Starting & growing a business: Some lessons learned in a startup accelerator, aka my MBA 2.0

I graduated in December with an MBA after 18 months of classes learning how to analyze financial statements, build a marketing strategy, optimize a supply chain, and all the other buzz words an MBA is supposed to know and do in order to manage a business. But the glaringly missing piece from my toolbox was how to GROW a business, particularly from the ground up.  So to find that missing piece I spent the summer working with Seed Sumo, a startup accelerator. If you aren’t familiar, a startup accelerator is basically a boot camp for early stage ventures. The startup teams receive some amount of funding in exchange for some amount of equity then go through a few months of “boot camp” where they are surrounded with resources to help them get their early stage venture off the ground. For the entrepreneurially minded, it’s magical.

Here are a few of my takeaways from the Seed Sumo accelerator.

1)   Ideas are worthless; real value is created through execution. How many food delivery companies have been started in the last 5 years? The idea of delivering food to people at home is not exactly novel, but the companies that are winning in that space are executing that idea in a unique way. New product or company success is all about execution.

2)   Be scrappy.  Most things in a startup are unknown at the beginning so a startup’s growth is a series of problem solving. Figure out one problem and the next one pops up, then go figure it out. No startup has all the answers in the beginning. Be scrappy and figure it out.

3)   Fall in love with the customer segment and their problem, not your solution. One of the speakers shared this nugget of wisdom and it just makes sense. The companies that are focused on solving their customer’s problem will be more open minded in finding the right solution rather than rigidly assuming that their presumed solution has to be the answer. It just allows you to really respond to what your customers are saying.

4)   Balance the tension between moving forward with conviction and continually learning and updating your convictions. Its harder than it sounds, but this was personal advice from one of the mentors to one of the startups this summer. Solid.

5)   Learn. Ask questions. Be coachable. Listen to customers and what they tell you (or don’t tell you). Listen to wise counsel from advisors and mentors.  Learn fast. Like, really fast.

6)   Validate, validate, validate the market need and the customer problem. Then validate further. Do this by talking to potential customers and getting inside their head and their world and their problems. Then build out the solution. Build what your customers want not what you want them to want.

I learned these lessons from the startup ecosystem, but my hypothesis is that most of these takeaways hold water when it comes to developing a new product in a corporate environment as well. Different environments, same pitfalls & opportunities.

What lessons have you learned about growing businesses?  To help those of us with a career long quest of developing this capability, please share your wisdom in the comments below!

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