Recently, I was asked to speak to a group of college seniors about how to transition from a liberal arts education to making a tangible impact in the world. These intelligent, high-achieving campus leaders were no strangers to the notion that the “real” world of work brings a new set of opportunities and challenges, far different from the academic cocoon they have enjoyed over the past four years. Because everyone in the room was also interested in the topic of entrepreneurship, we decided to explore how principles for startup success might help them to accelerate their path to real-world impact in any chosen field.
The more we talked, the more I realized that the principles under discussion might be helpful to anyone who wants to achieve a greater positive impact in a career, a profession or a new endeavor of any kind.
In that spirit, here are eight questions that every entrepreneur (and impact-seeking individual) should address:
1. What are your reasons? Some people launch companies to create wealth, others to be their own boss, or perhaps to pursue a technical innovation. The founder’s reasons then determine how success is defined, what decisions are made, and what actions are taken. The same is true for career transitions: What’s most important to you? What does “positive impact” mean for you? What kind of direction-setting will allow you to make intentional progress toward that purpose (rather than passively bouncing from opportunity to opportunity)?
2. Whom do you serve? While it’s helpful to clarify your personal definition of success, effective founders know that the path to entrepreneurial achievement is not about you. It’s about your customer, your users or your stakeholders. Entrepreneurs who cultivate a market orientation within their venture—allowing it to be shaped by customer needs and preferences—enjoy a much higher probability of success than the average Joe. From a career-impact perspective, this means being clear about the audience whose needs you are addressing. What are their concerns, their pains, their aspirations? How can you work to address those needs?
3. What makes you special? Every successful product or service has some defining strength – a “special sauce” that provides a competitive advantage. What’s yours? In thinking about your next career phase, move beyond a me-too mindset, and get clear about your defining strengths. What makes you, you? What makes you indispensable? In what settings can you deploy these talents to make a meaningful impact?
4. What problem are you solving? Effective founders create value by solving problems that are real (versus theoretical) and important (important enough that customers will pay handsomely for the solution). A relevant question for any early stage venture is: Are you offering a vitamin or a pain pill? “Vitamins” are viewed by most users as nice-to-haves, where as pain pills target an acute need. As you move forward with your next career step or job, ask yourself how real and important is the problem you are solving (or the opportunity you are pursuing)?
5. Can you get it done? In the startup world, ideas are a dime a dozen. What matters most is whether a founding team can execute a plan and make things happen. Successful entrepreneurs have a bias for shipping the product, even if it’s not perfect, and iterating relentlessly toward growth and success. This is also true in just about every workplace I’ve known. People who can get things done are the ones who get noticed, promoted, and who find opportunities to lead and have tremendous impact. The ability to execute is underrated and surprisingly uncommon. But it’s one of the surest paths to making a difference in the world.
6. Are you a continuous learner? Most successful startups end up looking very different than what the founders first imagined. Why? First, human beings are not very skilled at accurately predicting the future, so markets always offer surprises. Second, the most accomplished entrepreneurs have a gift for listening to the marketplace and adapting as they go. By observing, learning and improving, they dramatically elevate their odds of startup success.
7. Does your economic model work? A startup venture might have a stellar team, a great product and plenty of market demand, but still fail if the basic economic model—what I call the “math story”—does not work in the company’s favor. Do our revenues and expenses combine to create a healthy profit margin? Will our earnings allow us to invest in and grow a thriving venture? Financial facts like these apply to individuals, families and careers as well, sometimes in jarring ways. Even the most idealistic college graduate will deal with the relationship between expenses and income. How can you craft a financially sustainable lifestyle?
8. How long will you persevere? Perhaps Woody Allen said it best: Eighty percent of success is showing up. And that means continuing to show up day after day, month after month, year after year, if necessary. In the startup world, we know that the longer a venture can stay in business, the greater the odds of achieving significant success. At the individual level, achieving tangible impact rarely happens in exactly the way we expect, or at the time and place we hoped for. But with resilience, optimism, patience, and a healthy dose of good humor, the fruits of your efforts will certainly, eventually come.
What questions do you think a would-be entrepreneur should consider?