Greenhorn Guide for Getting Started

Whether you woke up yesterday and decided you want to be an entrepreneur or have been tinkering with some ideas on your own, there’s a lot to consider when you’re an aspiring young entrepreneur. This guide intends to give you a checklist of what to do to significantly increase your likelihood of success.

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Here’s a breakdown of the different sections:

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PART I: Starting from Scratch

You recently had the epiphany you want to be an entrepreneur, but really haven’t gotten started yet. Here’s what to do…

1) Is this for You?

When you first decide you are really interested in entrepreneurship, the key is to get informed. It’s easy to say you love startups, but it’s another thing to truly understand what you’re saying. The best way to determine if it is for you is to start reading. Read inspirational articles written by entrepreneurs like Ken Morse, Paul Graham and Mark Cuban. Still interested? Talk to family and friends and try to find people who are entrepreneurs that you can talk to about what it’s like. After hearing about all the challenges, long hours and risk of failure, if you still want to be an entrepreneur, read on…

2) Try EVERYTHING… Be Curious

A key trait of being an entrepreneur is a desire to learn. When you’re getting started, you should try to take in everything you can to learn about different types of startups and roles you can fill in a startup. Fill your Google Reader with industries you’re interested in and blogs in areas you want to learn more about. You don’t have to read every article, just the ones that interest you; simply reading the headlines of the other articles can help you to grasp where different industries are technologically. There are also great websites, magazines, books, and presentations you can check out. Ask other entrepreneurs what they read. Add what you like to your list and leave the rest.

3) Overwhelmed? Don’t know where to start?

If you really need a few starting points, here’s a few sites, blogs and items I personally like best (note: This is somewhat Boston biased, because that’s where I live. Find things in your area to get a view of your local entrepreneurship scene):

The takeaway from this is not to copy me; instead, notice the diversity. There are newspapers, tech focused media, business sources and established entrepreneur blogs.  The idea is to get as many perspectives as you can. Try to build a similar list based on your passions and location.

4) Study those you Admire

As you immerse yourself in all of this entrepreneurial content, you’ll start to find certain personalities and businesses keep coming up. Find the ones that resonate most with you and follow them more closely. If the founder of the company has a blog, read it. If they have a book, buy it. If they’re going to be speaking and you have a chance to see them live or on video, watch it. And if you are fortunate enough to have the chance to sit down with them, make the most of it. Focus on how they got where they are. Learn from their mistakes and try to understand what made them successful and emulate that.

Still in love with entrepreneurship after starting the learning process?

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PART II: Getting Out There

You’ve read a lot about startups and love every minute. You’re starting to take interests in specific industries and startups and may have a few ideas of your own. How do you get “plugged in” to the community?

1) What’s Out There?

If you ask any established entrepreneur what events are out there, they’ll tell you that there are too many to count. If you ask the average aspiring young entrepreneur the same question, they’ll give you a blank stare. So how do you go from nothing to trying to be 3 places in the same night?

 

First, take a look at lists of the entrepreneurial organizations in your area. Pay particular attention to those in industries of your interest. Check out their sites and you’ll find out about any events they hold. Use your twitter account (if you don’t have one, get one now), start following those organizations as they’ll tweet any new events they or their partner organizations are holding. You can then also find a number of great calendars listing specific events.

2) Where to Start?

Similar to reading material mentioned in Part I, there’s an impressive number of events to consider attending. It can be intimidating to get out there at first, so to build your confidence up, here’s a list of the best organizations in Boston for young entrepreneurs:

There’s also some great competitions that welcome young entrepreneurs (Mass Challenge & MIT 100K), an organization that will help cover event costs and a site dedicated to delivering all relevant events, organizations and resources for young entrepreneurs.

3) Look the Part

Most events take place in the evening so it’s a slightly relaxed environment, but it still means you need to be prepared:

 

Dress the part: No one wears a suit or tie to the majority of these events, so don’t worry too much. Just make sure you’re not wearing that wrinkly, smelly shirt from the corner of your room and that you’re generally put together. A good rule of thumb for dress is that the higher the cost of the event, the better the dress required and if the event is during the day on a weekday, it will also be more formal (usually suits or sports coats with no tie). If in doubt, ask the event organizers or look at pictures from previous occurrences of the event.

 

Have a Business Card: The reason you’re getting out there is to make connections with others in the community. Business cards are the currency at these events, so make sure you have one. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, and you’re not expected to have a startup even; simply having a card with your name, email, twitter id, and phone number is very effective. If you don’t have a company, don’t be afraid to list some of your entrepreneurial interests on there (i.e.- “Cleantech Enthusiast”). For about $15 you can get at home business cards that you can make with Microsoft Word and your printer. Most people won’t notice the difference or care.

 

Have a LinkedIn profile: LinkedIn is your online resume and contacts manager. After events, go on LinkedIn and look up the people whose cards you got. Request to connect with them and mention something about meeting them that night in the request message; people appreciate personalization and it shows you were listening. Don’t feel like you have enough to list on LinkedIn? Add all your work experience you can, including internships and if substantial, volunteer work. If you’ve done any interesting side projects, list them. And of course, go into detail regarding your education, so people see what your skills and interests are.

4) What to Expect

Many of these events are crowded and overflowing with energy. There will be clusters of people talking excitedly about their startup or a topic of interest to entrepreneurs. It can be intimidating at first, but try your best to be confident and extroverted. Remember, if you’ve been reading about the community, there’s a great chance you are familiar with the topic they’re discussing, so don’t be afraid to jump into the conversation. Cort Johnson, the leader of the young entrepreneur organization, Dart Boston, wrote a great piece about what most of the community is like. Be prepared for it and you’ll be fine. Asking a good question will always impress older members of the community as it demonstrates your understanding of a topic and a desire to learn more. Try to think of a few questions that come up as you’re doing your daily reading/skimming and bring them with you to an event.

5) Be Patient

Not every person you meet is going to be the perfect connection and not every event will be of great value to you. Try to take away at least one good contact from each event you attend and make note of what events you like best. Try to return to those events and similar ones. When you meet people you do make a good connection with, ask them what events they like going to and try them out if you haven’t already. After a while of doing this, you’ll settle in and find that there are certain events you look forward to every week and some people that you always see at events. The great thing about seeing the same people is that you can “warm up” by saying hello to them at an event before going out and talking with new people.

6) Keep it in Perspective

Networking is an important part of being an entrepreneur; it helps build the connections that will help you find what you need to make your business successful. It also introduces you to other people with the same “genetic defect” you have, which can be reaffirming. Remember, going to events should be enjoyable and provide some great learning opportunities; if you aren’t having fun, you’re either going to the wrong events or doing something wrong. And if you’re actually missing spending your nights in front of the TV, entrepreneurship may not be for you.

 

In the end, networking is just a small part of the process of being an entrepreneur. It’s a tool along with many others. Any startup is dependent on customers, which are usually not your fellow entrepreneurs. So, don’t get too caught up in networking and forget about them.

 

Are you getting your feet wet by networking and attending community events?

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PART III: Building a Reputation, Network and a Following

You’re out in the community meeting people, reading and learning…now it’s time to establish a reputation and build a following. Here’s how.

1) Understand Ideas are Free

It’s easy to get in the mindset that someone will steal your idea and that you’re giving away something of value by talking to others about their ideas. This is completely the wrong mindset. Sharing ideas is exactly what you want to do. It has an incredible amount of benefits:

A) It gets your ideas out of your head and refined by others. As the CEO of Zipcar said, “every person you meet is a free consultant.”

B) Everyone in the community wants to help each other. If they can’t directly help you, they are more than happy to connect you with someone they know that can help. They can’t help you if they don’t know what your ideas are.

C) It builds credibility. People recognize and remember those that share good ideas and ask good questions.

In the end, ideas are like a boomerang; the more you share your thoughts with others, they more they’ll share theirs with you. No one will steal your idea, because they’re already working on what they’re passionate about and your passion will always trump someone who is just copying you.

2) Actions Speak Louder…

As a young entrepreneur, you have to build your reputation from scratch. This means that everything you do makes a small contribution to how people judge you. The best way to build this reputation is through consistently displaying the qualities people look for. Are you eager to learn? Do you ask questions and share ideas? Do you follow through on everything you say you’ll do? Do you help others? Are you honest? If you under-promise and over-deliver, you will always impress people. Pay it forward and you’ll be amazed at what others will do for you.

3) Use Twitter

It’s great to be up to date on your industries of interest and the trends and topics of the day for entrepreneurs, but to really make a contribution and get involved, you need to be an active part of the conversation. The easiest way to do this is with Twitter.

You should already be on twitter, seeing what events are being shared as well as articles and ideas. You can do the same thing. If you like something someone already shared, give it a retweet. If you read something really interesting, make a comment about it and link to it in a tweet. If you have a question for the community, ask it. You never know who might see it.

Also, in addition to connecting with people on linkedin, follow those people and others you see in the community on twitter. They’ll usually follow you back, which leads to an audience that will notice what you have to say.

4) Start a Blog

If you have more to say than 140 characters allows, you should consider starting a blog. It’s a great way to share your thoughts, questions and ideas on an issue or just share an experience you had. It also works great with Twitter as you can tweet your entry and if people like it, it will get re-tweeted and more people will read it (and likely start following you).

If you have the passion for writing out your ideas in blog form, then go for it. To truly be effective, you need to blog a few times a week or once a week at absolute minimum. At first that my seem daunting, but in my experience, that’s not as hard as it seems. There are many great ideas out there for what to blog about; just decide what your blog’s focus will be and give it a shot. If you’re passionate about the subject, you’ll find that writing about it will come much more naturally than your last report for school or work.

There are a lot of great tips for getting started: Here, Here and Here.

5) Tie it All Together

By now you should be on Twitter, LinkedIn and maybe even have a blog. You’re also out there at events. This means you’re now part of both the real and virtual conversation. To best utilize them, tie them all together.

LinkedIn gives you the ability to directly feed your blog into your LinkedIn page and to provide up to 3 links to other sites from your profile. These links should be your Twitter profile, your blog and yourstartup, when you have one. Meanwhile, Twitter allows you to link directly to one site, so you should then tie it to your blog or LinkedIn. Finally, most blogs allow for links, so you should link to your Twitter account, LinkedIn and your company.

By doing this, you create a net. No matter how people find you, they can find out everything about you with just a few clicks. This can be really valuable, as anyone can see what you write about (your blog), what your thoughts are (Twitter) and your background/experience (LinkedIn). This really works. I actually got a job because of my blog; they were able to see my background and interests and out of the blue asked to meet with me.
If you say things that resonate with people, you never know what can happen.

Are you a part of the conversation?

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PART IV: Working on Your Idea

You’re takin part in the conversation and have built a network. You finally have that great idea you want to pursue. Now what?

1) Vet Your Idea

Just like you did your homework before going out to networking events, you need to again dig in and do some work. With all of the technology at our fingertips, it has never been easier to research a business. To get started, you need to consider trying the following:

A) Search using Google and Twitter for key terms related to the problem you’re solving. This will give you an idea of how many people have the problem you’re solving as well as show you who your competition may be.
B) Search the companies you found that are competition. Are their customers satisfied? Is your idea superior in some way? Industry forums and message boards are great, free focus groups.
C) Consider how your idea creates value both for the user and your business. You need to be able to make more money than it costs to produce.
D) Talk to your target customers! Understand their problems…confirm or disprove your assumptions.
E) Search out additional resources for suggestions for vetting your idea.

The key is to have answered the basic questions of your business: What is the problem you are solving? How are you solving it? Do you have a basic business model that could be profitable? How are you different than the competition? These are the first questions any fellow entrepreneur you meet will ask you.

2) Build a Team

Everyone remembers having those terrible project groups in school. At times you probably said, “I could do this all myself and it would be done better and faster.” Well, in the real world, you’d often be wrong.

There is great debate over whether solo entrepreneurs are as likely to succeed as teams, and really the answer is that this is a gray area. The type of business idea you have will greatly affect the number of people needed to execute your plan. If it’s a smaller business, it is very likely that you can use consultants and contract work to cover the skills you lack. It has never been easier to do this thanks to sites like 99designs, MFG and Outright.

The best reason for having a team is diversity. You need a variety of skills to run a business as well as the ability to handle many different situations. It is unlikely that you are great at engineering, sales, finance and management. By building a team, you bring multiple perspectives to your business and can focus on what you’re best at. In my experience, just having someone to bounce ideas off of and talk through problems is priceless. And if you need a technical co-founder, your best advice comes from fellow young entrepreneur Kabir for how to find them.

All this being said, if you choose to build a team you have to be very careful in who you choose to be on your team. Choosing a co-founder is like a marriage, only you’ll spend more time with your co-founder than your significant other. You want this person to be a good business compliment as well as someone you get along with, so they may not be your roommate or best friend.

3) Organize Your Thoughts

There is an ongoing debate over the necessity for writing a business plan, but there is agreement on one concept: you need to think about all the parts that would go into a plan. When you’re getting started, you don’t need to have all the answers to the questions posed in a business plan, but you do need to start thinking about them. When you go out and start talking to people about your idea, those are the questions you will most likely be asked. There are a number of great resources out there to help you with this.

4) Get Out There

The best thing you can do to help your business develop is to get out there. Watch how people react to your pitch and try to refine it. Take note of what questions they have and any issues they raise (try to find some answers). If you have an issue, don’t be afraid to ask others for assistance; often, even if they can’t help you, they’ll refer you to someone who can. Through this process you may even find a key member of your team.

 

You’ve got an idea, you’re refining it and building your team…

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PART V: Making it official

You’ve vetted the idea and have a small team, here’s what you do to get serious and launch your business.

1) Get a Name and Social Media set up:

It’s important to have a name for your business. It needs to be simple, memorable and relevant to your area of work. If it’s hard to spell, people won’t remember it. If they don’t see the connection to your business, it can also be forgettable. There are more tips for naming your business here. Make sure the URL for your name is available as a “dot com.” If it’s not, either negotiate to buy it (if it’s not in use) or for another name.

Once you have chosen your name, you need to secure it in social media. Go grab the name on Twitter, create a fan page on Facebook (you don’t have to publish it yet), and secure other social media usernames you think you might use (Youtube, Flickr, etc). If you’re finding that many of them aren’t available, you may want to consider looking for a different name. Dharmesh Shah and Brian Halligan’s book, Inbound Marketing has a great checklist for startups for this area. Start using them to build a buzz for your company before you launch. Get involved in the conversation and gather a following.

2) Choose Your Service Providers

When you get started, the first service provider you’re going to need is a lawyer. Ben Hron of VCReady Law wrote a great post about when it’s time to formalize your business. You definitely do not want to wait too long to do this. Incorporating or forming an LLC not only protects you from personal liability, but it forces you to put in writing your agreements with any partner you have. You can do online forms to get this done yourself , but as the saying goes, “you wouldn’t do your own surgery, so why would you do your own legal work?” Facebook started as a Florida LLC and had to have that undone when they moved to Silicon Valley. Do it right the first time and you’ll save yourself a lot of time and money later.

Once you’ve created your business as a legal entity, you’ll need to get a bank account opened and start keeping good financial records for your business. You can do these yourself, or there are always good bookkeepers and accountants out there to help as your business grows in complexity.

When you’re selecting your service providers, remember that they’re an extension of your business team; choose people you feel comfortable with and who share your vision. You should feel like they’re on your side and can help your business grow and develop. If you feel like your service provider doesn’t understand you or that you have to be on the defensive against them, you should keep looking. It’s worth a week or two delay to find the right one.

3) Get an Alpha Out There (aka – Find Customers)

The best way to prove your idea is to get out there and find customers. This can be a splash page for your website simply asking people to give you their email address if they’re interested in your product (have a few fake screenshots or other information explaining what you are). There’s a lot of great content out there about releasing your Minimum Viable Product (MVP) by Eric Ries and in Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany. It’s a lot better to develop your product with your customers giving feedback than trying to prognosticate amongst your team in a bubble. You’ll also build buzz for your product this way.

In the end, any business is about finding people to pay for what you are providing. The incubator program, Y Combinator, emphasizes this best with their shirts they give to new entrants to their program:“Build Something People Want.” Once you find your first customers, you can adapt your product, remove the warts and account for their feedback. Be careful! Though you want to listen to your customers, you do not want to use them to create an infinite feature list. “Feature creep” can easily derail a product. Focus on being very good at a few things and deliver that to customers that are looking for those solutions. This is not easy… we struggle with this at Greenhorn Connect all of the time.

If you've built your team, launched a product and have customers, you're well on your way to being a successful entrepreneur.  I hope you found this guide helpful. My final question for you in this guide is:

What have you learned and how will you share it?

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