Startups Don’t Have To Be Visionary
Blog Post by ELP Student Raul Dutta (Computer Science|Class of 2021 )
When entrepreneurs think of a startup, they think of a futuristic vision with massive impact. Or do they? Turns out Discord started as a multiplayer online battle arena game. Nokia started as a paper company. Surrounded by stories of successful companies, it’s easy to get caught up in the future. I, too, don’t want to work on something that feels mundane and unimpactful, but my mind has started to change.
For a while I believed that it isn’t worth doing something just for the sake of doing something. I wanted to work on an idea with purpose; I wanted the idea to be one I would enjoy working on for at least a decade. However, it wasn’t just about the idea. I also wanted to wait to meet the right people. I felt that it was rare to find people who are both actionable and entrepreneurial in nature for similar reasons listed above.
I also feared if I threw myself into a business I didn’t care about, I would not have time to pursue better ideas if they came along. Commitment felt scary. However, I now believe that entrepreneurship isn’t a cage at all, and there is no commitment.
The way I see it, entrepreneurship isn’t about having an idea, it’s about having a skillset. Some of the largest events in the next 10 years are likely to be ones that we can’t predict, and many of those will threaten startups and existing institutions. There is only one thing you can be certain of, and that is your own ability to pivot out of any given situation.
When the pandemic hit, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky didn’t retire from Airbnb. They pivoted to online experiences as well as local bookings. In fact, in the last month, their company is on the rise again. It’s a well known truth that companies that don’t adapt will drown. So know that the idea you start your business with, does not have to be its end mission or purpose.
There is no perfect idea, and even the golden ideas are likely to change due to unforeseeable circumstances. Pivoting is easier than starting from scratch. However, pivoting is a skillset that is learned. Practicing these skills with a burner idea that you are unattached gives a feeling of safety and allows you to have a more clear minded learning approach to the experience.
The second important part of “doing” is that it leads to more opportunities. No matter what idea you work on, you will learn whether that is marketing, designing, logistics, etc. Each time you learn something new, you have an opportunity to discover a new pain point, meet new people, and explore new products. “Doing” also gives you experience both on and off the resume. Gaining credibility means opening new doors.
For a quick personal case study, the most impressive thing on my resume was neither something I was passionate about nor something that I had planned. One of my friends invited me to a hackathon last minute, and when we got there we realized there was no coding involved at all. In fact, I had accidentally signed up for my first ever pitchathon. The topic of the hackathon was how to improve predictive maintenance for the Department of Defense.
Doing something I had never done before lifted pressure off me to treat it as a learning experience. I was able to iterate my approach to the issue several times during the hackathon itself, and I pushed my team to conduct customer discovery during the pitchathon itself.
Our team happened to win the hackathon, and received a 15k contract as a result. However, just as spontaneously as we had won, the team dissipated. Two of the members weren’t citizens, so they could not continue on the contract. Another member had to take emergency PTO to Ethiopia. Out of the three members left, one became unresponsive. However, in the process I learned the importance of setting expectations, keeping paper trails, and defining ownership. While I never found a passion for the subject of the project, the skills I took away shine in both my resume and my approach to management. I also formed connections with peers and in the DOD.
Whether you’re looking for a better idea or a co-founder, you’ll be more likely to find it by going out there and creating something. You’ll also be more likely to find people similar to you: people who want to be actionable about their entrepreneurial goals. The simple act of “doing something” is perhaps the best way to brainstorm.