Our first session at Stanford University’s StartX accelerator is coming to a close. It’s the perfect time to collect my thoughts on the top 10 things I learned at StartX these past months.
- Startups are hard
- Medical startups are even harder
- There’s torrential chaos behind every success story
- You know more than you think you know
- You know less than you think you know
- Evaluating the advice you receive is critical
- People will help you if you ask
- Grit is more valuable than intellect
- Grit without intellect is suicide
- There is always a way through
1. Startups are hard
A big part of the StartX experience is to share your stories with fellow founders. One of the key things you learn right away is that everyone, regardless of stage of funding and business, has big problems to solve. Funding. Customers. Traction. Recruiting. Competition. All of these things are amplified when you have limited resources and climbing uphill. Every day we are exposed to some of the brightest people on the planet, and I assure you, it’s hard for them too.
2. Medical startups are even harder
Having helped build three different consumer based internet startups, I was blissfully unaware of the extra burden that comes with a medical based startup. In consumer you build and deliver with no delay, and immediately get feedback on your work. Iterations are fast because you are directly connected to the end user. In the medical world you build and test, build and test, and then do some more building and testing. Despite shaving years of the drug discovery process, it will take quite some time before any of our work makes it into a human being. It’s why medical companies stay in StartX for two sessions, while other companies stay for one.
3. There’s torrential chaos behind every success story
The StartX community includes many serial entrepreneurs who share their stories. The outside world is exposed to the big exits, the signed deals and the brand-name VC investments. What the world doesn’t hear about is the twists and turns of deals gone bad, employees who need to be dismissed, or investors who push entrepreneurs in the wrong direction. The craziest story I’ve heard at StartX is from an entrepreneur who built a successful company only to have an unscrupulous contractor drain the bank account and walk away with all the cash.
4. You know more than you think you know
I was surprised to find how helpful I could be to other StartX companies. While I’m yet to be a part of a billion-dollar exit, my role as CTO in my prior startups gave me more experience and wisdom that I had previously recognized. Every StartX founder has deep expertise or experience in a wide array of disciplines. Some of the best advice we’ve gotten to date, on pitching and selling, has come from other founders in the session with us.
5. You know less than you think you know
Every day the StartX community fills another gap in our knowledge. We speculate on the future and what we think it will take to conclude a successful scientific experiment, close a deal, or raise money. The community here offers their shared experience and allows us to think about things we had never considered before. What we’ve learned about working deals in the pharmaceutical space has been pure gold.
6. Evaluating the advice you receive is critical
StartX puts you in front of people who advise you all the time. Sometimes this advice is solicited by us, other times we receive it without asking. What we find is that often the experts disagree on what is our best path forward. We need to decide which mentors we think are best aligned with our world, and which are off the mark. The process of choosing which advice to follow is often more important that getting the advice itself. In retrospect, we realize we have sometimes received misaligned or mistimed advice from highly successful people. It’s sometimes tough to filter that advice given the high-profiles of those who advise us.
7. People will help you if you ask
There is a culture of mutual assistance at StartX. Part of being a founder in the community is actively helping others while being open about asking for help yourself. We quickly learned this applies outside of the walls of StartX as well. We’ve received help from world-renowned professors, CEOs of billion dollar companies, and scientific leaders from around the world – simply by asking – often with nothing expected in return.
8. Grit is more valuable than intellect
We are exposed to over fifty companies here at StartX. The ones we see making the most progress are those that take multiple hits on the chin and keep moving. Startups are about endless mini-failures that can wear down anyone without resolve. The mental attitude that backs up a culture of perseverance is a key factor behind those that make it and those that evaporate.
9. Grit without intellect is suicide
It’s a challenge to put a pencil in one of my ears and pull it out of the other. That doesn’t mean it’s a challenge worth pursuing. Part of accepting mentorship is being able to admit that your plans aren’t going to work. It’s sometimes tough to let go of what your heart says to do and listen to your head.
10. There is always a way through
We admire our peer companies that hit what seems like an impenetrable wall, only to wiggle and worm and find a way to get through. We’ve learned that every challenge has a solution as long as you are signed up to find it. Sometimes you need to grit your teeth and climb the mountain. Sometimes the fastest path is to hike around the mountain. In very special cases you can eliminate the mountain all together,