The first Start Conference for student entrepreneurs at the University of South Carolina was held in early October, in partnership with the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator and the USC Student Life Leadership and Service Center. Fve local entrepreneurs came to speak to students about how they can start their own businesses.
The speakers were:
Jim Stritzinger—Jim Stritzinger is the Director of Grow IT Initiatives at IT-oLogy, a nonprofit with a mission to improve the pipeline of trained IT professionals in the United States. He previously served as the GM of the Immedion Data Center and as the Director of the Carolinas for Tribridge, Inc. Prior to joining Tribridge, Jim served as EVP & GM of SC Public Interest Research for SCRA, in which he created SC Launch!, SC’s seed capital investment program. He was also the founder and president of ClearView Software, which was eventually acquired by Solomon Software and later became part of Microsoft Business Solutions.
Mike Meyers—Mike Meyers is the co-founder and CEO of Tradeversity, an online marketplace for University of South Carolina faculty, staff, and students. Mike is a graduate of the USC business school.
Trey Gordon—Trey Gordon is a co-founder of Koios, a web browser extension that searches library catalogues for documents that are being searched online by the user. The startup is meant to save users money by providing library resources, so users do not have to purchase texts.
Stephen Hughes—Stephen Hughes is the founder of Know Money Inc, a financial literacy advocacy organization that aims to educate young people on their finances.
Austin Price—Austin Price is the CDO of Krit, a team of developers and designers dedicated to bridging the gap between freelancers and agencies and their clients. Austin majored in Visual Communications at the University of South Carolina, and he writes for The Free Times and National Journalism Center.
1. Build your network now.
A business can’t go very far without people. “You need relationships,” said Jim Stritzinger. “Make your connections now because you never know where they are going to lead.” Stritzinger emphasized building relationships with people like bankers, who will determine whether or not the new startup should get the loan they asked for or not. “It’s not weird to meet your banker for coffee and talk to them about what your plans for your business are,” Stritzinger told the audience.
It is also important to find mentors. Mike Meyers told students, “Mentors are there for you. Your success is their success, and your failure is their failure. They are just as invested as you are, and they can give much-needed advice.” That being said, Stritzinger warned students that it is possible to be over-advised as a startup. “Find a couple good mentors, and then go get to work,” he said.
2. Trust your instincts and do things yourself.
Jim Stritzinger was all over this point. “You don’t need to pay for a bunch of consultants,” he told the students. “Have a healthy dose of respect for how talented you are, and understand that your founding money is precious.” Stritzinger pointed out that while mentors are important, no small business or startup should spend thousands of dollars having someone else create their brand, logo, website, and so on. At some point, the team itself has to do the work.
Mike Meyers built on this concept later in the conference. “You are going to make mistakes, so go ahead and make them and get them out of the way,” he said. Trey Gordon of Koios told students that it is important to try out ideas and then get audience feedback. “You’re not going to get it right the first time,” he said. “It’s a process of test, design, and then build. Are you satisfying the needs of your customers?” All of the speakers agreed that mistakes are bound to happen, but that should never keep an entrepreneur from moving forward with the business.
3. Find employees who fit the environment.
It’s a tough world when you’re an entrepreneur. “This has changed every single week since we started,” said Mike Meyers when he was talking about his business canvas. Things are always being changed, modified, improved, and restructured. Jim Stritzinger warned the audience that such an environment is not for everyone. Many people would rather have a job that is steady and constant, where they have a routine. It is important to hire people who can work under the fluctuating environment and who thrive with constant changes.
4. Build a diverse and lasting team.
“Recognize that you are good at some things but not at everything,” Stritzinger told the students. “You need to build a team of people who are different from you.”
The point of having a team is to divide the work among a variety of people who have different strengths. Some are good at web design, while others are good at networking and public relations, and still others prefer management or financial responsibilities. Having a diverse team allows the company to be strong on all fronts.
“It doesn’t matter what a potential employee’s current occupation is,” said Stephen Hughes of Know Money Inc. “It is their skill set that matters.” He encouraged students to find people who are committed to the good of the company, because those people will work harder and strengthen the company.
5. Never give up your equity.
“One of the things I was most grateful for when I was a CEO was I had no outside investors,” Stritzinger told his audience while talking about his first company. “Getting an investor in your business is the last thing you want to do. Consider it a necessary evil.”
This tip may seem counterintuitive at first. A company cannot start without funding, and investors provide those funds. However, Stritzinger warned students that investors are part-owners, and a part-owner expects to have some say in how the business is run. The more investors you have in your startup or company, the more people you have to keep happy. They will want to know that their money is doing well and will come back to them.
6. Know your mission.
A company runs best when its team members know what they are working toward. “Employees generally don’t know the mission statement of their company,” Stephen Hughes told his audience. “I was in a meeting one time, and the leader asked if any of us knew the company’s mission statement. No one did, so she read it to us. But see, she didn’t know it either, which is why she had to read it. How can you expect your employees to know your mission statement when you as the leader don’t even know it yourself?”
A mission statement does not have to be long or complicated. It simply has to state why the company exists. Having a mission provides the company a guide in difficult situations or when making tough choices. Austin Price told his audience that the company must emphasize its “why” and “how,” or in other words, its reason for being there and how it intends to fill its role. The “what,” or the product, comes from that.
7. Remember that the greatest businesses come from a solution, not an idea.
At the end of the day, businesses provide products and services for customers, so to be successful, they must know the needs of their customers and provide something that fills the need. “You may think your idea is great, but that isn’t what matters,” Trey Gordon told his audience. “You must make sure you are satisfying the needs of your customers.” Austin Price mirrored Gordon’s thoughts, telling students, “make your business more about the problem you’re going to solve.”