Should You Be An Entrepreneur?

Sana Mohammed, Contributor

“There is no failure,” said Professor Mark Roberge on our last day of Harvard Business School’s Startup Bootcamp. “There’s only learning.”

We – the Startup Bootcampers, a group of 188 first-year HBS students eager to immerse ourselves in entrepreneurship – had been preparing for the week-long HBS Startup Bootcamp since last October. My team, comprised of myself, Chi Le (HBS ’19), and Jeff Fan (HBS’ 19), dove deep into the podcast industry and took on the challenge of facilitating podcast discovery, sharing, and monetization. Our outcome was the prototype for a new podcast app: Audio One.

Below are the four most important Bootcamp lessons learned:

  • Disagreement is healthy.
    Jeff Bussgang presents to HBS Startup Bootcamp attendees

Jeff Bussgang, General Partner at Flybridge Capital Partners and Senior Lecturer at HBS, explained to us the necessity of disagreement on a VC team: you need to get something right that’s non-obvious to find the non-obvious deals. For this, you need healthy disagreement.

This same principle can be applied to startups. Startups are based on assumptions of current and future consumer behavior and market dynamics. Through the startup journey, you strive to validate each assumption’s accuracy. Until then, discussions around these assumptions should be contentious. If there isn’t disagreement around the assumptions (and therefore the idea), then it’s an obvious idea. If it’s obvious, it’s likely to have been done before.

  1. Testing is part of the research process.

As you begin this “digging” process at the start of your venture, the desire to become an expert in an area before creating a product (physical or technical) is alluring – especially for business school students. However, this can lead to a state of much-dreaded analysis paralysis.

In response to this problem, the startup community has a commonly cited principle: “just ship it.” But how does that apply to non-technical products? During one of our Bootcamp sessions, a founder pointed out that the essence of this phrase is actually “just test it.”

For example, our podcast app would allow consumers to monetarily support their favorite podcast by enabling one-time or recurring donations and the purchase of show-related merchandise on the app. We collected data showing willingness-to-pay by consumer through a survey, and then we created a unique Google mobile-only ad for each of the distinct features, including one ad that highlighted the ability to monetarily support podcasts. We assumed that based on the click-through rate of each ad, we could deduce consumer desire for this functionality. However, an investor pointed out to us that the conversion ratio from stated willingness-to-pay into actual transactions is often low. We should have built an experiment that proved a conversion ratio that would make this app financially viable.

As an alternative approach, we could have partnered with an independent podcast creator and set up a one-time donation option on the landing page that hosts one of their podcast episodes. We could have then monitored the percentage of mobile listeners that donated through the “one-click donation” option on that page.

Slide from pitch deck showcasing mobile version of website and Google Ad, highlighting “clipping” feature that enables better sharing among listeners
  • There’s a way to fail gracefully.  

An investor shared with us a story of two founders. Both raised millions in funding through angel investors, and soon after, began facing mounting challenges within their respective businesses.

The first founder handled the situation by going “radio silent,” only to emerge months later, almost bankrupt and armed with an explanation of her business’ insurmountable difficulties. The second founder maintained a crucial line of communication with her investors. She sent monthly detailed updates about her business’s challenges and outlined key metrics, such as their burn rate (the rate at which a company spends its funds). She communicated her business’ key upcoming decisions and proactively identified contingencies and various possible outcomes. Ultimately, her business folded as well, but investors were willing to fund her again because she had handled failure with diligence, openness, and grace.

The lesson from this story was that a failing venture is not a career-ending move. If handled appropriately, it’s an opportunity to learn.

  • Should you be an entrepreneur?
    Photo: Professor Shikhar Ghosh presenting to us.

This is a burning question for many of us. Jumping from one recruiting call to another or sitting in RC TEM (The Entrepreneurial Manager) class, we continuously have this question in the back of our minds.

As we grapple with this question, it’s easy to turn outward and look to the world for answers. Research shows that successful entrepreneurs have a strong desire for autonomy and are monetarily driven. Startup culture tells us that you must be deeply passionate about the problem you’re trying to solve. During the Bootcamp, we learned that founders are driven predominantly by a love for the challenge. Their favorite part of the journey is the early days, with all of their ups and downs.

Yet in spite of some commonalities among founders and their journeys, each story is unique. Each founder is distinct and is driven by varying motivations and definitions of success. Perhaps this is the key: this choice is simply a matter of making a decision that aligns with our unique needs to find fulfillment.

Professor Shikhar Ghosh, Professor of Management Practice at HBS, shared a quote by Alain de Botton that deeply resonated with me about becoming an entrepreneur:

“What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions.”

We will always be surrounded by the opinions of others, whether from our colleagues, our customers, or our Board of Directors. Ultimately, the key to creating a successful business is cutting through this noise, discerning the underlying truth to determine the most critical elements to products’ success, and creating a path toward fulfilling the vision that aligns with our own values and priorities.

Sana Mohammed (HBS ’19) worked in marketing and sales for a major energy company in her home state of Texas before coming to HBS. Outside of work, she mobilized her passion for community building and professional development by serving as the Director of Local Engagement for Muslim Urban Professionals, a global non-profit. In her free time, she enjoys listening to podcasts (esp. Freakonomics) and blogging about her MBA journey on her Medium publication, MBA(real)Talk.