Tuesday, September 18, 2012

College Students Who Pivoted Into Entrepreneurship


Posted by Brian Patrick Eha | September 17, 2012

To succeed as an entrepreneur, you occasionally have to be willing to give up something good for something great. Austin Hackett was halfway through a medical degree at Columbia University in New York when he decided to devote himself fulltime to his startup discussion platform, CrowdHall.

His mother was supportive, but his father had doubts. Wouldn’t it be better, his father asked, to complete the medical degree before risking his future? Although Hackett was interested in helping people, he knew then that the physician’s life wasn’t for him.

“I was always more drawn to creative problem solving,” says the 27-year-old Hackett, who now lives in Cincinnati. “Medicine doesn’t really have creative problem solving. It has prescriptive problem solving. It didn’t really excite me.”

For Hackett and many more young people like him, it’s painful to discover that the decisions made as a 17- or 18-year-old college student don’t always continue to ring true at 21 or even 27 years old. But what do you do? Stick it out in a career that’s not your dream or pursue your real passions instead?

That’s a question serial entrepreneur and Brown University entrepreneurship professor Danny Warshay often helps his current students and new grads grapple with. Students have considerably more options than they realize, he says. But too often they narrow their choices before performing a true self-assessment and figuring out where their passions lie. “Unfortunately, many of them end up unhappy and come back to me for guidance,” adds Warshay.

To prevent this fate, Hackett turned to more creative pursuits. He is creating a communications platform that he claims will be especially useful to celebrities and politicians.

On CrowdHall, users can create individual profile pages, called “halls,” and followers can post questions to them. The entire audience has the ability to vote on which questions they would most like answered. You can check your hall on a regular basis to answer the top questions, and the answers will be sent out to those who voted and archived in the hall for everyone to read.

Hackett and his co-founder Jordan Menzel have already made some progress. After selling an early CrowdHall prototype to the U.S. Agency for International Development, the founders are planning a soft launch of the full platform this month. The site will also host the Columbia University Earth Institute’s State of the Planet conference in October.

Like many entrepreneurs who’ve transitioned into business from alternative career paths, Hackett says his previous experience has been an asset. Being a doctor, he says, is about “trying to understand patients and letting them feel like they have a voice that matters. And that’s exactly the thing we’re trying to do with CrowdHall. Every person has a voice that matters and they have an opportunity to be heard in the wider public space.”
Picked the Wrong Major Here's How to Pivot Into Entrepreneurship
Julie Sygiel (in Blue) turned her chemical engineering background into a business.
Perhaps the most important catalyst to pivoting away from a college major or first job is finding a need that you connect with. Just ask Julie Sygiel.

In 2008, Sygiel was a junior at Brown University studying chemical engineering. But after taking Warshay’s entrepreneurship course, she realized her true vocation.

During the class, she and two classmates were tasked with creating a business idea that solved an everyday problem.

The problem Sygiel’s group picked: accidents that befall women during menstruation. And the idea, which would eventually become Underbrella, was a line of high-tech undergarments in breathable fabric with a thin, leak-resistant layer.

Upon graduation, Sygiel started up the company, which the now 24-year-old says will hold its first preview sale on its website in October. Soon after, the line will be available in at least 16 boutiques across the country as well as on ActivewearUSA.

Although Sygiel once considered going into food science or the cosmetics industry, she now says she doesn’t think she’ll ever work as an engineer.

“You’re going to be way more successful doing something that you love,” she says. “Sure, there are going to be hard days. But don’t settle if you’re not really happy doing what you majored in.”

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The 7 Deadly Sales Sins Committed By Startups

By, Steli Efti

Editor’s note: Steli is the Co-Founder / Chief Hustler of ElasticSales and an advisor to several startups and entrepreneurs. You can follow Steli on Twitter here.

At ElasticSales, we’ve had the honor to create and run sales campaigns for some of the hottest Silicon Valley startups today. We’ve also consulted with dozens more each week to learn the challenges their sales team face. We realize we can’t work with every startup just yet, but we have seen the same, avoidable mistakes made by many young companies as they conduct their sales campaigns.

Below are “7 Deadly Sales Sins” committed by many startups today. Some of these may sound familiar to you, but by identifying and address these mistakes, you will help your company succeed.

1. Not Understanding Your Customer: Many startups make generalizations as to what their customers want. There may be a specific market for your product or service, but each customer’s challenges are going to be different. I’ve seen founders conduct poor research into their prospective customer before pitching them, and then fail to ask those customers specific questions in regards to their unique needs and pain-points. Instead, they’ll talk on and on about how great their product is and its 10 unique features. Founders need passion for their idea, but not at the expense of taking the time to understand your customers and asking the right questions.

2. Not Selling: Most startups explain all the bells and whistles of their product, but fail to sell the core solution to their customer’s problem. To do that, you need to ask the customer questions to understand what they really need. A prospective customer needs to be sold on the 2-3 benefits your product provides to them, rather than the 100 features you’re planning to build into the product in the future.

3. Not Showing Up: Most founders don’t go out into the market to pitch real people and close actual customers. As a result, they miss out on two key experiences crucial to a young company. First, the founders miss the opportunity to connect directly with their earliest customers and develop long-term relationships. Second, they miss direct customer feedback, which often provides the best recommendations to improve a young company’s product or service.

4. Not Following Up: Most startups pitch once and never follow up again. Maybe they follow up once or twice, but not relentlessly. Startup founders are not shameless enough. They worry too much about intruding on the prospect’s time or being too persistent out of fear of losing the sale. If you lose a prospective customer because you followed up too much, then they weren’t going to close anyways. I’m not advocating calling someone every few minutes, until they rip their phone line out of the wall; but giving up on a prospect won’t lead to a new customer. Keep up with them until they come to a decision, either a “yes” or a “no.” Everything else doesn’t count.

5. No Process in Place: Startups love to optimize their UI/UX but not their sales funnel. Most don’t even have a sales funnel to optimize. Startups today have access to a vast amount of data but often fail to track some basic metrics for their sales funnel; calls/emails, connections to decision makers, qualified leads, closed deals/deal value and time to close.

6. Not the Right Price: Founders often think the cheaper their service the better. While a low price tag does lower the barrier to entry for your customers, it can also dilute the value of your product. If your email or website plugin provides massive value for your customers, why is it the same monthly subscription price as Netflix? When you have a viral product that gets massive traction online, you can have a low price. When you need sales people to sell your product or enterprise customers, you need to consider if your product is priced appropriately to sustain your business. Ultimately, startups need to charge their customers what their product is worth and sell them on its value, not its price tag.

7. Not Asking for the Sale: Sometimes simply asking for the sale makes the process move forward in the direction that you want. After all of the phone calls, demos, and follow up, some founders are still afraid to ask for a customer’s business out of fear of losing the sale. If you spent so long cultivating your relationship with the customer, wouldn’t it be easy to close your new best friend?

Some entrepreneurs start their business out of love for art or fashion, some for science and technology. At the end of the day, every entrepreneur needs to be a successful salesperson to pitch their product or service to make their vision a reality. The great thing about the mistakes above is that they are all addressable. Once they’ve been identified in your startup, sales won’t be a barrier to your company’s success.