I do not have a Harvard MBA. I’m not a “#u30pro” (but secretly wish I was). I’m not a social networking God (but am getting better).
I’m a former engineer trained in the Air Force. I’m a consistent workaholic. I am a passionate entrepreneur. And, I’m an OJT CEO.
For the past year, our team has developed YouTern – an online community that connects emerging talent to entrepreneur-driven companies, through internships. We’ve accomplished a lot in 12 months; 90 days after Alpha launch we are grateful that over 300 companies now use YouTern to find great interns.
However, as a lot of you have likely experienced in your entrepreneurial endeavors, it hasn’t all been fun and fireworks. Now is a good time to reflect, and share with you what went right, and what didn’t.
Since my first business at eight years old until today, I’ve always learned a lot more from mistakes than easy victories. So, here – from a non-Harvard MBA CEO that turned 50 two weeks ago – is a Letterman-style “Top 5 Tips for Start-up CEOs” (and others currently living on caffeine, adrenaline, and the support of damn good people around them).
5. “Be the Ball, Danny”
Find a Mentor. Cultivate the relationship. Communicate often. Bare your soul by asking good questions after checking your ego at the door.
For the past several months, I’ve relied on the counsel of a no-nonsense mentor who built a $75 million company. In retrospect, I should have started this priceless relationship much sooner.
Just for fun, click here to see my favorite fictional mentor.
4. Build Your Advisor Team
Building a Board of Advisors seems like a low priority compared to developing a product, building your core start-up team, funding… and much more.
Had I taken the time to develop a diverse, enthusiastic team of advisors (like the team we have guiding us now), we would be months further into the execution of our business plan.
3. Build an Army of Interns
At some point, the workload becomes overwhelming. You’ll lay in bed almost nightly, thinking (while you should be sleeping): “If we had the manpower to do this, and that, three months ago…”
A year later, we built an army of interns. Youthful enthusiasm. Contagious energy. Technology-driven to the point of fault (and a great benefit to the company).
Our interns capably handle tasks (competitive analysis, web development, marketing, PR) they should have been handling quite some time ago – instead of me and my executive team.
2. Build a Good Business, Then Seek Funding
60-second pitch contests. Create pitch deck. Elevator pitch training. Another pitch deck. Consultants. Revise pitch deck. Practice to experts and investors. Revise pitch deck. More pitch contests. Web 2.0 experts. New Pitch Deck…
The time spent attempting to attract the attention of VCs was exhausting, and given the economic/investor climate, ultimately a waste of time (especially since the companies that won all those contests are still not funded). At one point, we caught ourselves writing website copy designed to impress investors… instead of our customers.
Stay focused. Bootstrap. Prove the concept. Get to revenue. Your success will draw the attention of Angel or VC investors.
1. Get a New Third Baseman
I’ve coached baseball since I can remember. Whenever I had trouble with a ballplayer (commitment, talent or attitude), parent (attitude) or athletic director/administrator (ego), I would explain that my job was to put the best team, with the best possible character, on the field. No one ever questioned that logic.
I did not take the same approach with my first “real” start-up. I let people that did not contribute – either in the “move us forward” or “pulling their weight” category – hang on way too long. The first red flag: more than one major missed commitment.
In the long run, the reasons – no matter how sincere – don’t matter and those “reasons” are perceived far more accurately for what they are: excuses.
Every chance you get, seek to upgrade the team you’re putting on the field.
I am incredibly proud of the work we’ve done. I am also fully aware that we might be much farther along had I followed my own advice.
Even if it did come from a rookie CEO.