Start Something

There is something uniquely valuable and satisfying about starting something while you’re still in school.  The iconography of Silicon Valley is certainly rich with companies founded by students, Google and Yahoo being prime examples.  Having started a company as an undergraduate myself, I am a firm believer that it’s one of the most valuable things you can do –not because you will create the next Google, but because you will learn a great deal of things worth learning.

Of course, starting something does not have to mean starting a company – the experience of leading a substantive effort from scratch is the irreplaceable piece here.  It is all about the creativity and execution required to breath something to life. The good news is that universities can be great places to do this.  If you know where to look, you will almost definitely find like-minded students and supportive faculty.  You don’t necessarily have to create all the infrastructure yourself, either – there are many competitions and programs designed specifically to promote student inventions, such as the DARPA Grand Challenge, a driverless vehicle competition.   Starting an organization can be a great way to attract like-minded people to your goals, and catalyze further invention and innovation through the network effect.  A great example is Cornell University Sustainable Design, founded by Sam Sinensky as an offshoot of Cornell’s annual Solar Decathlon team and has since given rise to many exciting initiatives.

I took a leave of absence from Cornell to start my company, and I will be the first to tell you it didn’t actually work.  It was, however, an awesome experience, and not only in the sense that failure is a great teacher.   I’ve always felt that the best way to learn things is by doing, and win or lose, starting a company involves plenty of doing if you are serious about it.  As Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines, famously quipped, “we have a strategic plan – it’s called doing things.”

The beauty of founding or co-founding something is that you do literally everything.  Some aspects of this are highly educational – getting to a working prototype, romancing prospective customers, fine-tuning your business model, and seeking financing are all subjects worthy of great minds.  Other aspects, such as paperwork, taxes, and yes, taking out the trash, merely build character.  However, character is something you will need a lot of, and here’s why:  execution is substantially harder than people think. 

To begin with, executing on anything at all is a radical departure from the comfort zone of toying with ideas, during which success seems assured and all sacrifice is theoretical.  Furthermore, most people severely underestimate the difficulty of simply owning your own schedule – there is no magic checklist for what constitutes a productive day, and you have to be able to forge ahead without constantly worrying if you’re doing it all wrong.  Starting a business, in particular, requires you to make judgment calls with real implications – who to align yourself with, how much funding you’ll need, and perhaps most significantly, who else should join your team.  Finally, you will have to execute in conditions of great uncertainty, without worrying that your projections are disintegrating before your eyes.  There is never enough information or unit testing to be comfortable, yet you also know that at a certain point, any more time spent gathering data or polishing your prototype will cost you momentum you may never get back.  Sooner or later, you have to do it live.

Starting something in school will teach you a lot about how the world really works, but it will also teach you a lot about something you probably thought you knew pretty well: yourself.  It will test you in a way that academics fundamentally can’t, and people invariably underestimate the struggle involved.  This is not just a function of iffy externalities, but also your own strengths and weaknesses.  Even if you have a sophisticated understanding of these (and few undergraduates really do – I know I didn’t and am still refining it), there is a tendency to believe that being a founder will hone your strengths and bolster your weaknesses in equal measure.  This sounds perfect in theory, but it’s simply not realistic – nor is it a recipe for doing truly important things.  In the next installment, I’ll be exploring why you must do something you’re great at before you can do something great.