For the second year, Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures was kind enough to come to HBS to meet with the class Professor Tom Eisenmann and I co-teach called Launching Technology Ventures. Similar to last year, it was a terrific session.
I started the class off by encouraging the students to live tweet the entire 90 minute session. The Twitter stream (which you can see here, using the hash tag #hbsltv) nicely captured our dialog. The class is made up of 100 "start-up ninjas", half of whom will start their own companies in the next year or two and half of whom will join start-ups. The class covers the fundamentals of lean start-up theory, seeking product-market fit, and scaling challenges post product-market fit. We do not have a final exam. Instead, students need to write two blog posts, comment on two of their classmate's posts and participate in a business model excercise modeled after Steve Blank's "business model canvass" exercise at Stanford. You can see the course blog here.
A few of the takeaways that struck me:
- Fred observed that failure is typically a valuable and powerful experience – forcing introspection, humility and an extra drive to prove something to others. He observed that the entrepreneurs he has been most successful with typically had a major and personally defining failure in their career.
- He repeated a comment that we drew out from last year's conversation, which I particularly like: "Start-ups should be hunch-driven early on and data-driven as they scale". What was interesting was discussing the profile of the entrepreneur that has good hunches – often they come from outside the domain, yet are obsessed with the opportunity to disrupt the new field with a fresh perspective.
- We discussed the role of gate-keepers in start-ups. Fred is skeptical of businesses that involve gate-keepers. In fact, he encouraged the students to look for industries that have gate-keepers, and compete directly with them (e.g., education).
- When evaluating whether you want to join a company, think like an investor. Conduct extensive due diligence on the team, the product and the market opportunity. Ask yourself whether you would invest your money in the company before deciding to invest your career.
- Entrepreneur and start-ups have many varied models for success. Don't try to follow someone else's model. Stick with your personal passion and your authentic leadership model. If you don't have your own start-up idea, go join a 50 person company and leave when there are 500 employees. And if you have an idea and no one can talk you out of it, go be an entrepreneur. (Interstingly, Fred confessed that if he could have done it over again, he wishes he had joined a start-up for the first 10 years of his career.)
- We had an interesting dialog about the various start-up ecosystems – Silicon Valley, Boston, NYC – and how long it takes to build that ecosystem. Our mutual friend Brad Feld has written extensively about this topic and is writing a book on it that should be coming out shortly.
At the end of the class, Fred had an encouraging perspective for MBAs around the world, not just in today's classroom. He observed that the start-up community is all the richer due to the contributions of MBAs. Just be sure not to be arrogant about your knowledge or degree – instead, put your head down and do great work!
Thanks for the post Jeff. I love the insight of joining a start up at 50 people and then leaving to start your own idea at 500. It seems like you can really cut your teeth through that process and prepare yourself to run your own ship.
Great stuff, Jeff. Re Fred’s point about evaluating joining a startup the same way an investor evaluates investing, I’ve coined a phrase for that: “Venture Careerism”. Whaddya think?