Read on as WashU experts across a range of disciplines offer six tips for entrepreneurs.
It’s always the right time
“The right time to start a business is the issue that almost always comes up when counseling students. Practically speaking, timing is not a factor that should be considered because it can’t be controlled. There will always be reasons why the personal timing could be better. If it is the right opportunity for you, you should jump on it. Likewise, you wouldn’t want to jump on the wrong opportunity just because the timing seems right. So don’t let personal timing prevent you from pursuing that big idea — your focus should be on evaluating the opportunity instead.”
Test your business idea
“When someone is looking to start a new venture, she should ask herself these four basic questions: (1) Who is the (paying) customer? (2) What is the customer’s unresolved pain? (3) How does my proposed offering resolve this pain? (4) What is the customer’s next best alternative today to my proposed solution? Founders typically overvalue the benefits of their offering by threefold, and customers undervalue the benefits of the offering by threefold as compared to their current alternatives. To paraphrase Paul Graham, ‘Who wants your product or service so much that they will use it even when it is a half-baked version, made by a two-person startup they have never heard of? If you cannot answer this question, the idea is probably not so good.’”
—Emre Toker is the managing director of the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Surround yourself with the right people
“Hang around smart people, because smart people say smart things. Hang around interesting people, because interesting people do interesting things. And when you’ve got a collection of smart and interesting people, they will be intellectually curious in a way that is always solving a problem. You don’t want to be the sharpest tool in the group. You want to make sure that there are others who can relieve you and allow you to sharpen yourself.”
—Dedric Carter, vice chancellor for operations and technology transfer and professor of engineering practice, is a catalyst for cross-university initiatives and connects members of the university to the entrepreneurial community.
“If you want to start a social enterprise in a foreign country, know that country well. I didn’t choose Rwanda; I was assigned to Rwanda in the Peace Corps and spent two years there before starting The Women’s Bakery. Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, listen. It’s great to have a marvelous idea for a business, but be sure that marvelous idea is rooted in an actual need — and that a solution for that need has been found. I have helped create a social enterprise that educates women and builds businesses, but it all started because a group of Rwandan women asked me to teach them how to make bread and then launch a bakery.”
—Markey Culver is an MBA candidate at the university and director of The Women’s Bakery Inc., a nonprofit she started in Rwanda that helps women open and run bakeries offering nutritious bread made from local ingredients.
Know when to give up
“You need to identify the endpoint that you’re looking for and then the waypoints that you need to pass. So don’t say, ‘I’m going to do something that takes me 10 years, and then I’ll know whether it worked or not.’ Instead, say, ‘If I don’t hit this goal within six months, it’s dead.’ Or ‘I got to the first goal, but if I don’t hit my second goal within two years, then I stop.’ You have to detach emotion from objective data points.”
—Michael Kinch, associate vice chancellor and director of the Center for Research Innovation in Business, and professor of radiation oncology in the School of Medicine, studies the development of new therapeutic agents and devices.
Don’t cave at every setback
“You shouldn’t get discouraged just because people are telling you no. No doesn’t mean no forever. It means no right now. The response should be to say to the person who said no, ‘OK, I understand it’s a no at this time. What would you need to see from me to turn that no into a yes?’ And if you continue to iterate on that process and continue to ask those questions, then it gives you a lot of insight into what your next step should be.”
—Dana Watt, postdoctoral fellow in accelerated innovation at the Skandalaris Center, started her own diagnostics startup company while a graduate student and was an officer for the student-run BioEntrepreneurship Core.