The Best Time to Start a Startup is Now
Blog post by ELP Student David Chang (Biomedical Engineering | Class of 2019)
Time and time again this summer, I’ve come back to the same conclusion: there’s no better time to start a startup than now.
Interning at Genomenon this summer has been a great experience and I’ve learned so much. Within the past month, I’ve made significant contributions towards various customer facing projects, and it feels great knowing that my work will help Genomenon grow. I’ve done meaningful work that will make some impact in the biomedical field, even if only a small corner of the industry.
But I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something missing, that I’m not doing what I really want to do. It’s not that I haven’t been challenged or given enough work. It has nothing to do with the company itself. Rather, my time at Genomenon has only reaffirmed what I’ve known all along: I need to start my own company.
I knew when I came to college that I wanted to start my own company. This was before I had heard the words “entrepreneurship” or “startup,” or learned of founders such as Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson. The funny thing is what made me first want to start a company was when I started tutoring kids in high school with three other friends. We called our tutoring business Mount Olive Tutors (I’m from Mount Olive, NJ), but it was hardly a business. We weren’t an official company, we only took cash, and we were charging way more than we should have been as we took advantage of rich, gullible parents who didn’t realize that Khan Academy could have done a better job than us. I became even more convinced that I should absolutely start my own business when my accounting teacher senior year made us read Rich Dad, Poor Dad and emphasized all the tax breaks you get as a business owner.
I made $30/hour running my own tutoring business, which was substantially more than the $9/hour I made working as a dishwasher in a Japanese restaurant. The easy money hooked me early on, but what I really loved about running my own business was the freedom and total independence it granted me. I could set my own hours tutoring and design my own lesson plans for students. I felt like I was in full control and I could live life on my own terms, and that feeling was intoxicating.
The summer before college, I read a book called Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think by Peter Diamandis. Written in 2012, Diamandis outlined all the technological innovations that were happening now and were going to happen over the next 25 years that would bring our world to a state of total abundance, a world of equal opportunity. The book is incredibly optimistic, but what I found most inspiring was how he illustrates the amazing ways in which small teams can change the world. Diamandis goes on to show the impact of techno-philanthropists such as Bill Gates who have used the riches they’ve made through business as a force for good.
As I learned about the amazing impact that these entrepreneurs have on the world, I felt deeply inspired and began to question my own ambitions. For most of my life up to this point, I wanted to be a doctor. I would often have conversations with my dad about this career path, about going to medical school, then residency, then fellowship, and then finally practicing by my thirties. This never sounded appealing to me, but I convinced myself that I would be patient and wait, because that’s what I had done my whole life. That’s what I did in high school. I studied hard and built my resume so that I could get into a good college, and when I got to college, I would do the same thing to get into medical school, and so forth.
Somewhere along the lines I convinced myself that medicine was my passion and that I had to become a doctor. But the truth is my interests and aspirations were largely a product of the environment in which I grew up. Nearly every adult in my family was a doctor, it was all I knew, and the career seemed respectable and beneficial to others. As college approached, I felt a great pressure to put a rigid label on my dreams, so I told myself I wanted to be a doctor because it was convenient and secure. As I became more intrigued by the startup world and my perspective shifted, I thought of how I could merge my interests in medicine with my new entrepreneurial aspirations. From the beginning of college up to the start of this summer, what I wanted to do more than anything was to start my own biotech company. That’s why I joined Genomenon.
“So what should I do if I want to start a successful biotech company?” I asked Mark as we ate lunch one day. I expressed my concerns about graduate school, explaining to him that I thought you needed to gain a specific expertise or have a Ph.D. or M.D. to have the credibility you need to start a biotech company. I don’t remember exactly what Mark said, but he urged me to stop waiting and get started right away. He told me that a big reason he decided to get an M.D. Ph.D. was because he was afraid that he didn’t know enough to get started. Every time I asked him about graduate school and working for companies to “gain experience,” he always spoke about his educational experiences with a tint of remorse and not-so-subtle attempts to steer me away from that path.
“You could get a graduate degree,” Mark said. “Or you could be the guy that’s started a bunch of successful company’s and has the credibility of a successful serial entrepreneur.” Mark told me that if he had to go back and do it again, he would much rather be the ladder. As for gaining experience, the assumption that attending more school will give you the skills you need to start your own company is certainly misguided. Sure, you may become an expert in a very specific scientific field, but that expertise is by no means directly transferable to the skills you need to start a company. I quickly realized through my internship that I can learn so much more in just a few years working for companies or my own projects that I could ever learn from a lifetime in school.
“You should get a Ph.D. if you’re happy with making small contributions that could possibly impact the world in the long-term future,” Mark said. “But if you want to make an impact now, you should become an entrepreneur.”
The lesson I took away from our conversation was this: “If you want to start a company, just start a company!”
But where to get started? Mark urged me that the projects/startups I work on, especially at the start, don’t need to be in the biomedical field. Rather, I should start off working on the simplest project possible in a field where the barriers to entry are low, where I can fail fast and learn rapidly.
“But shouldn’t I only work on things that I’m passionate about?” I asked. I thought that it was important to work on projects that I was passionate about so that I could sustain my efforts when the going gets tough. But I realized that I should instead follow any one of my many interests, get started now on the simplest idea, and try different things if that idea doesn’t go anywhere. Even if I work on a project for only a weekend, that experience of trying to start something new is a great learning experience in of itself. It’s not so much the topic you focus on that’s important so much as it is the process you go through, and the skills and mindset you develop along the way.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a lot of startup ideas. But I know that people also don’t take me seriously because I’m always talking about all my ideas without ever doing anything! The problem is that I’m always thinking too big. I build up my ideas to be some great impossible task and I quickly feel overwhelmed. With school and other commitments always present in my life, it feels impossible for me to ever get started!
Like everyone, I want to make a big impact on the world. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my internship, it’s that to make a big impact, I must start small, take baby steps, and always keep the minimum viable product (MVP) in mind. I need to do something every day, even if I’m only making a minor contribution to my project. Mark has said to me, “Your ambition must scale with your skills.” If you work on side projects every day, you’ll grow and gain the skills you need, so that eventually you’ll be empowered to tackle the big problems you’ve always wanted to solve. Don’t let the magnitude of your ambitions freeze you in your tracks. Get started today!
When I talk to people about my ambitions to start my own company, the first thing most people will tell me is to “gain some experience first.” Go get a job, work for a big company, learn about the industry, gain skills, build your network. The funny thing is, almost none of those people are speaking from personal experience. While the statistics may show that the average founder is roughly 42 years old and older founders are more likely to succeed than younger ones, age is no indicator for success if you’re not gaining the right experiences. Working for other people may teach you everything there is to know about company dynamics and the industry, but none of this knowledge will prepare you for the real deal of starting a company. Interning at a startup has been truly a luxury and has given me greater confidence that I can succeed in starting my own company, but I know not to delude myself into thinking that I now know everything I need to know to succeed.
There are various entrepreneurs who started their ventures young and others who were late bloomers. We want to believe there’s an optimal career path for an entrepreneur, that there’s a magic formula we can apply that will ensure success. But the truth is there’s no perfect path. Entrepreneurship is messy and imperfect and unpredictable, and that’s part of what makes it so challenging and scary, and yet so exciting and fulfilling. One thing, however, is clear. No one is perfect the first time, so you’ve got to start creating companies now, and get in the habit of entrepreneurship. There truly is no substitute for the real deal.
I still don’t know what I’ll do when I graduate college. But I know that I need to get started on something now, something that I can take ownership over and grow from. So long as I’m learning something from these projects, whether that’s improving teamwork skills or becoming a better coder, then these experiences will be worthwhile, even if those projects fail. I think that you need to mess around a bit and try things. You need to be willing to give a project a go for a week or a month or even a year. Because let’s face it, us college students like to tout how busy we are and how valuable our time is. But the reality is that we have more time than we ever will, so we might as well mess around working on projects that we find engaging. After all, those fun side gigs, those late-night ideas you joke around with your friends – one of those jokes may one day grow into a serious venture that you will devote yourself to for the long haul and through which you will find fulfillment and purpose. But only if you get started.