Tom Weingarten: An entrepreneur never truly has a “first startup”.
Tom Weingarten is a life-long entrepreneur. Tom received his PhD from NYU's Program in Computational Biology in 2012. After graduation, he co-founded Wiser, an online platform that delivers the news and insights people and their working group need to succeed every day.
An entrepreneur never truly has a “first startup” because entrepreneurship is born from a combination of character traits inside of us our whole lives. Tom Weingarten is the perfect example. While technically the first time he incorporated a company was in 2010, he has been an entrepreneur all his life. Entrepreneurs are always starting things. As a kid, his parents would send bags of candy to him at camp. Instead of tearing into the sweets like the rest of the kids, he decided to sell his for preferred bunk space and favors. In his teenage years he became intensely interested in computers and taught himself how to code before it was cool. He started building simple online games and, through a program with AOL that no longer exists, traded his code for AOL Member Network credits and earned free internet access for his family. It was at this moment that he realized business is not just about reselling things, but that people will pay you for new innovative ideas and creations. Tom has been a lifelong entrepreneur and the following interview is a peak into his intensely creative and focused mind.
Your career started in academia. What was the reaction by your academic peers/professors when you deviated from the Phd path?
Truthfully, at first I felt I had to hide the fact that I was planning to leave academia. I kept my plans quiet. But once I started sharing the secret with my closest confidants, I realized I was not ditching one path for another. An advanced degree is a form of entrepreneurship. When picking and writing your dissertation, you are creating something that has never been created before.
You abide by the lean methodology. What are some principles you feel are essential for first time entrepreneurs to apply.
Get out of the building - one of my favorite parts of customer discovery and the lean methodology. Everyone talks about getting out of the building - and it is for a reason - you need to do it. Make a plan before you leave the building - do not just walk out into the sunlight without knowing where you are going and who you want to talk to. Finally, you should assume every assumption you have is incorrect. You might get lucky and have a few turn out to be true, but you should start by assuming everything you think you know is wrong.
What obstacles did you not anticipate? What support systems have you set up to prevent this in the future?
I did not anticipate how much of my time managing small teams of engineers would consume. When you start a company and need to build a team of engineers, you expect the hiring process to be difficult. You also expect some of your time to be spent solving conflicts within the team. But, I never anticipated how consuming the day-to-day management of teams can be. I currently have an individual meeting with each of my engineers every two weeks - but you have to walk the thin line of being a good manager and micromanaging.
What are some resources, both outside and inside of NYU, you would recommend to student entrepreneurs?
Outside of NYU you should look for meetups. Do not spend all of your time socializing at networking events, but you want to set aside enough time to network and find your future co-founders, employees, investors and customers. You should check out NY Tech Day and specifically look for events that are in your area of interest.
Inside NYU, the two best resources are entrepreneurship professors - who often have a lot of experience - and research librarians. Many people think libraries are a waste now that everything can be Googled, but research librarians are far more than people sitting at the sign-out desk. They are often extremely well-read and very knowledgeable. If you’re trying to learn about a certain topic, they are an amazing resource.
When you are a student, you most likely will co-found with another student. A great way to find other students is through student interest groups to help you meet other students interested in the same things. Also, when you are a student you can email anyone. When you are a student, you can assume everyone wants to help you because businessmen do not see students as potential competitors or threats to power. Use this to your advantage and start to build relationships while you are still in school.
What other general advice have you learned the hard way and want to share with the world?
Many people do not like to talk about money, but you should try to find a co-founder in secure financial setting. You never know how long you may need to operate without outside funding. This was not a problem I faced personally, but I have seen many other startups deal with this problem.
Learning to estimate how long a task will take is an incredibly difficult and important skill. This is especially important when you have an enterprise product. People expect you to hit your timeline estimates. Hitting those milestones depends on properly estimating how much time each task will take from your busy day.
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