What I learned as a startup founder who went back to school

February 26, 2017 6:57 pm

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7x entrepeneur. CEO of EB5 Agents. ex-Partner at startup incbuator Incuvation Labs. ex-Mgmt at EB5Investors. Ranked in the top 0.1% of business influencers. Nephew of Vietnam’s General Le Quang Luong. You can create a community post just like Kenneth here.

As a serial entrepreneur, I’ve had many ventures. A lot of them failed and only a couple succeeded, but after almost 10 startups, I’m still alive in the game.

After working on startups as a side hustle, I switched to become a full-time entrepreneur five years ago.

Out of my graduating class in both high school and college, I estimate that less than 1 percent went on to become startup founders. Everybody else pursued cushy corporate jobs to climb the corporate ladder or became highly paid pharmacists, lawyers, or doctors.

And you know what I’ve learned eight years later? I don’t regret my decision one bit.

So for all lonely startup founders out there, don’t worry. You are living the dream.

After walking down this path for such a long time—my first startup being a video game company at age 16 with about 50,000 active users—I’ve learned a thing or two. And here, I’d like to impart some wisdom from an old-timer to the next generation of talented, dedicated, and passionate founders who would want to go at it alone—no co-founders, no nothing. Just one person with one idea.

1. It will take years to learn all the skills you need, but you will be far ahead of your peers

Before I founded my first real company (not counting my game server from high school), I had worked for about four years as an employee at two successful tech startups. I count these years as my training years or the equivalent of getting my “degree” in startups.

This is a different experience than what you’d get from a regular corporate job. You go in, receive training, whether it’s for weeks or a couple of months, then you do that same set of tasks you were trained for over and over every single day. You get to be really good at doing your job. However, there’s no way you can do your financial statements faster than an accountant or draft a legal document faster and better than an attorney.

But what I learned was everything—literally everything. I learned how to pick out the right domain, get its appraised value, register it, host it, and build a website on it. I learned how to create revenue, do sales, set up CRMs, and generate leads. I learned how to manage people and fill out their HR forms and other paperwork. I learned how to do marketing, from budgets of zero dollars up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

My company paid US$10,000 for just my pay-per-click (PPC) marketing training alone. I worked hard and was ambitious. Every week, I learned something new, then applied it. Then, I learn something new again the next week and so on. Today, I even write my own contracts having been trained by an attorney. I’ve probably had on-the-job trainers in the double digits at this point.

2. Don’t believe in the myth “jack of all trades and master of none”

Bruce Lee demonstrated that learning many different martial arts and combining the best parts together is more effective than knowing only a single style.

After four years in startups, I decided to go back and get an MBA part-time while I worked on my startups full-time. This was where I discovered that we who have been in the startup trenches were miles ahead of our peers when it comes down to doing business.

When school first started, the MBA student association appointed me vice president of technology the very first week of classes. I literally entered school as the vice president. That first month, I was elected to four different positions simultaneously: VP of technology, VP of marketing, VP of partnerships, and inter-club council representative. By the end of my first semester, the standing president nominated me for president. I declined because I didn’t want to do all the work.

Why did I pick up so many officer roles? Because I knew how to do things that other students didn’t know how to do. They had spent the last four years doing one job over and over again. If I can run a startup by myself, I can certainly run a student organization by myself.

3. Your ambitions are so high as a solo founder that you will get used to being called crazy

In my first year as the vice president of one of the biggest business schools in the State of California, I got handed a “club strategy plan” that basically said, “recruit more members, raise money, pay for speakers, look for recruiters.” I took a look and threw it in the trash.

This was during the time that Flappy Bird first came out, so the startup fever had hit the whole school. Everybody wanted to do a startup. So, everybody voted in favor of my wildly ridiculous plan of action, because I was the startup guy.

I first attended the business club inter-council as the representative, a group of 20 different clubs from the business school, undergrads, and MBA students. After my first two meetings, I got the MBA association kicked out of the inter-club council and funding was cut for our club.

So what was the goal after that? Well, it went according to plan since our goal as the MBA association was “to rival the 19 clubs in the council by ourselves.” In other words, we were going to grow our single club into a group as large and as powerful as 19 other clubs put together.

Nobody teaches you that in school. In the startup world, you’re going for an IPO, trying to make millions and billions. You’re competing with Fortune 500 companies out of your garage. This is just the usual.

4. You move so fast you’re like lightning compared to everyone else

In about one and a half semesters, we did the following:

  • Removed all membership fees (We were the only club with no fee)
  • Raised funds on our own, not requesting any funds from the school
  • Appeared in The Wall Street Journal —“MBA Association endorses banktivism”
  • More than doubled traffic the to the club website month by month
  • Achieved a 100 percent sign-up rate at club rush day, every pitch was worth one sign-up
  • Won the Boeing business plan competition
  • Rewrote the club charter and constitution so that the board members could effectively not be removed even by the school administrators (We were like VCs or dictators)
  • Started a partnership with another MBA school in Silicon Valley
  • Got sponsors for the club on our own which funded our events
  • Hacked the school website and got an email list of every business student, which we email blasted
  • Began working on our own non-profit
  • Started subsidiaries which we called “sub-clubs,” which meant that no new business clubs in the MBA school could be formed unless they received approval from the MBA Association
  • Cancelled club meetings at school and met at bars outside of school over beers instead

5. Nothing you learn in school will prepare you for the startup world, but the startup world will prepare you for school

These days, when I look through resumes and applications, I don’t even bother looking at where someone went to school and what they majored in. That’s how little relevance I find in skill sets learned in school and skill sets needed to work for a tech startup.

Now there are exceptions, like if you went to Harvard (like my cousin did) then sure, it’s a big plus. But if you went through an accelerator like Y Combinator, Tech Stars, or 500 Startups, then I would take you over the candidate with the masters degree any day. It is, after all, more difficult to found or work for a successful startup (because successful startups require a lot of hard work) than it is to pass school with enough Cs to get your degree.

That said, I loved my time in school and would do it all over again. So hopefully, my experiences will help spur some innovation in the halls of a college campus somewhere.

Photo credit: Paseidon.

This is an opinion piece.
This article was originally published by Tech In Asia. The article expressed here are the authors’ from Tech In Asia. Learn more about Payboy payroll software and HR management tools that matter to your business. 
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