Until only a few years ago, I was a first-time entrepreneur struggling to get attention & advice from experienced entrepreneurs and investors. I did not need funding from them (we were well funded by angels – to the tune of $23m), but I was looking for people who knew the startup world and could give advice on how to build a business.
I had co-founded a company in the not-so-sexy space of automotive technologies and this was before the hype around cleantech had set in (this was a time when a prominent Boston VC firm asked if we were more like IT or biotech, when we pitched them!). Even the MIT Energy Club had not formed as yet. I eagerly sought advice and feedback but it was hard to gain access. I did not know the VC crowd, I was previously a nerdy Ph.D student who had stumbled into management consulting as my first job out of school before starting my company, and there were not many experienced entrepreneurs in the area with similar interests. Whenever somebody more experienced agreed to give me some time for feedback and thoughts, I would soak it in eagerly. In many cases I wished I had gotten the advice earlier, before we had made some important decisions around our products, hiring and financing – but it was still very welcome. I loved to learn by getting feedback from others and, in fact, I started a blog and began conversing with the world on twitter to increase my reach.
Fast forward a few years. I am now a VC and perhaps among the few ways that I believe I can help new entrepreneurs is through my network and via feedback, advice, and sharing of tips based on learnings from multiple enterprises across the sector and at difference stages of growth. I love meeting first-time entrepreneurs and I purposely carve out time in my schedule to spend with student entrepreneurs who may not at all be at a stage where we would invest in them.
With that background, it was a surprise to me that three times last week I heard from students that some their university advisors and teachers were holding them back from meeting outsiders, esp anybody involved in the investing world. What a crock of BS these guys are peddling to the students in the name of advice! These are probably the same guys who are still teaching their students how to write lengthy business plans and urging them to worry more about patents rather than understanding if the product has any real value prop to create a sustainable business. Some students unfortunately take their advice too seriously, and frankly are totally missing out on learning from real world practitioners how business ideas get generated, teams built and successful businesses developed.
After the most awesome student population, perhaps the biggest thing going for Boston is its entrepreneurial ecosystem that is willing to give and nurture teams and ideas when they are still on paper. Yes, we may not be as good at this as Silicon Valley and are dragged through the mud regularly for that, but we are certainly ahead of almost everywhere else. Our entrepreneurs, founders, executives, investors and lawyers/bankers etc all give a lot of their time (and money) to help and support young entrepreneurs. They do this as a way of giving back, to cultivate this community, and because many of us studied in the very same educational institutions. I know of this first-hand because I have been involved with many organizations locally where this generosity & ‘pay it forward’ attitude is commonplace.
Anyways. I will stop my rant now. I guess I only wish to advise students and other first-time entrepreneurs to reach out and take advantage of the tremendous ecosystem here that is eager to help, advise and see you become successful in your ventures. Don’t listen to those who either never built a startup from scratch themselves, or never had to be in a position where advice was hard to find. Don’t wait until you are in trouble to reach out to those who can help you. Build bridges early, develop your network when you don’t really need it, become generally resourceful and don’t make mistakes that others (including myself) made in the past. If nothing, just know from my previous experience that those same friendly ‘lets grab coffee’ meetings are harder to come by when you are no longer a student. Advice may be cheap. But take it even if you don’t act on it.