Education, entrepreneurship, Lessons Learned, News

Lessons Learned – steps2startup at University of Cologne

I was recently invited to speak about my lessons learned as a startup entrepreneur at the steps2startup program at the University of Cologne.

steps2startup is a student initiative at the University of Cologne to help young people interested in startups and entrepreneurship build their network and exchange experiences and ideas with like-minded people. It is important for entrepreneurs to get started on their ideas and build on their business, so they will need as much advice as they can get, this may even mean contacting a trade secret lawyer California firm or a firm in their location so they can see how they can protect their ideas.

It was inspiring to see about 50+ student in attendance at a very busy exam time.

Here are the slides I used:

Startups – Don’t do it

You will fail. 80-90% of all startups fail. Yeah. I’m the motivational type. I know.

Forget about money

You will not get rich doing a startup. If you’re in it for the money, get a job as a lawyer, investment banker or teacher instead.

It’s all about passion

Do it because you love to. Not because you think it’s cool. Be honest with yourself. It has to excite you. It has to be the thing that gets you up in the morning. What are you really passionate about?

Screw your idea

It’s all about execution. Talk less, do more. JFDI – Just Fucking Do It. Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness. Everybody’s got ideas. Don’t be the loser saying “Yeah, I had that idea too…”. JFDI – Just Fucking Do It!

Solve a real problem

Don’t be a solution in search of a problem.

Start with the why

Then work backwards to the how and what. Watch and read Simon Sinek.

Screw your business plan

Seriously. Stop waisting your and everybody else’s time with your magical thinking. Build a perfect deck instead.

Start painting on the business model canvas

But you must understand the ins and outs of the business you are trying to create. Do business model generation.

It’s all about people

Not technology, ideas or business plans. Chose your people with the greatest care. Try before you buy.

In writing

Get everything in writing before you start. Get a formal founder’s agreement down up front with roles, expectations, equity, vesting time and all that jazz up front. You don’t want to be dealing with this down the road.

Talk to everybody

About everything. Everywhere. Screw NDAs. Get as much real feedback from the real world as possible. If you think your idea is so easy to copy that you can’t share I have news for you either 1) It’s such a bad idea that there’s a reason nobody executed it yet 2)someone is already working on it already somewhere

Don’t build it straight away

Because they won’t come. Try to validate your main theses with as little work possible. MVP it. Don’t build something you won’t need, that the market won’t need or doesn’t understand. Don’t be surprised to find that your first assumptions were crap. Just don’t waste time and resources programming stuff you don’t need to learn that.

Culture is everything

Values, mission and vision is critical to your success. Think Steve Jobs vs Steve Ballmer. Same same, but very different. Your values have to be authentic and unique to you. Everybody should feel comfortable with identifying with them and they should set the norm for the kind of people you recruit. A mission help keep everybody aligned and focused, it’s what we’re currently doing, currently solving. The vision inspires us to get to where we want to be and keep reminding us why we are doing this. Both serve as a compass for decision making, use it as a test. “Is this helping us fulfill the mission? Does it fit with our vision? Is this compatible with our values?”. Say what you are about and don’t forget to say what you are NOT. Ask to be held accountable for your values.

Expect greatness

Raise the bar. The biggest enemy of great is good. Expect greatness from yourself and your team. Read “From Good to Great“.

Communication is everything

Over-communicate with your team. If you’re not clear on your expectations on what you want and don’t want, you’ll end up in a very bad place. I think we’ve all been there. Stop magical wishful thinking. No one will ever know what you expect unless you make it crystal clear. Mind reading does NOT exist. Give ownership and autonomy. Support pro-activity. Describe goals with desired outcome and non-desired outcomes and let your team work their way on their own. Try using something called the commander’s intent originally developed for the US army to communicate goals. Support an environment where everybody can share anything with anyone, comment and chime in on anything. Make sure people get what you expect, make sure you understand what people expect from you. MAKE DOUBLE-SURE! Read Gary Klein’s “Sources of Power” for more.

Don’t be fooled by randomness

Most things are not like you think they are. Get over it. Don’t let randomness be the master of your life or your startup. You must know this to help making better decisions and understanding real causality. Read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “The Black Swan” and “Fooled by Randomness“. Know thy self: Get to know and understand human cognitive biases by reading “The Drunkard’s Walk“, The Invisible Gorilla“, Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational” and “The Upside of Irrationality“.

Silence the lizard brain

Don’t give in to irrational fear. Be aware of your two-brain system. We are all extremely creative – we don’t need to be MORE creative. We just need to QUIET YOUR LIZARD BRAIN! It’s not a new age hippie cult thing. It’s pretty solid science. Watch Seth Godin talk about it. And you *must* read Daniel Kahnemann’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow“.

The hero’s journey

Try this at home, kids! Have your whole team draw (DO NOT USE LETTERS OR NUMBERS!) their own hero’s journey of your project in 1 minute and compare. Let each and every one show and tell their story. Start with the minor stakeholders to avoid coloring the process by starting with e.g. the project lead. Repeat over time to check if you are aligned. Let Steve Alexander tell you more about it.

Win friends

And influence people. Dale Carnegie published his book “How to win friends and influence people” almost a 100 years ago. It’s the how-to of all times. Read it. Again and again.

Dissent makes for excellence

If you are surrounded by yes-people, you are doing it wrong. Research shows that what separates great teams of peer groups of specialists from truly world class teams is that the latter have open and respectful dissent on a regular basis. If you have only yes-people on your team, chances are that most of them are either disinterested, scared to utter their real opinion or just sucking up. Make sure that every team has no-people on board. No, not trolls – peers, expert people – with different opinions and views or perhaps more guts to stand up and voice their contrary opinions. Read “Outliers” and “The Wisdom of Crowds” for more. Try to DISPROVE your thesis, not prove them. Check out Popper and empirical falsification for more on that.

Don’t be the but-f*cker

Say “YES, AND…”. Practice improv comedy. NEVER EVER SAY “BUT” (unless you mean the rear end). Use improv comedy to overcome this instinctive killer of creativity and productive discourse.

Embrace failure

Post mortem, kanban, continuos deployment, the five whys. Embrace failure as part of your culture. Shit happens. The more you fail the more you can check off things that doesn’t work and get closer to something that will. Fail fast and fail early! Do a post mortem before you start working on that next update, long before you ship: Imagine it has already failed. What went wrong? Do this experiment in-depth BEFORE you make a decision to implement, BEFORE you launch! Then take steps to implement what you learned – BEFORE you launch.

Get Lean

Start validating learning. Use the scientific method. Build – Measure – Learn. Rinse, lather, repeat. Don’t make decision based on magical thinking, committee consensus and the loudest or most frequent opinions. Just because someone says so doesn’t make it so. Get the facts – the scientific way. Construct theses, use the scientific method, test, learn and validate. Learn fast, fail early. Learn what actually works and what doesn’t. Get the data. Read the book by Eric Ries (@ericries).

Customer Development

Learn it, live it, breathe it. Google Steve Blank (@sgblank) now. Read his book “The Four Steps to Epiphany“.

Get out of the building

Talk to people who will tell you that your baby is ugly. Get away from the reality distortion of the one ring to rule them all – that is the four walls of your company building (and your customer’s too). Talk to people that will tell you the straight dope – talk to as many as possible. Do experiments on the web to get input from the market, from strangers. Test your theses with them before building anything. Look for signals and patterns in the aggregate.

Learn, learn, learn

It’s a continuos process. You will never arrive. JFGI.

Listen to your users

Look for reoccurring patterns, not only to your early adopters, super-users and freaks. Look for pattern and frequency. Ignore the trolls.

Measure everything

If you can’t measure it – don’t build it. Data is king. Make it a part of your culture to always ask how you’d measure it before building it. Don’t build it just because you think you should. Don’t only listen to your customers – People say the darndest things for all sorts of reasons. Beware of all cognitive biases. If there is no correlation of what people are telling you in the data – something is obviously fishy. People also don’t know what they want – let the data help you find that out. Do A/B testing. Do fake feature smokescreen testing. Look for frequency and patterns. Find out what works by looking at actual data. Remember to use a significant sampling pool.

Don’t be fooled by vanity metrics

“Just because you look good, doesn’t make you right” to quote Skunk Anansie. Track what’s important – actionable metrics – not just what makes you feel good.

Reach out

To anyone, anywhere. Use this newfangled thing called the Internet. Don’t be afraid. Use it to get help, for inspiration, for co-operation. You can reach virtually anyone anywhere. Just make sure you know what you want and that you have something to GIVE or offer them in return – even if it’s just recognition or praise. Make sure they know why they should talk to you “What’s in it for them?”. Create win-win situations. See reading “How to win friends…” above.

Follow your gut

Listen to good advice – don’t take it. They are not you. They have not seen what you have seen. They don’t know what you know. Practice rejection. Don’t be afraid of people shaking their heads.

Ask for advice

Get money. Ask for money, get advice.

Build relationships

Start early. Getting funded is a long process. As the saying goes, you have to be seen, have interactions with an investor or press/blogger type three times and not come off as a crazy person – just a normal person – to be accepted and recognized. Act normal, don’t push it, be nice and expect it to take time. Start EARLY! NEVER EVER COLD CALL OR COLD EMAIL! Get introduced and/or show up at events.

Help other entrepreneurs

It’s a roller coaster ride of highs and lows. Real entrepreneurs don’t let other entrepreneurs entrepreneur alone. Let me know how I can help you today!

Let’s connect

Twitter @blacktar Facebook Mail and LinkedIn. For hire. Will work for money. Inquire within.



If you’re interested in hiring me to speak at your event, why don’t you shoot me an email and let’s have a chat about that.