Mike Maher is an entrepreneur at heart with experience building and cultivating multiple tech startups. In his role as a student fellow, he supports other student entrepreneurs at Blackstone LaunchPad at Montana State University. Mike believes an idea without data is just an opinion and enjoys using data to predict the future by pairing information with real world applications.
I’ve been an entrepreneur for years, but one thing remains unchanged. Entrepreneurship is intimidating. Perhaps what drives people crazy is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all mold of how to be successful in the entrepreneurial realm. In school, we’re taught to follow analytically complicated formulas that get us to one answer. In entrepreneurship, we’re taught to be a skeptic and question things objectively, experiment, and solve problems in the form of product creation. Over the past two years, I’ve had the ability to work with Blackstone LaunchPad, an on-campus entrepreneurial resource, to develop and test my idea to get real user feedback. Here are some things that I wish I had known before getting started.
Solve a real problem.
“Treat entrepreneurship as agnostic experimentation” – Peter Thiel
Have you ever pondered an idea in the shower and thought, “this is worth millions!” The truth is, most ideas are not viable businesses. One technique to test market viability is to build a straw-man level product to safely and effectively test your idea and user interest, while generating real data that can help you refine and improve it. Don’t make the common mistake entrepreneurs make by creating a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist. Back problems with empirically tested data, and create a solution that attacks the problem at its core. Focus on building an aspirin level product that solves real headaches, rather than a product that is mostly nice to have- like vitamins. You may find yourself taking one-a-day vitamins for a month or two, but ultimately you forget about them. Be honest with yourself— is your company selling an aspirin or a vitamin? If it’s the latter, it might be time for a reevaluation through the form of market testing. Have fun with it, and be a little crazy.
Start small, then scale!
“Think big, start small, fail quickly, scale fast.” – Anonymous
Hyper-focus on a small target market and then expand to different markets. A common mistake entrepreneurs make is feeling the need to cater to the widest possible group of consumers. This is the wrong approach! Look at Amazon for instance— they started as an online book-selling company and then expanded into the largest internet retailer in the world. While PayPal, for example, could benefit any person making online transactions, the company gained tremendous traction by focusing first on a very specific segment of Ebay users. This approach worked and turned PayPal into one of the most successful payment processing systems in the Silicon Valley. It’s important to be aware of a larger market for future growth, but it’s even more important to focus on a very niche market and continue to expand to adjacent markets.
Be the last mover.
“This is the age of Digital Darwinism, where technology and society evolve faster than any organization can adapt. The best advantage you can leverage is being built for the newly possible” – Tom Goodwin
Look at some of the most popular technology companies out there right now. Before Apple there was BlackBerry, before Google there was Archie, and before Facebook there was Myspace. The tremendous advantage Apple, Google, and Facebook had in this scenario is in their ability to learn from their predecessors. All three of these companies saw what their competitors were doing wrong and capitalized on these opportunities, potentially saving them millions in R&D costs. It’s a combination of external factors that allows for the creation of new technology in this fast paced environment.
Simplicity is key!
“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.” – Steve Jobs
In the words of Richard Branson, “Keep it simple, stupid!” When have you heard a customer say, “I wish this product were more complicated” or “I wish this technology were harder to use.” The answer is, NEVER! Keep it simple, and focus on the core premise of your product before implementing specific features. Google, for example, has very complicated proprietary algorithms behind their search engine, but the user only encounters a simple webpage with a logo and search bar. Another great example is Uber. Remember the days when you had to call a taxi, know your location, have cash on hand, and then wait for your cab to get to you? Now, all the customer has to do is push one button and their ride is on their way! No need to go through the logistical nightmare that you once had to. In short, keep it simple.
“What I really want out of life is to discover something new: Something mankind didn’t know was possible to do.” – Elizabeth Holmes
One of my favorite examples of opportunity creation is from Henry Ford. Henry Ford created a company called Ford Charcoal (now known as Kingsford Charcoal) in the 1920s, which was built solely off of the byproduct of wood scraps from the production of Model T’s from the Ford Motor Company. He developed a process in which he could create charcoal from scraps that would have otherwise been wasted. To this day, Kingsford charcoal remains the biggest player in the charcoal industry because one person recognized an opportunity. In the words of Roman philosopher, Seneca, “Luck is where the crossroads of opportunity and preparation meet.”
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