Lessons learned from starting my first company while at NYU
My name is Ben and I am the founder of Hublished. I am also a senior at NYU studying economics.
I co-founded Hublished during my freshman year just after I had turned 20. Deciding to start the company was a decision that was not made lightly nor without considerable thought. What I did not anticipate, however, were the number of people who would write me off from the get-go. I think that was especially demoralizing in the beginning and made me question if I was really pursuing the right path.
Two years later, I could not be happier or prouder of the decision that my co-founders and I made to start the business. I know it was the right decision because we have stared adversity in the face and overcome it. College has played an important role in dealing with much of the adversity we faced in the early days. I want to share with you some of those business (and life) lessons learned.
You are always in control
During the first semester of my freshman year I had the chance to take a class with NYU President, John Sexton, on religion in the Supreme Court. During the class, I met one of his chief administrators, Dan Evans. Dan and I became close over the course of my freshman year. We met frequently to discuss topics that ranged from religion to foreign affairs.
Dan created an environment where I could give him my opinion-my real feelings on a subject-without feeling badly or being judged for them. I think we take this for granted when you think about it. How often can you say what you feel or think in an academic environment without mincing words? Even in a college classroom, the professor often dilutes or guides the discussion with tremendous bias. Dan gave me an outlet where intellectual honesty came first and everything else came second. He accepted me for who I was and fostered my growth as an independent thinker.
As an entrepreneur, the ability to think independently beyond your initial idea is an existential necessity. I can’t tell you how much advice I have been given by “big-time” VC types or “industry experts” that had we followed we would have been out of business months ago. There has also been some really valuable input we have been given along the way as well, but the key is that as the entrepreneur it is in your hands to decide what is worth pursuing and what is not. YOU are always in control.
Talk is cheap
During the spring semester of my freshman year, I participated in a class taught by Lawrence Lenihan (MD at FirstMark Capital) called ReadyFire!Aim. The class broke up into groups to work on a concept throughout the semester. The thesis of the class was to build, test and adjust your model on the go and not waste time planning.
Lawrence told us that he would invest his teaching salary into the concept that made the most traction-and boy did he hold to it. In fact, he didn’t invest in anyone immediately after the class because he assessed that no team had made enough progress (see his version of it here). He was right, though. After the class we hadn’t really listened to him and we only had a high functioning power point to show for it. It was essentially worthless in the scheme of things. We had come no closer to validating any of our business assumptions.
After the class was over, we decided to take his feedback to heart. In the summer after my freshman year (2012) we raised initial capital and brought on some tech talent. It took us almost 10 months from the end of the class, but we eventually proved to Lawrence that we made enough traction to earn his investment (see the TechCrunch interview here).
Lawrence easily could have made the investment in month 6, but he made us sweat for it. I was kind of annoyed at the time-like what the hell does this guy want from me-you know? Entrepreneurs tend to be passionate and with passion often comes a lot of talk. Lawrence taught me that talk is cheap and hard work pays off. As an entrepreneur, you need to stay focused on those one or two initiatives at any given time that are going to move your business forward and put everything else on the to-do list. Prioritization that leads to actionable progress will take your business to the next level. Everything else is just a distraction.
When I returned to school for my sophomore year in the fall of 2012 we entered into the NYU Venture Competition. It was a year long competition that featured the most promising start-ups founded by NYU students and alumni. Fast forward a few months into the competition to the spring semester of 2013 and we were pitching to a group of investors who would determine if we would make the final round.
During the course of the competition I had the opportunity to work with Neil Rader, the COO of NYU Stern. Two days before we were going to present to the panel of investors at the semi-final round, I pitched to Neil and man was it awful. The pitch made no sense. Mind you, I had worked with Neil for weeks leading up to that pitch and I am still shocked that he had not thrown me out of his office for the garbage I brought in there.
To my pleasant surprise, Neil calmly stripped down our pitch and helped me piece it back together. While we didn’t make into the final round, I knew it was the best pitch I had given to date. I think Neil rated it a B+ performance, which was way up from the failing performance I had delivered just two days earlier. It was a huge day for the company and for me. Neil could have given up on me, but he remained calm and it paid off in a big way.
Running a start-up is basically like riding on an emotional roller coaster with huge ups and downs. The ability to remain calm-no matter the obstacle before you- can be the difference between success and failure.
Flexibility is key
While we didn’t make it to the final round of the competition, there were two people in the audience the day of that semi-final pitch that altered the course of our company and we haven’t looked back since. Owen Davis (NYC Seed) and Brian Malkerson (now TapCommerce) from NYC SeedStart were opening the first class of an enterprise accelerator backed by 5 venture funds and the state of New York. They liked the pitch and invited us in for an interview. Being accepted into the program for the summer of 2013 put us on a short list of companies that the investment community thought had a shot of making it. Coming in to the summer program spirits were high, but that lasted for a very short period of time.
The accelerator was located in 2 of the NYU Poly incubators. First in DUMBO and then on Varick St. On day 2, Owen called a meeting with our executive team and immediately started prying us to explain how we were going to generate revenue. We had no idea at the time. As an enterprise software, he justifiably found this unacceptable. Every time we met he remained steadfast in his opinion on the matter. Naturally, I fought back and defended our current strategy. These exercises became so ridiculously demoralizing at times that I considered not showing up again.
We ended up refocusing our model from a social media platform to a software-as-a-service business. It was difficult to abandon our original model because that is what we set out (and raised money) to build. Being flexible about your model, especially in the early stages, is important. Many great businesses are started that way and while we like to think we have it all figured out from day 1, that is usually not the case. (See more details about our pivot on my co-founder’s blog).
“Make your mark in New York and you are a made man”
For me, college has been much more about the relationships I have forged than about what I have learned in the classroom. Because those relationships were developed on the basis of my growth, rather than business, they allowed me to grow personally in ways that a typical business relationship would not permit.
As any entrepreneur will probably tell you, starting a business is the best and worst experience of their lives. The one thing that is for sure is it causes you to dig down deep and really get to know yourself-your strengths and your weaknesses. You have to be honest when running a business because the truth will eventually prevail and reality will always set in.
If Hublished will be the next billion dollar company or just a viable business remains to be seen. I know I won’t give it up until I know the answer to that question.
Whatever the case may be, I will have no regret about starting the company while in school. What better time to stretch your emotional and mental capacity to its limits?
I am curious to hear if you have an idea (if you are a student or not) and you are hesitant to take the plunge and start a business. What is stopping you? What are you most afraid of?