Creating a startup has been described as jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down (Reid Hoffman). I hadn't heard this analogy when I co-founded Studypool at age 19, but I've certainly come to understand it. As I'm currently going through the experience of starting a company and navigating the many challenges of being a young founder, I know how little guidance is actually out there when it comes to the process of building a startup. So I thought it would be worthwhile to break it down while it's fresh in my mind.
Step 1: Go Surfing!
So you want to find the next big thing? Forget your idea and go surfing instead. Physically, starting a company from scratch has nothing in common with surfing, but mentally, they are one and the same. Sitting in the water for what seems like eternity, the best surfers look far out into the horizon for the next big wave. Founders must also be patient looking far in the horizon, the future, looking for the next big wave, that big trend that will transform the world.
Contrary to popular belief, a trend, not an idea, is what you want to build a startup around, a trend is a general direction in which something is developing or changing.
Identifying that big trend is a fine art, and I'm merely an apprentice but here is a framework I've come up with that I've found to be helpful. Keep things simple...extremely simple. When gazing out into the sea of opportunity, break humanity down to its bare essentials (food, shelter, sex). All meaningful innovation will lead to trends that to some degree make these basic necessities more efficient and Boom! That's the key. Efficiency. Now that you are thinking about big trends, it's crucial to assess the current technological landscape and predict if your trend is viable. This can be tricky.
Let's use the example of international business meetings, which is an inefficient system today because it is costly from a monetary perspective and is a huge time expense as well. So here's a future trend: businesses will use teleportation to get to meetings more efficiently. Uh not exactly. The technological landscape isn't even close to making this trend come to fruition and the amount of capital needed for investment is immeasurable. However, we can look at a more viable trend from 2016: businesses will use VR (virtual reality) to get to meetings more efficiently. Now this might actually happen because a strong foundation for VR is currently being established and the return for businesses could be astronomic. Identifying a trend is a balancing act between big vision and what is realistic.
Step 2: Turn on the Magic
So you've found that killer future trend? Now it's time to turn on the magic. By definition magic is "the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces". As a founder, your job is to tap into this. This means astonishing consumers to the point where they are compelled to share your product with others. Any starting business has limited resources so the founder must take matters in his/her own hands in order to create a mind-blowing experience for the user. In the early stages of Airbnb's development, founders personally went from door to door to make sure consumers were satisfied.
When starting Studypool, we followed a similar approach. One of our first users needed help with a bug on his webpage for a mere $1. We didn't just fix the bug. We spent hours redesigning and improving the whole page, and then created a few other pages we thought were essential to his business. Needless to say, when we showed him, he was mesmerized. The next day? We received three new requests for help from his friends. Sure, this wasn't remotely scalable, but it got the ball rolling. Create this type of experience for your first 100 users.
Step 3: Bring down the establishment
Now it's time to turn those 100 people who love your product into a million. Making this happen will take some anarchy. But this should come as no surprise because at its very core, innovation is disruptive. As a founder, you must embrace the chaos because you will be the first to be disrupted. Whether it means dropping out of school, ignoring advice from parents, or straying from the herd mentality, your life is going to change in some capacity. As you scale the business, the tumult will spread outward to the market you are rattling. Let's look at Uber as an example. The tech platform has transformed the transportation industry and as a result, strikes have broken out around the world in resistance to change. While you may be tempted to abort mission when problems arise, just remember that disruption is a side effect of all meaningful innovation and a part of the natural life cycle of startups in Silicon valley. Expect some turmoil.
So there you have it. Identifying the next big trend, dazzling consumers, and turning the industry on its feet. These are my learnings from starting a business before I could legally drink and I believe they are applicable to anyone interested in building their own company. Ultimately, age is irrelevant and there isn't one uniform path to creating a thriving startup. However, one thing that all successful founders have in common is a willingness to sacrifice it all and to stay loyal to their business when things get messy.
I would love to hear what you believe are the most important factors in building a startup, at any age. Let me know in the comments below.
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