The three participants on Entrepreneur Bootcamp’s “Young Entrepreneurs Panel” have a lot in common. All three of them are graduates of Indiana universities (Ilya and Peter met when they were involved in student government at IU and Chris graduated from Purdue), they’ve all participated in Startup Chile, Peter and Chris both graduated from Brebeuf Jesuit in Indianapolis and they’re all Mira Award-winners (read about DoubleMap’s wins here and here and Chris’s win here). They all came back to Indy soon after graduation, Chris through the Orr Fellowship as a Fellow at T2 Systems. But most importantly, they’re building their companies in Indy (and learning a lot in the process).
In a panel moderated by Dustin DuBois of Ice Miller, Chris Palmer (BoxFox and SupplyKick) and Peter Servaas and Ilya Rehkter (DoubleMap) shared lessons they’ve learned early in their careers as entrepreneurs. These are some of my favorites:
1. Entrepreneurs value different specific characteristics in those first key hires, but in the end it comes down to hiring good people.
Between SupplyKick and BoxFox, Palmer manages a team of 10 employees. “We’ve always been able to make people smarter and more trained, but you can’t change integrity,” he said. For Servaas, flexibility is the most important trait, and is essential in the DoubleMap hiring strategy, which is founded on “rolling applications.” “If the right person walks in the door, we’ll hire them,” Rehkter said. Of recruiting the team, Palmer said, “The way you get someone to work with you is that you have something really compelling, whether that’s money or a huge vision.”
— TechPoint (@TechPointInd) October 10, 2014
2. Save money where you can, but don’t skimp where it counts.
While neither Peter nor Ilya took a salary for the first six months of the DoubleMap process, the DoubleMap team has been sinking money into “the right legal help,” on the grounds that it will save them some big headaches down the road. Palmer has found that “the more we share our story with people with no expectation of help is the more that people are willing to give free help.”
3. The first customer is tough to get, but you’ve got to have them.
That “first customer” milestone is essential to startup growth. “Trick somebody to believe in what you’re doing,” Servaas said. But it’s not about finding customers to serve your product. Of learning from customers, Palmer said, “Understand what it takes to get customers to happy and then build something that makes them happy and then scale that.”
4. Learn in surprising places.
Entrepreneurs in the throes of startup growth need to take every opportunity to learn. “Every single day is a surprise to us,” Ilya said. Servaas even advised talking to competitors. “You learn so much through that,” Servaas said.
5. The key to success with a founding team?
“Clearly defining roles, responsibilities and expectations with the confounding team is so essential. There’s an entirely different vibe when you’re not in the trenches with somebody and you’re having to cast your own vision alone,” Servaas said. Peter’s co-founder Ilya said, “Peter and I have a very interesting working relationship because we go toe to toe and we argue. We’re really passionate about the direction of our business.” The three agreed that difficult conversations become decide moments in founders’ lives. Palmer said, “There are so many difficult conversations that really need to be had. Oftentimes, they get postponed. But I’ll quote Tim Ferris and say, ‘Our success in life can be attributed to the number of difficult conversations we’re willing to have.’”