Entrepreneurship For Kids
Recently, I've been engaging more and more with young people, especially high schoolers, about entrepreneurship. There is so much in the media about it, and many students are getting exposed to a rather narrow view of it, that is, huge exits by under-30-year-olds. It sounds so easy and in reach.
I am setting out to set the record straight in some ways, but to be encouraging as well. The following is the result of some thinking and research, drawing on my own experience. The outline below is intended as a support for a presentation or talk to a group of high school students, based on typical questions they might ask.
Typically, entrepreneurs seek three things: changing the world, financial success and creating a unique organization that will last for decades. The opportunity to shape a company's culture, values and treatment of its customers is one of the most exciting elements of joining a startup early.
What motivates people to help them strive are things like the liberty to decide for oneself (autonomy), the chance to improve continuously (mastery), and the chance to be part of something bigger than oneself (purpose).
Who are you?
I am a serial entrepreneur based in the Atlanta, Georgia, metro area. I co-founded The Intellection Group (TIG), an innovative technology consulting company that specializes in building complex award-winning extranet systems for both commercial and government entities in North America, Europe and Africa. I've also co-founded a technology investment company (Keep Going, LLC), a SaaS company (BeneVets, LLC) providing technology solutions to those who serve veterans, and a couple of companies (Alliance Mobile Financial, Capital Management Services) seeking to disrupt the international financial services marketplace. We're pretty far along on getting at least two additional start ups off the ground as well.
I have over 30 years of continuous full life cycle software development, project management and consulting experience. I've held developer, managerial and executive positions and have a strong technical and business background as an architect and developer of custom software solutions in a variety of industries, including healthcare, property and casualty insurance, supply chain, financial services, retail, hospitality, real estate, church, government and academia. I currently lead our efforts in developing technology partnerships, mentoring resources and business strategies, and I lead our efforts to monetize our company's patented technology architecture that unifies web development capabilities with voice recognition, text-to-speech, natural language, RFID and GPS technologies, deliverable to wireless handheld and desktop devices.
TIG is a technology consultancy specializing in building out highly-custom software products, primarily web-based, for a variety of industries and needs. We work on a fee for service basis, where the customer owns the work product and pays either on an hourly basis, a fixed fee, or some combination of that. TIG, in a few cases, actually takes an investment position in a deal, meaning that we fund the development of the desired system on our dime, in exchange for future business considerations, which themselves could take the form of ownership, royalties, etc. We own the intellectual property until a deal is consummated, which is generally well into the process. In some cases, if the client backs out, we retain the rights to the work product, and may elect to create a business out of it ourselves. In fact, this very situation resulted in the creation of the aforementioned BeneVets.
BeneVets, LLC, is a company that services those who serve veterans. Our flagship product is a SaaS system that greatly improves the management of applying for and submitting claims to the Veterans Administration (VA), and solves a very large and important problem that affects millions of veterans nationwide. Ours is the only national offering, and in our first year of operation we've successfully made sales to one of the largest VSO's in the nation along with one of the most important state agencies, which are representative of our marketplace. It is our intention to roll out additional services quite rapidly on top of this, which will include several non-technology offerings.
How did you end up where you are today?
As a military brat, I went to twelve different schools in different parts of the country before college, and we travelled a lot in between. That promoted a keen curiosity about many things that has only gotten more intense over time. In high school, just as I had pretty much decided I was going to be a lawyer, I was given one of the very first programmable calculators as a Christmas present, and I was immediately captivated. Almost overnight I changed direction and pursued computer science instead, became a co-op student in college, then followed the PC revolution into the business world. I thought that I would climb high on the corporate ladder; I never really thought that I would own my own business, much less multiple businesses. I did climb the ladder successfully, but creating and running my own businesses has been a great reward.
Starting my own business was really serendipity. I had an opportunity to become an independent contractor working from home, and I jumped at the chance. I think the motivation was to be able to assert much more control over my own time and give me the ability to work with multiple "employers" at the same time. In some ways, it was perhaps a way to fight boredom. I started from the beginning with one big customer, essentially converting my employer at the time to a customer. Since then, new customer acquisition has all been via networking and word of mouth referrals.
What do you like best about working in your own business?
I want to help; I have a great desire to have an impact on the world. I take a long-term view of things. There's an intense creativity about solving technical problems that I really love. Also, information technology is rapidly evolving, so everyday there is something new and exciting going on. It's great to be able to bring a deep toolbox to the table to solve big problems. Even after over 30 years, the rate of change astounds me, and it's still accelerating. As an innovator, you're trying to look 3, 5, 10 years out and guess where things will be, but 2 years out is an eon in this industry.
I'm inspired by risk-takers, people who are passionate, persistent and patient about their beliefs and are willing to go it alone, if necessary, in the face of naysayers. This is how innovation occurs.
I think you can over-plan a startup, missing unexpected opportunities. We grew very organically and went with the flow. We were not really married to any particular plan; we felt that there was so much work out there to go after that you could hardly miss. When we do find something in particular that needs extra focus, we spin it out into its own entity (see BeneVets).
Did you need any startup financing?
I did not need any financing; in fact, until very recently, we've never taken financing, per se. BeneVets, for example, was funded by TIG, so, in a way, we self-financed or cross-financed. We are fiscal conservatives, don't believe in debt and are more fearful of growing too fast than we are of going too slow. We've always tried to build for the long haul; our best attributes are patience and perseverance.
What was the most critical crisis you've faced?
Actually, the biggest problem we've faced is how to scale our execution. Very early on I had more work than I could handle, which forced me to recruit some of my acquaintances to moonlight for me. I quickly outgrew that and had to begin building contractor teams that could scale with the business. This took some time and we had to overcome a lot of mistakes and problems before this smoothed out. Once we had accomplished that, we soon outstripped our capacity to manage the teams and projects, and went through several failed attempts to hire more project management capacity. The solution was to acquire another small technology consultancy run by someone I knew and respected, and who had a complementary skill set, and divide up the work. This worked, and has worked, extremely well. We can run multiple companies with the same model (and people). However, we will have to scale this once more in the near future, in all probability.
What is your competitive advantage?
Several parts to this: (1) very competitive pricing, (2) very nimble in our execution and (3) very responsive to customer's needs. A secondary advantage is that we are actually very good at executing on very hard problems where others have failed.
What is your competitive advantage?
Here are some things that I've picked up over the years that help me remember some truths about succeeding as an entrepreneurship:
Have fun! It's the journey, not the destination. Have fun building the business. Make sure your employees are having fun, too. Relish every day.
Be Honest, Respectful and Responsible
Be Passionate, Curious and Opinionated
Be Persistent and Patient
Attitude is everything. Need to be able to handle rejection and failure.
Failure is not an option, it's required!
When you eliminate all risk, you eliminate all opportunity.
Seek opportunity, not security.
Fail to succeed (Fail Forward).
Decide to be lucky! The more connections you make, the better the odds.
Subscribe to the Law of Unintended Consequences
Relationships outlast transactions (ROT)
First Rule of Marketing: Tell Everyone!
Network, network, network
Bring people together
You can't do everything on social media; get out and meet people in person
There is no formula to success; if it was easy to do, everybody would be doing it!
Strive for a Blue Ocean Strategy
Strive for good enough, not perfection.
Follow the 80/20 Rule and Minimum Viable Product
The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.
The less money you have, the more creative you are.
Better to be great than big.
Big will not beat small anymore. It will be fast beating slow.
Don't just measure cost, measure value: the difference between benefit and cost.
The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
Ideas and technology are not nearly as important as execution (people).
Innovation and disruption occur not only along technology fault lines, but also in the areas of price, cost, timing and market segmentation.