Twelve years ago, I started my first company out of a Stanford dorm room. Considering the circumstances, I shouldn't have succeeded, but after tirelessly forgoing many spring breaks and relentlessly convincing a team that working around the clock was better than midnight Frisbee golf, we built the company to 65 people and sold it for $60 million after five years.
Today, things are harder. There are more distractions and tougher competition. It takes real confidence to start a company when you’ll inevitably run into others who are doing the same thing but with more funding. It takes guts when tech giants with a “small” 20-person team innovate around your idea for fun.
However, there's a certain beauty about starting a company while you're young. You have no expenses, obligations or constraints—we didn’t pay ourselves for years, and that's usually what it takes. In college, as smart as you may think you are, you don’t know what you don’t know, and this creates a blind optimism that is actually empowering. You have a home-field advantage with smart peers all around you, resources at your disposal and mentors willing to help. And most of all, unlike older people with kids crying at night and families to attend to, you have endless energy and twice the time.
If you start a company in school, know you will make more mistakes than someone with experience; thus, you have to work twice as hard to make up for it. This is your superpower. Here are five ways to focus your advantage, ensuring your startup starts up:
- Bring sexy back. My current startup, Porch, has raised $6.25 million in seed funding from top investors and garnered the attention of world-class leaders across the industry. Sound like I have something sexy up my sleeve? I do: the home improvement market. Yes, I said home improvement. Find markets that aren’t hot and make them so by creating unique and beautiful experiences that capture and engage users. Our product is fun and it applies to so many Americans—one in three people have their own household and nearly everyone is part of one. Show customers and recruits why your business is sexy; remember, you are competing against beer pong, dates and football games. Make it real, make it beautiful, and make it personal.
- It’s all about the execution. Everyone, experienced in entrepreneurship or otherwise, has great ideas. This is one thing that will never be in short supply. So once you’ve picked your market, don’t spend too much time refining your idea, but instead roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Talk to customers. You’ll learn faster, get smarter and build the right product. And remember your advantage—you only outwork your competition by getting to work.
- Don’t go chasing waterfalls. It’s easy to get caught up chasing competitor taillights. Startups move at an unparalleled rapid pace so it’s human nature to look for something to guide you. Focus on how you are going to be different while solving true pain, and the rest will come.
- Save every penny. It is an amazing advantage to have excellent software and services available for free. Take advantage! Save every penny and be ruthlessly frugal until you are smart enough to spend money in an informed way. I wasted too much money in my first startup and we had little to begin with.
- Call back in one minute—or die. Speed of response is the single largest driver of lead conversion. You are two times more likely to qualify a lead by calling back within one minute vs. two, you are two times more likely to qualify a lead by calling back within two minutes vs. five, you are four times more likely to qualify a lead by calling back within five minutes vs. 10, etc. Think about this for a moment: If you call leads an hour later, a few hours later or (gulp) the next day, you are without a doubt missing out on revenue. Use your advantage: Call leads back instantly and get back to every customer within one minute to make them love you. Trust me, you're going to need a lot of love for your startup to work.
Matt Ehrlichman is the CEO of Porch, where you can get inspired by the best home projects your neighbors have completed, see what any home project will cost, and find the best service professional your neighbors and friends recommend. Previous to Porch, Matt was a founder and CEO of Thriva (acquired by ACTV) and Chief Strategy Officer of Active Network (2011 IPO). Matt lives in Seattle and is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs.
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