Category: Entrepreneurship

Student Startup Dilemma

There is a problem with student-run startups: the vast majority of them flop. They rarely move past the project stage and become real businesses. As the former President of the NU Entrepreneurs Club and the founder of multiple “student run startups” like Quiree, I know this problem well, and I want to solve it.

What causes the problem?

  • NOT talent. Students are as talented, or more so, than their peers who have recently graduated. I’ll hire a student any day of the week and expect huge performance from them.
  • NOT drive. Students these days are more ambitious than ever. They push and push, with the firm belief that they can do anything.
  • NOT lack of resources. Here in Boston we have everything from university programs like IDEA to organizations like GreenhornConnect and Venture Cafe, complete with no-strings-attached $10,000 funding grants and access to the best mentors. 

Instead, the problem is, overwhelmingly: student startups do not solve real problems.

A real problem must have three key attributes:

  • Cost people money. (Remember, time equals money.)
  • Cause people pain.
  • Cause people to seek an alternative. 

The majority of student startups I see—including several of the ones I did myself—focus on alleviating small annoyances and building widgets. A widget is a simple app that might seem novel, but doesn’t really solve anything or have a way of generating cash. These are easy to think of and usually cater to college students. Unfortunately, they are also not designed to grow into the real businesses that student founders think they have the potential to become. 

Now, these “startup failures” can still be fantastic learning experiences and I wholeheartedly encourage any entrepreneurial student to pursue whatever project they are the most passionate about. In order to help guide you in the right direction on what startup project to attack, consider the following:

1. Think outside of the campus. 

While life may seem tough at times, the truth is college students don’t have a lot of painful and costly problems—except perhaps college itself. If college students are your buyer, you better come up with a compelling product that they need. If they are your user, there must be another group (i.e. businesses, advertisers, etc.) that stand to make a lot of money by paying you for having students use the product.

2. Use the three problem points. 

Those three characteristics of real problems should constitute your checklist. Whenever you are considering an idea, ask yourself: “Does my problem cost people money? Is it causing pain? Are people actually seeking solutions?”

3. Gather a ton of feedback. 

Email or cold-call your way into meetings with successful post-graduate entrepreneurs in town and pitch them your idea, while also explicitly asking for genuine feedback. Ultimately, you may need to hear that your idea is not solving a real problem, so you can find a real one to focus on.

4. Build something quickly and see if people will use or pay for it. 

A pretty good indicator of whether you are solving a real problem or not is if people are quickly willing to try it, use it or even buy it. If this is something that will take you months to develop and years to “monetize,” it might not make sense as a student startup project.

5. Ignore the consumer-web giants like Facebook, Twitter, Groupon, etc.

This one is tough because, as students, these are the companies we look up to thinking, "Wow, we want to be just like them.” The harsh reality is that while these are the companies we see and hear about all of the time, the statistical probability of a student startup turning into one of them is so incredibly low, that it might make more sense to learn through working on something more attainable, and leverage that experience to create the next Facebook. Northeastern student Jacob Mulligan’s first venture was painting houses. He made real money and learned invaluable lessons about how to handle cash and manage employees. This was a fantastic experience and should be looked to as a model.

If students consider these points, we’ll all still learn a ton and maybe even have some new businesses, ready to hire. 

Focus for Startups

My head was spinning. Sales seemed to be exploding in growth and service delivery was sprinting as it tried to fulfill all of the new customers that influencers@ marketing agency was getting. My task seemed simple – ensure service delivery can keep up with sales and scale operations to do so. Execution proved to be a lot more challenging and I couldn’t quite pinpoint why. There was more work to do, so we could just hire more people, add a proportional amount of resources, etc. I then stumbled upon an interesting dilemma: sales was selling new stuff that we had never done before. It wasn’t super different, but it was outside of our core competencies, and the processes and people we had in place were not designed/trained to deliver the new services. 

While we absolutely wanted to scale our start-up, we quickly learned a very important lesson: sometimes, scaling up is far more effective than scaling out. Instead of trying to add lots of new services to our offerings that require totally different people and processes, we should instead focus on building up ultra core competencies in a few distinct service offerings, and recruit the very best people to run them.

This is all about focusing on a few key things and not trying to be the best at everything. When you are a huge company you can consider being a “one stop shop”, but start-ups just don’t work that way. Just focus on what you do best, the rest will work out.

My Solution for influencers@:

I broke our business down into 3 core service areas (I call them the 3 Revenue Channels). These are the 3 ways that we make money, the 3 things that our service delivery department must be great at and the 3 things our sales staff must know inside and out. Our entire team sat down around the conference table and went over each of the 3 Revenue Channels in detail, and then I printed them out on a 1 pager and taped it to the walls of the office. 

The results have been strong: we have focus and a common understanding. Everyone knows exactly what areas we are going to scale in and what our goals are. Now we go make it happen.

Welcome to Backend

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been hacking away at my first web application while learning backend development, and I’m thrilled to release Signin App to the world (well, for now the Northeastern Entrepreneurs Club).

It all started with a business case: the E-Club was growing like crazy last year, and as President, it was tough for me to get accurate insight on how many members were attending our events, which events were the most popular, and what demographics of members our club appealed to the most. We relied heavily on disorganized spreadsheets, creating hours of work for Cory Bolotsky doing V-lookups to get an accurate view of member retention.

So, I decided to leverage software to fix that problem. The Signin App is a PHP/MySQL web application that tracks member attendance for any event-driven organization and shows administrators real-time data on who their members are and how events are performing. 

With just the click of a mouse, the E-Club leaders can now find out which events are working, who their most dedicated members are and use that insight to create more engaging events. While the software is being piloted with the E-Club, it could be valuable for many similar organizations.

What I learned:

  • Coding is incredibly valuable to learn. This app revolutionizes a simple business process.
  • You need a real business challenge to learn to code. Online tutorials are not good enough. 
  • User feedback is key. I iterated on the sign-in page of the app 4 times before I got it right. 

So far, users have signed in using the app 1,500+ times. I’m looking forward to gathering more feedback, iterating and seeing how this project might add value to other organizations. 

Calm and Cool Wins the Race

“Slow and steady” wins the race doesn’t work for start-ups; you have to hustle. However, staying calm and cool through the crazy roller coaster ride of building a business is crucial. 

How are we going to do all of these promotions at once? We need so many people and so many resources… and we need them all yesterday. I know we want to grow and scale, but the pressure of scaling this fast is insane.

That was the feeling among my team at influencers@ this past week. Our business has been exploding in growth and as we get more clients and build out ChatterMob, the stress and pressure has built up as well. Tension is high and in times like that, it is really easy to lose your cool, panic and snap at everyone in your path. Leaders: listen carefully… don’t do that. As a leader, your team looks to you to have everything under control, because if you don’t, they might not either. Leaders who panic and snap appear to have no control. Consider the following to remain calm and cool even under the hottest pressure:

1. It’s all in the voice

Speak slowly and clearly. Don’t raise your voice or race through your words. It is amazing how effective this is… give it a try.

2. Speak logically

When there is pressure and agitation, it is easy to jump to circles: spitting out lots of ideas at once and spinning your wheels. Avoid that and instead, express your ideas in logical lists with as few words as possible. For example: “First, we will develop a new recruiting strategy and second we will travel to New Hampshire to execute it next Wednesday.”

3. Identify the Problems

Many times people can’t stay calm because they know there is a problem but cannot pinpoint what it is or the cause… and that is stressful! Figure out what is causing the problem before you start racking your brain on crafting a solution.

4. Stay Organized

It’s tough to be calm when everything is all over the place. Organizing your thoughts, your team and objectives are all helpful in staying cool.

Accounting for Startup-ers

For most start-up leaders, accounting is low on the priority list. After all, you have product, hiring and all of that fun stuff. But don’t forget: cash is king. You must understand how much of it you have so you can make informed decisions for product and hiring. 

The Good News: This isn’t the boring accounting you slept through during freshmen year. Real business accounting is actually really interesting, and when done right, incredibly powerful to help you grow your business. 

How and when do you start with accounting? Let’s break it down:

1. Start as soon as cash is involved

If you are hacking away at a software product and haven’t bought or sold anything yet, it’s too early. But as soon as you start buying or selling, you need to be tracking those numbers like a crazed sports fan pouring over Fantasy Football scores.

2. Think of it as $ in and $ out

Your business is made up of cash in and cash out. You sell and buy stuff. You send invoices to customers and pay vendors. So, that is the kind of stuff you need to be thinking about and tracking. When you write a check to pay a contractor, will you remember how much you paid them and why? Yes, if you account properly.

3. Get a new friend: Quickbooks Online

I have a close relationship with good old Quickbooks Online. This $27 per month cloud software from Intuit handles everything from invoicing to payroll to bank reconciliations. As soon as cash gets involved in your business, grab a Quickbooks Online subscription. 

4. Build out a Chart of Accounts

A Chart of Accounts is essentially a list of all of the ways that you spend money and make money. There are Salaries, Facilities, Office Utilities, Service Revenue, etc. You can use each of these broad items to categorize your revenue / expenses and understand which parts of your business are the most expensive. For example, a few items from the influnencers@ Chart of Accounts include:

5000 Salaries, 5010 Contractors, 5040 Promotional Goods, etc. The number next to each topic is just a handy way to quickly reference it. 

5. Break your business down into departments

As you grow, you’ll want to know how much it costs to sell vs. how much it costs to build product and how much you spend on office supplies. To do that, we break the business down into different departments, referred to as “classes” in Quickbooks. Your executive team should all sit down to think these classes out together because it is an excellent way to keep everyone on the same page with how the business is structured. For example, I sort the influencers@ departments into:

G&A, Sales, Service, Product, Account Management. Boom, simple. Everything I spend money on is for one of those five areas. 

6. Get an accounting mentor

When I first joined influencers@, I barely knew anything about real business accounting and our Quickbooks looked like a scene from a horror movie. Through Northeastern’s IDEA program I got connected with Ed Jaworski from SMB Partners who together with Ryan Durkin taught me everything I know about how to leverage Quickbooks.

7. Get it right the first time

Figuring out these categories and setting up Quickbooks is confusing. The worst thing to do is mess it up the first time and have to fix all of your old transactions months later. I’ve been there – it’s a scary place. Do your research, grab an accounting mentor and get it right the first time. 

For any Boston entrepreneurs who are reaching the point of needing to understand basic business accounting, feel free to shoot me an email – I’d be glad to help!

How to Learn to Code

As the former President of the NU Entrepreneurs Club, I would receive an email almost daily from someone in the community looking for a developer to join their team. Now as COO of influencers@, I recently had to send those emails myself to recruit a new technical lead for our product and saw how challenging it is if you don’t have technical skills in house. That is what pushed me over the edge to learn back-end coding. I’m now finishing my first web application built in PHP. It was hard, it was scary, but I taught myself to code, and you can too. Here’s some advice to get started:

1. You need a real project

In order to teach yourself to code, you need some sort of tangible problem to focus on. You can’t just go into the project saying, “I want to learn PHP.” That won’t work. What works is, “I’m going to create a web-based grocery list that reminds me when to pick up milk, using PHP”.

2. Write out what you want to do

Coding is all about logic and process. You are essentially writing instructions, explaining to a computer how to do something. So before you try to code it, write it down in plain english. For example:

  • Have a form that asks the user what their favorite color is.
  • Take whatever text the user enters into the form and display it on the page.
  • Make that text blue.

3. Start with the basics: HTML

HTML is the fundamental language of the web. It is what your web browser (ie Google Chrome) uses to display websites. You will use HTML to figure out how your website will look. Focus on that for now before you think about functionality. Make text display on the page. Make the text blue. Put it in the center of the page. That stuff is easier… get it down first.

5. The Internet is your best friend

The Internet has absolutely every piece of information you need to learn how to code, and it’s all free. When you want to know how to code something, just type it into google. If you’re like me and don’t have Internet at home, practice coding at a local cafe with Wi-Fi. Once you learn enough, you won’t need an internet connection to code.

6. Take it one step at a time

The thought of coding a big web application can be really daunting. Don’t think like that – take your project in small chunks. Your only objective is to put blue text on the page. Once that is done, then you can think about centering it.

What you need to get started:

  • Computer with an Internet connection
  • Notepad/Textedit or a basic code editor like Sublime Text 2 (also free)

What you should learn (in this order):

  • HTML
  • CSS
  • jQuery
  • PHP / MySQL (or another back-end language like Python or Ruby)
  • Frameworks like Codeigniter

What you should do right now:

To start, Google HTML and start going through a tutorial. Open Notepad or Textedit and follow along. Save your file as a .HTML file and open it in your web browser. While tutorials are good to read and simulation sites are handy to practice syntax, they alone will not teach you how to code. The best way is to get your hands dirty and try building something yourself from scratch.

Good luck and feel free to shoot me an email if you get stuck.

No More Internet

On Sunday June 3rd, Drew D’Agostino unplugged the router and cable modem in our apartment and put them in the closet. Since then, we’ve been living without Internet at home, and surprisingly, it is fantastic. Here is the story.

My hands were literally shaking. I clenched my fist and wanted to slam the table. I was bored. There seemed to be no distraction, no comfort. I just sat there, helplessly, unaware of what to do.

This was the feeling (and my real reaction) during the first few hours of unplugging the Internet. While it looks pathetic, it is the result of a society and generation that is constantly plugged in. We cannot go for too long without checking Facebook, tweeting/sharing something, opening an app or reading an article. The Internet is an incredible tool and the defining aspect of our generation’s technical comfort. It gives us unparalleled access to information, makes it effortless to communicate and can provide endless entertainment.

But it also has a dark side: it allows us to get really comfortable wasting a lot of time. We flock to our screens to “browse” the web… that’s a fancy way of saying “do nothing.” Hours can pass by that might feel like we are doing something but in reality we didn’t think, didn’t produce… we just sat there staring at people’s LinkedIn profiles. Additionally, consider how much the Internet can distract us from projects. Whether I am writing or coding, the lure to click a link or check Facebook is powerful. Truth be told, I might stop every few minutes to be distracted by something in my web browser. That’s why tools like SelfControl for Mac were created – to literally block people from accessing sites like Facebook when they are trying to study for finals.

Not having the Internet at home has forced me to discover other things to do. I socialize, ride my bike, write and think more. I don’t aimlessly check my email because I now understand that it is irrelevant whether I respond now or in a few hours for non-business messages. When I am at the office and have Internet access, I spend much less aimless time on social networking sites because I value my time with the Internet more to get stuff done.

Put simply, not having the Internet is allowing Drew and I to break a very bad habit. It brought us to the realization that the constant plugged in nature of our generation is causing some serious issues. In many ways, it is making us less productive and less smart.

What if we really need to get online?

First off, we can use our phones. But using your phone for the Internet is a pain – it is slower and the screen is small. Because it is less pleasant, it discourages us from using it unless we really need it. We spend less time watching silly YouTube videos, but we can still check an email or look something up if we need to. If we urgently need to connect on our laptops, we can go outside to a local store with wi-fi. Again, this is an inconvenience, so it discourages us from plugging in until we legitimately must.

The Results

We are happier. We exercise more and spend more time outside. We don’t feel guilty about wasting away a day staring at nonsense. We don’t overwork ourselves, yet we get much more done when working because we are less tempted by online distractions.

What can do you do?

Well for one thing, you can try to disconnect a bit. Don’t text constantly or open an app every time you need something to “do.” More so, you can consider embarking on the same journey as Drew and I did and cut the cords to your Internet. It’ll be hard and painful, but it might be one of the best things for you.

Why Business Students Make Great Developers

If there is a gold rush equivalent in the entrepreneurship world, it is without a doubt a hunt for developers. One surprising place where more high quality developers are starting to appear is in business schools. One of the best business student developers I know is Northeastern senior Drew D’Agostino.

It was the Husky Start-up Challenge (HSC) of fall 2010 at Northeastern University. Third year student Drew D’Agostino was pursuing a new website idea where frantic gift givers could find talented writers to craft a custom poem for their significant other and deliver it online. “I’m trying to figure this out in PHP” Drew explained to me as I hovered over his table during the first HSC Boot Camp. As a skilled marketer and salesman, Drew was exceptional at dealing with people but he didn’t have much experience with web development. Every evening he was camped out in the library with his laptop open, picking apart websites and hacking together a page of his own. By the end of the semester long competition, Drew had built and become his own “technical co-founder.”

Fast forward a few years and now Drew is an incredibly competent web developer with expert skills in both back and front end development. He is constantly leaning new technologies and each project he embarks on gets more impressive. In fact, he even wrote a tutorial on the subject.

What makes Drew so special is that he has a deep understanding of people before code. He can talk to customers and translate business requirements into functions. He appreciates design because he knows how important it is for selling a product. So the code he writes and products he creates all excel in both function and user experience. Most importantly, when Drew talks to colleagues, he doesn’t default to “programming-speak.” He knows how to explain technical concepts to non-technical people. This is absolutely critical: it makes him easy to work with, communicate with and ultimately trust. I’m proud to call him my friend and learn something new from him every day. 

As I continue my quest to recruit world-class technical students and grads to join the team at influencers@, I use Drew as a model. He has the ideal mix of qualities that make for a wonderful teammate and technical lead. This new hybrid developer with both technical and business acumen is going to start to become more and more desirable. While you may want to get in line to hire him, for now he is embarking on a mission to unbug the world

Complexity Killed the Cat

This time it wasn’t curiosity that did it. Complexity is a challenge, especially in business and product development. Take Apple, a company that prides itself on making things as simple and lacking complexity as possible. The iPhone has one button on the front. Customizations and “hacks” are minimally available in iOS. All of the devices look similar (iPad, iPod, iPhone) and they all sync effortlessly. People love this and pay a ridiculous premium for it. Customers want something sleek and simple. 

Now on the other end of the spectrum was the product that Kirill Klimuk and I built last summer. It had a gazillion bells and whistles, months worth of coding features and oh man was it confusing and complex. The inner workings were indeed brilliant (props to Kirill there), but the average user looked at it and said, “HUH???” That’s bad, because they didn’t end up being our user for very long.

When I was working on that product, I overlooked an important piece of advice from my friend and mentor Maria Cirino, the Managing Director of .406 Ventures. She told me something along the lines of “every feature or complexity represents a failure point in your product. You want to eliminate as many of those failure points as possible. If one point fails, the whole product can go down.” Successful products need to be built minimally: less features, less functionality, less complexity. There should be one button that does the same thing every time, and every user understands what the button does.

The same should be applied to service delivery. The less materials, less people and less time that we can tweak the service down to, the better. When we are crafting a marketing campaign at influencers@, the creative team always seeks things that are exciting, effective and yet brilliantly simple to execute. Consider ways to reduce complexity in your business… your customers and bottom line will be a lot happier.

The Danger of Big Words

Back when I had the honor of working with Kirill Klimuk (Duke ‘14) on a start-up project during Spring/Summer 2011, I learned something very important: big words are dangerous. Kirill is incredibly smart, with intellectual capabilities far exceeding my own (though he doesn’t like to admit it). He reads philosophy books for for fun, enjoys crafting essays by the sentence and has a vast vocabulary. So when he speaks, it isn’t suprising that he is a fan of “big words”… words that are not commonly used and many folks might not even be familiar with. It drove both of us nuts when I made him stop an explanation to define the wacky word he just said. 

The problem is that Kirill is the minority. Most people do not talk like him, do not understand his words and have zero desire to learn them. In the business world, using big words is a problem because it can lose people. Business to me is about brevity, clarity and simplicity. I want to do something as quickly, cheaply and as simply as possible while maximizing the amount of money I make (if I did otherwise, I should expect to be kicked to the curb as a COO). Big words make the listener stop thinking about the big idea of the discussion and instead get lost in considering “wait, what does that word mean and what are its implications?” The bigger problem is that while they were thinking about that, they zoned out for the next 2 sentences I told them, which might have been my business’ value proposition.

Buzz words have the same problem. A pitch or explanation that is drowning in buzz words is just harder to understand. Particularly in an executive role, I want to hear things in the simplest, clearest language possible without any fluff. Give it to me in a bulleted list and bold what is important. Don’t clutter anything with tricky language or buzz words. Remember, people are lazy. Many times they simply won’t exert the effort to understand complex language, they’ll just walk away. If that was a customer, potential A+ employee, etc… well then we just lost. 

Don’t get me wrong – I have an immense respect for Kirill’s command for the English language. But when it comes to business, I like the term “dumb it down.” Keep it so simply that it is nearly impossible to misunderstand. Eliminate as much verbage and complexities as possible from explanations, pitches and emails. Big words are great for linguists, writers and academics. However, they have no place in business.