There’s a story Isil Yavuz, Ph.D., Bryant University assistant professor of Management and director of the university’s Entrepreneurship program, likes to tell about the entrepreneurship business.
On one of her first trips to America, Yavuz, who was born in Turkey, was taken to a pitch competition where aspiring startup founders shared their ideas. Most of the ideas are lost to memory, Yavuz admits, but one of the intros left an impression. “He got up and the first thing he told the audience was that he had already started two businesses that had failed,” she remembers. “And then the entire audience applauded.”
The entrepreneurship business is something of a graveyard, Yavuz says, noting that 80 percent of businesses fail in the first ten years — but that only makes sense in an industry built on trying something new. “Failure is a natural and integral part of this process,” she states.
As an educator, a former mentor at InoSuit — a university-industry cooperation aimed at sustainably increasing innovation management competency — and as part of GoBeyond’s Rising Tide Europe program — an angel investing group consisting of women investors — Yavuz has made it her mission to help the next generation of entrepreneurs avoid the pitfalls they can and learn how to bounce back from the ones they can't.
From successful management to understanding the market, here are seven pieces of advice Yavuz offers for starting your own business:
1. Measure twice, cut once
The most important part of any entrepreneurial venture, Yavuz says, is finding the right market opportunity. Forty percent of startups fail because there is no market need for them, she notes. Those failures occur most often because the founders didn’t do enough research or talk to enough people — or that they didn’t look beyond themselves to fully understand what their customers need.
“Finding your niche is like validating a hypothesis,” says Yavuz. “The way you see the world might not be the way your customer sees the world.” It’s crucial, she says, to align those visions before you do anything else.
2. Consider the unexpected
Once you’ve identified a problem, and made sure that others feel the same way, you might have to think outside the box for an innovative solution. By example, Yavuz cites a famous quote by Henry Ford, American innovator and founder of the Ford Motor Company: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
In her class, teams of students are encouraged to develop ideas for persistent and relatable problems ranging from special water-resistant socks for ice hockey referees to self-playing instructional musical instruments.
Sometimes, says Yavuz, the best solutions are the least likely ones. “If I were to tell you the initial idea for Airbnb, it would be something like, ‘You’re going to pay money to sleep in a stranger’s house,’” she laughs. “It must have been difficult to sell that at the beginning.”
3. Partners, not friends
Another key mistake first-time entrepreneurs often make, she says, is that they don’t spend enough time, or thought, on building their teams, valuing personal bonds over effective partnerships. “Friendship can only take you so far,” she points out. Being able to work together and having similar goals and aspirations regarding the business are at least as important. If you and your friend are on the same page regarding these, that is great. But if not, a shared history or having the same tastes in your personal lives will not be enough.
"So many entrepreneurs are drawn in by the idea that you can be your own boss, but they don’t fully realize that means working much harder than you would as an employee because now all of the responsibility is yours.”
Picking the right people for your startup should also be about more than determining your company’s potential needs, Yavuz offers. It’s important to assess your own strengths and weaknesses as well, so that you can bring in people who complement your skillset — and make up for your deficiencies.
4. Talk it through
Even the smoothest of partnerships hit a rough patch sometimes, so it’s crucial to talk things through — and the earlier the better. In a field as uncertain and volatile as entrepreneurship, transparency is key, from setting expectations to making sure all responsibilities are explicitly detailed to formalizing how decisions will be made.
“When things are going well it’s not a problem, of course, but if they start to go not so well, then it can get ugly and people start to blame each other when the lines are not clear,” says Yavuz.
5. Be prepared to work
We often get a slanted view of entrepreneurship, Yavuz argues, one that focuses on overnight success stories while ignoring the hard work. “So many entrepreneurs are drawn in by the idea that you can be your own boss, but they don’t fully realize that means working much harder than you would as an employee because now all of the responsibility is yours,” she says.
To make that worthwhile, she suggests, their driving force should be loftier than simply making a buck. “Money is good, of course, but oftentimes I don’t think it is enough,” she says. “You need a good mission, something that is meaningful to you, to sustain you.”
“You have to be in the water to learn how to swim. You can’t just wait and watch on the beach.”
6. Don’t get caught up in the dream
Money, however, does make the world go round, much to the chagrin of many a startup founder. “Initial entrepreneurs, especially young entrepreneurs, tend to be very naïve when it comes to financing,” she offers. “When an angel investor or a venture capitalist gives you money, they don't give it for free. They also take your equity away from you. Many times, the entrepreneurs give too much of it (both money and control) without understanding the terms of the contract, or what they’re giving away.”
7. Learn by doing
Ultimately, it’s up to each individual entrepreneur to find their own way and chart their own course. “You have to be in the water to learn how to swim,” Yavuz offers by way of comparison. “You can’t just wait and watch on the beach.”
Much of the coursework in her Starting a New Ventures class, including simulations, pitch presentations, and brainstorming workshops, is designed to help students develop an entrepreneurial mindset — and to go out and make their ambitions happen. “The best advice I can give is go out and do it,” she says.