Four young entrepreneurs who launched and grew start-up ventures while they were students at the University of Michigan shared their insights during a panel discussion at Entrepalooza 2014. A common theme resonating throughout their discussion was the competitive advantage they gained by utilizing the resources available through the Zell Lurie Institute, the Ross School of Business and the Center for Entrepreneurship at the College of Engineering.
“I have a wife and three kids, so I couldn’t take a year off to start a company,” said Tyler Paxton, MBA ’11, the founder of Are You A Human, which uses minigames to replace annoying CAPTCHA programs to protect websites against bots and to verify users are actual people. “Enrolling in the MBA program at Ross gave me two years to work on a start-up in a supportive environment where I had access to resources and financing. This was a huge enabler. I participated in everything the Zell Lurie Institute offers for entrepreneurship, including the Dare to Dream grant program and the TechArb student business incubator. I also did an eMAP (entrepreneurial Multidisciplinary Action Project) and internship. I even found our company’s lead investor through a U-M event.”
“I picked Michigan because I liked the people, and the Ross network is fantastic,” remarked Cavan Canavan, MBA ’12, the co-founder of Focus, a centralized motion recognition and insight platform that empowers the emerging ecosystem of health and fitness wearable developers.
He and his partner, Grant Hughes, MBA/MS’13, used funding from a Mayleben Family Venture Shaping grant and a Dare to Dream start-up grant to hone their market focus and tone up their business plan. With coaching from Zell Lurie Program Manager Sarika Gupta, Focus catapulted to a first-place finish in the final round of the 2013 Michigan Business Challenge, winning the $20,000 Pryor-Hale Award for Best Business.
The four panelists also weighed in on some of the common issues around new venture creation, start-up launch and emerging company growth.
It’s all about execution:
“People think of ideas all the time,” said Paul Schrems, Eng Sys MSE ’12, the co-founder and director of product development at TurtleCell, which has developed a retractable headphone case for the iPhone 5/5s. “But [entrepreneurship is really about] people who can execute and turn those ideas into a business.”
“It’s not the idea, it’s the execution,” Canavan added. “When you are pitching to investors, you have to convince them that you will the person to do it better.”
Build a strong team:
“Building a strong team around you is one of the most important things a start-up founder can do,” Paxton said. “You have to learn when to hire contractors.”
“An entrepreneur can have any kind of educational background and must be willing to learn,” explained Danny Ellis, MSE Aerosp ’13, BSE Aerosp ’11, the co-founder and CEO of SkySpecs, a company that builds flying robots. “There will always be holes, so hire the skill sets you don’t have.”
Business partners make sense:
“People have no idea of how much time it takes to get all the cogs up and running in a start-up,” Schrems said. “There are just not enough hours in the day. A business partner can help you get things done and be someone to rely on. It becomes a journey, like sailing around the world with a best friend.”
“I have four business partners, which is a lot,” Ellis explained. “One or two might be better. It’s good to hear other voices and get other perspectives that can help you make the right decisions.”
Networking is key:
“One of the biggest mistakes an entrepreneur can make is not talking to anyone else about his or her idea,” Schrems noted. “It’s important to get connected.”
“The secret to success is networking,” Ellis agreed. “You get 99 people who say no and one who says yes. We’ve found investors in the most random places by networking and talking to everyone.”
Advisers play an important role:
“We have formal advisers, including Hollywood celebrity trainer Ashley Conrad and former Wolverine athletic strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis,” Canavan remarked. “We use their networks, knowledge and pitch points. Now we also have technical advisers and financial advisers who help us with pitching to investors.”
“We have an official board of advisers and a group of 50 unofficial advisors who are interested in and passionate about what we are doing,” Ellis explained. “We keep them informed and generate buzz. We get a lot of advice.”
Failure isn’t all bad:
“Fail often and learn from it,” Schrems advised. “A lot of things don’t work. We fail a lot. It is a way to get to a better solution.”
Entrepreneurship has its own rewards:
“I turned down six-figure job offers from SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, and I don’t regret my decision,” Ellis remarked. “Now I’m working on something I’m passionate about and have control over. It’s much better than working in a corporate cubicle. My recommendation is to try entrepreneurship. You have nothing to lose. You’ll get that high paycheck someday.”