Intent on making 2017 your Best Year Ever? We can help with that, thanks to our 2017 Coach of the Month series.For June, Heather Cabot and Samantha Walravers, authors of the just released book, Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech, offer a four-week course in professional acumen, designed to serve you whether you’re a tech founder, an artist, or anything in between. For the second installment,Cabot offers a protagonist’s approach to figuring out what business ventures are actually worth pursuing.
How many times have you been jogging on the treadmill, driving to work, or drifting off to sleep when a brilliant idea hits you? The inspiration pops into your head, you scramble to scribble it down or type it into your phone only to let it fade away. Sometimes, those flashes of genius keep popping into your mind and you realize there might really be something there. So how does that flicker turn into a real business? In our research for our book, Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech, we spoke with hundreds of innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors and discovered three universal steps that took initial ideas jotted on a scrap of paper to the big time.
#1: Know What You Don’t Know
The most successful entrepreneurs we met hustled to find experts who could fill their own knowledge gaps on everything from supply chains to hiring to marketing. Persistence and consistency in approaching potential advisers worked well for Caren Maio, CEO and co-founder of the online real estate platform Nestio. Every time she was introduced to someone who she thought could help her learn the ropes, she would start to act as if they already worked together.
“I would fake it until you make it. I would follow up with Joanne [Wilson, the prolific angel investor] constantly with updates: ‘Here are the things that I need help [with]. Here are some key updates with the business.’ I would just continuously update her.” Eventually, Wilson would go on to invest in Nestio and now sits on the company’s board of directors.
EVERY TIME SHE WAS INTRODUCED TO SOMEONE WHO SHE THOUGHT COULD HELP HER LEARN THE ROPES, SHE WOULD START TO ACT AS IF THEY ALREADY WORKED TOGETHER.
Before she started Backstage Capital, the fund that invests in startups led by women, LGBTQ founders, and entrepreneurs of color, Arlan Hamilton spent a year devouring every blog and book she could to learn about the insular world of venture capital. Then she started cold emailing some of the boldface names of Silicon Valley for guidance.
“I said, ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing. I don’t know anything about that world. I’m learning. What’s your advice here?” Many of them wrote back and offered to mentor her and a few, including famed venture capitalist Marc Andreesen, eventually invested in her fund.
#2: Test the Market and Keep Testing
It’s one thing to have a bright idea in your head and quite another to prove that customers will pay for it. Adda Birnir, founder and CEO of Skillcrush, the online coding boot camp aimed at women had a gut feeling in 2010 that she could entice entry level and mid-career professionals to learn computer programming if she hit them with the right messaging. But she didn’t know for sure how the unapologetic feminist tone of Skillcrush would fly until she started asking potential customers and listening to feedback from thousands of students who eventually enrolled in Skillcrush classes. It’s a process she continues today. “I think everything smart that I have done in my business has come from talking to users obsessively,” says Birnir, who advises aspiring entrepreneurs to “build into the DNA of your company a process for validating assumptions.”
#3: Believe in Your Mission
Starting a company can be a 24-7 roller coaster ride, where you feel like you are flying without a net most days. That’s where passion and faith come in. Founders and investors we met agreed that if you don’t care deeply about the problem that you want to solve with your big idea, you will flame out. You have to believe in it.
YouTube star Michelle Phan, who now helms the beauty e-commerce company ipsy and makeup line EM, put it this way: “If you want to be a great creator, you have to be your number one fan first. You have to love what you are doing.”
Susan Lyne, founder and managing partner of BBG Ventures, the AOL-backed fund that invests in early stage consumer tech startups led by women says that kind of mission shines through when companies pitch her for investment.
“You can tell the difference between a founder who has to be doing this, who literally cannot imagine doing anything else. Those are the people who are probably going to be successful,” Lyne explained to us, “You have to have tenacity and that original sense that I am doing the thing I was put on this earth to do.”
IF YOU DON’T CARE DEEPLY ABOUT THE PROBLEM YOU WANT TO SOLVE WITH YOUR BIG IDEA, YOU WILL FLAME OUT.
That’s the case for Maci Peterson, founder and CEO of the text recall technology startup, OnSecondThought. She says her Christian faith reminds when things get tough that there is a higher purpose to what she’s trying to achieve. “People often ask me ‘What’s the secret to your success?’ and I really think one thing is that I pray a lot,” says Peterson, who feels her achievements and visibility will inspire other women of color to go for it.