And yes, program or be programmed.)
As it relates to entrepreneurship, understanding the flavors of structuring data and how to make savvy use of algorithms will be helpful regardless of whether or not you are the one building your website or web/mobile app. Being aware of what computers can and cannot do allows you to make better decisions for your business.
So, regarding the common question “Should I learn to code?”, the answer is that you should seek to become literate in computer science, but if you don’t find yourself loving the process of building your website/app (everyone should try!), that’s OK. It’s better to focus on what you love and can get extremely good at. You can recruit a team to cover the areas that aren’t your strengths.
This is not at all easy. You can read The Lean Startup a thousand times and still be clueless about how to actually validate your particular idea.
The best advice I can give is to focus on real customer acquisition and not esoteric tests.
I’ve seen plenty of entrepreneurs land their first paying customer - and/or handful of enthusiastic users - with a simple pitch deck or written letter / sketches. This is “leverage” that you can then use to recruit a team and investors.
The key is to acquire people outside of your personal network that are excited about what you are up to. Observe if those people are compelled to tell others about your idea. Virality is arguably the most important validation signal.
Also, seek out direct 1:1 conversations with other entrepreneurs that have figured out how to acquire customers consistently. Usually there is some kind of “luck” factor that opens up an acquisition channel for a period of time and then eventually (or quickly) dries up. The key thing to learn, then, is how to find and open up those channels. Don’t just focus on the particulars of any one method.
Ultimately, validation is about the velocity and acceleration of getting people to interact with and buy your product/service. The signal of whether or not to continue iterating on your idea is completely dependent on your market, product, and business model.
There is no magic bullet here. The best thing you can do on your own - at first - is build up the value of your business with validation traction and assets.
I don’t 100% buy-in to all the dating analogies out there. Recruiting a team is more akin to sports or the performing arts. You are attempting to find people who are interested in leveraging their skills to make money and have fun. This doesn’t need to be done with your soul mate.
Establish a solid plan, sign comprehensive legal docs relatively early in the process, and get after it.
BUT - per my caution in the previous post - finding people who align with your worldview is critical. And, if you find yourselves collectively veering away from empathy, generosity, and compassion, then work really hard to get back on track. This is primarily the job of the CEO, not your HR person or COO.
Practically, beyond the obvious “network and meet lots of people” advice, if you are focusing on validating your idea and creating leverage, then you will create a compelling force of energy that people will want to be a part of. Your co-founder may come from your customer or investor pool, for example. Look at the people who are right in front of you, and also don’t be afraid to ask them if they know anyone who you should meet.
Finally, the last set of comments/questions I saw come up revolved around time management. How do you still have “a life” as an entrepreneur? How do you juggle school / a day job? How do you get into flow more often? etc…
Material from authors like David Allen and Stephen Covey are, of course, helpful and highly recommended. I also saw a great post here in /r/Entrepreneur recently on timeboxing/pomodoro that you should check out.
Ultimately, all the tips and tricks out there are meant to help you set priorities and focus in order to do your best work (or best leisure/relaxation) at the right time.
What I don’t see talked about enough, however, is how to establish principles for evolving your framework for prioritization over time. Similar to what I mentioned before, this is largely ignored because it is deeply personal. Most people, if we’re honest, are train wrecks.
I’ve heard people say that we, as humans, tend to overestimate what we can get done in a week, but underestimate what we can get done in a year. This is true. It points to the power of incremental/exponential progress that stems from healthy habits.
So, practically, you likely already know - deep down - what your priorities are right now and what habits you should be forming. The key is to get started. Begin small. Enjoy the first steps. As an entrepreneur, you are already inclined toward action, so hopefully this isn’t the hard part.
The final set of time-management questions, however, were around narrowing attention and finishing well. For most of us in /r/Entrepreneur, this is the hard part. I’m deep in the struggle myself. What I keep coming back to is the power of daily habits, incremental progress, and attention to worldview-level issues in myself and my family/work relationships. When we hold fast to these principles, then it comes extremely clear what to say “yes” and “no” to. This helps us narrow our focus, finish projects, and transition well.
Thanks for reading. I’d be happy to dive into any of these topics in more depth if you have questions/comments. Have a great rest of your week!