Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series. This article covers the first two concepts, with the final three coming in the next installment. Procopio is head of Product at Automated Insights, he recently sold his side venture, startup network/news source ExitEvent, to WRAL TechWire parent Capitol Broadcasting. He is starting a new side venture focused on startup education.
DURHAM, N.C. – After spending the last three-plus years working on startup support and acceleration, something has become clear to me. Startup education is still lagging breadth and depth.
I’m not just talking about secondary school and STEM, but also startup education at the University level, adult continuing education, and the somewhat soft ongoing education required to help potentially great entrepreneurs build great companies.
The good news is it wouldn’t take much to change that. But it’s probably going to have to come from outside the system.
Like millions of parents across the country, I’m doing the elementary education shuffle. Between district living plans, charter lotteries, private/public options, and extracurricular activities, each year of my three kids’ educational journey is filled with big, potentially life-altering decisions that can keep a working couple awake at night.
For all the talk of the STEM education revolution going on at the elementary and middle school level, a lot of it is still just talk. I understand the limitations that budgets and a dated infrastructure place on the STEM mission, but I’ve stated it before and I’ll state it again, you shouldn’t teach coding by sitting a kid down in front of an iPad.
The corollary of that theorem is also true: You don’t need fancy toys and a mastery of object orientation to give a kid the foundational concepts of STEM. Most of the roots of these concepts are already in the curriculum, they just have to be emphasized.
The Real World
At higher levels, all the way up to post-college offerings, startup education is still mainly focused on the lemonade-stand/widget-factory startup-by-numbers approach. As a 20-year-plus serial entrepreneur, to me this is akin to dusting off the abacus to teach math. It’s safe. There are some core lessons: How many lemons will you need and how much should you pay for them to be able to charge market price?
But come on. A lemonade stand is not a startup.
Summer Startup in Session
For the second consecutive summer, I’ll be mentoring my kids through their own startups. I’m purposely keeping the rules vague at the beginning, however, all of them must use the Internet in some fashion, all must deliver a product with a revenue source to an addressable market, and each should have a unique twist that makes their idea, and thus their company, special.
Oh, also, they can’t do what they did last summer. But that’s just a rule for this year. If they build the next WhatsApp, they’re welcome to continue working on it for as long as they want.
I’m not an idiot.
But ultimately I want simplicity, and there’s a reason why. Each of these ventures should be malleable, flexible, and each should look drastically different in August than they did in June.
Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer, and speaker.
He is VP of Product at Automated Insights and the founder of startup network and news resource ExitEvent and new venture Teaching Startup.
Follow him at @jproco or read him at http://joeprocopio.com
In the beginning, we’ll focus on five core concepts, those which I believe are universally applicable to any startup at any stage:
I know. You can’t teach passion. I totally agree. But what you can teach is how important passion is in building a startup. That notion can’t be stressed, repeated, or sloganized enough.
There’s no real way to measure the amount of passion that an entrepreneur is going to have for the journey at hand, let alone the requisite level of passion needed for the venture to succeed, until the rough patches become evident.
Look, I’m passionate about music, especially loud guitar rock music. But it wasn’t until I faced long stretches of sleeping in the back of a van and carrying heavy equipment up and down narrow staircases to play on a suspect sound system in front of half-a-dozen drunk people shouting “Freebird!” that I realized I wasn’t in it for the right reasons.
Rock star isn’t a career, it’s a life choice. And startup is the same. It’s not nine-to-five, there are no clear-cut steps on the way to success and, at least as is the case today, there is no bachelor’s degree in Startup.
However, like the lure of rock-star-stardom, there are a lot of misconceptions about being an entrepreneur, and those misconceptions lead to people getting into startup for the wrong reasons, whether that’s the notion of being your own boss or the glamorization of the Silicon Valley lifestyle.
So kids, if you’re not willing to spend at least part of your awesome summer vacation struggling to figure out why your widgets aren’t shifting units, you’re probably selling the wrong widget.
Unlike passion, you can totally teach someone how to take and manage risk. For an obvious comparison, it’s like teaching kids to swim. They learn the process, the dangers, how to avoid the dangers, and sometimes we strap inflatables to their arms.
Eventually though, we need to throw them into the deep end.
In this life, especially this modern life, we’re constantly programmed to avoid risk, especially in the career/life-choice sense, but we’re never taught how to manage it.
My first job out of college was the safe choice, and I wore a suit and left my suburban apartment complex each morning to spend exactly eight hours ensconced in my muted grey cubicle.
I did this for one year, one month, and four days.
I didn’t know the huge risk I was taking leaving that job for a three-person office led by a 28-year-old quirky genius. I didn’t care at that point. And if it had blown up in my face, my life would look a lot different today, none of it likely for the better.
Although, to be honest, who knows?
Compare that to my current gig, for which I gave up a startup I had founded that was at the time doing over $1 million in annual revenue. And that startup I was giving up? I founded that with 19-month-old twins and a wife four months pregnant.
However, in both of those more recent situations, the risk wasn’t important. The risk mitigation was the key. I had drawn up scenario after scenario for whatever those choices were going to throw at me. I knew what to do when the worst happened, I knew what to do if and when success kicked in, and I knew what to do if nothing happened at all.
These are the kinds of decisions and conversations that, much like the elementary school shuffle I mentioned at the top of this article, can put the stomach in knots. The planning, the what-if, the painful potential decisions that might need to be made down the road — this is stuff no one likes doing, and the process for working through it is never taught.
So yeah, kids, it’s OK to follow your dream by maxing out credit cards, taking out a second mortgage, and pounding the pavement to get seed cash from friends and family. But you need to figure out what you’re going to do when all that happens and you return nothing or next to nothing.
Otherwise you won’t be able to do it again.
The final three concepts are coming soon. Any idea for what they might be or should be? Let us know in the comments section.