As part of the UNC Adams Apprenticeship program, I had the opportunity to travel to New York with 16 of my fellow apprentices in November 2016. On our trek, we met with several high-growth companies across industries. Each company visit provided valuable takeaways, lessons and insights from real world experience that added to our perspectives of what entrepreneurship really was.
Strategy executives at Spotify and YouTube talked about how to evolve faster than emerging players during a precarious time in media. Howard Morgan, founding partner of First Round Capital and an early investor in Uber, GroupMe, Warby Parker and dozens of other recognizable brands, spoke about the future of automation in America, universal basic income and the changing landscape of venture capital across cities.
We also heard from mid-stage companies Common Bond and Counter Culture Coffee, both of which are disrupting established markets with new processes.
Common Bond is taking on a risky student loan market – where more than 40 percent of borrowers are delinquent – by focusing on low-interest loans for students with high potential earnings. Counter Culture Coffee – founded by Brett Smith (MBA ’04) – breaks every piece of startup folk wisdom by saying no more than yes during the sales process, says Matt Banbury, the company’s regional wholesaler.
I learned a great deal from each company we visited, but I took the most from Alec Guettel.
Having heard several of Guettel’s talks, I can say that he is a refreshingly humble and candid speaker in a space that is often less so. He’s had a fascinating career as a serial entrepreneur, founding Sungevity, Axiom Law and now, Imprint.
When Guettel speaks, he strays away from highlighting his own accomplishments and instead focuses on sharing actionable advice. In the Axiom law boardroom, he imparted his “10 Rules for Entrepreneurship” on the Adams Apprentices, as paraphrased below.
Alec Guettel’s 10 rules for entrepreneurship:
- Resilience is the most important thing in entrepreneurship. Ventures are always on the cusp of failure, and it’s necessary to power through. Despite how bleak things might look, persuasiveness and a desire to take daily positive actions toward your goal is key.
- Market timing + team > product.
- Recruiting is the most important activity you will do as a founder. Roughly 25 percent of your time should be spent recruiting. Treat it as seriously as anything else. Keep an “amazing people” list. On that note, make sure co-founders are as committed as you are. Have “adult” equity conversations early and often.
- Everything you do correlates to sales.
- Maintain a balance of focus and flexibility. Listen to the market, but know your core competencies and advantages. Minimum viable products (MVPs) should be out quickly and accurately represent the benefits of your future product. Users’ opinions – not your own – determine what your offering is. Get feedback constantly.
- You company’s culture is a gift. Cultivate it from the start, and hire people that fit your culture.
- Fire fast and generously. Doing so creates a culture in which people feel proud to be part of the team and know their contributions are valuable. Other employees are aware that keeping under-performers and those who aren’t a fit with your culture holds the team back, and they will usually agree it’s the right call. Many leaders have a natural aversion to conflict. It’s important to get comfortable to tackling problems head-on early in your career.
- Think of venture capital as paper for the copier. Founders that have a quality venture requiring capital will find a way to acquire it. Don’t orient to what you believe VCs want. Work to become profitable as soon as possible, because everything changes once you have control.
- You will see into the abyss – and it will suck. Every startup almost fails at some point (or at multiple points). Regardless of whether your company succeeds or not, at some point you will be on the brink of failure. Bottom line: “Do not found a company if you’re not prepared to deal with the stress of it failing,” says Guettel.
- You will not make a lot of money. It will not feel prestigious. You friends will think you’re poor and unemployed. If money and prestige drive you, start a career in finance. Make the choice to go into entrepreneurship because you want to choose who you spend your time with and what you work on, and because you value intensity over contentment.
By Asher Lipsitz (BA ’16), 2016 Venture for America Fellow and UNC Kenan-Flagler Adams Apprentice