Aspiring entrepreneurs got advice from their more seasoned counterparts as part of the Dingman Center’s Jumpstart program. Jumpstart is an intensive 5-day bootcamp where teams of University of Maryland students and alumni take a deep dive into building and refining their business model. The week features hands-on workshops and interactive advising sessions led by successful entrepreneurs, business executives, faculty and investors.
During a discussion panel on Friday, August 24, five successful young entrepreneurs gave their aspiring counterparts some sage advice on how to launch and grow a new venture.
Each of the entrepreneurs had a story to tell. Rami Essaid’s company, Distil, helps firms identify and block malicious attackes on their websites. Essaid had been working for a cloud security company and found that no product on the market provided exactly what his company’s customers needed. He started doing market research and within a month was so convinced of the potential that he quit his job and started working on the company. Nine months later, he got his first round of venture financing and convinced his friends to quit THEIR jobs to join him. Distil now has 15 employees.
Essaid urged students to “learn their customers.” “I reached out to digital publishers to see if they were willing to pay for this product. That helped me in my decision to move forward,” says Essaid. “They were the ones who shaped the initial product. They had access for free, I didn't charge them for the beta. That allowed me to do market research and refine [the product], and then turn them into my initial paying customers.”
Elise Whang, cofounder of SNOBSWAP, urged students to jump in and get started. Whang started her website, which allows people to sell and buy pre-owned fashion accessories, while she was practicing advertising law: "Coming from a legal background, I was a little risk-averse, so I kept my job while I was working on the website at night." It took a year and a half for Wang to get the website launched. It grew organically, and eventually she decided to take the plunge and make SNOBSWAP her full-time gig. But Whang wishes she had started sooner.
“My mistake was waiting too long,” she says. “By the time my website launched there were three similar websites that already existed. I was waiting for the timing to be perfect, but it’s never perfect.”
Justin Baer, founder of an app that eliminates guest check-in at events, agreed. “People say 'we're going to launch once the product is right.' I think you should just get it to the point where you can make a sale. See if it works, then you can build on to it and make it cooler,” said Baer. “In this economy, speed matters. You've got to get out there first, or get out there second and be a lot better than the first guy. Get free users if you have to and get their testimonials. But get out there.”
Baer followed his own advice. His app was first used by Google at a holiday party, and Baer stayed up all night for the previous four days making sure the product would work as promised. Google liked the product enough that it allowed Baer to post a testimonial from the company on his website, and that garnered him enough new business that he could afford to add new features to the app.
Some of the advice was based on painfully gained wisdom. Kevin Lenane’s company takes visual content and turns it into data that ad companies use to target ads more closely. During his two rounds of venture financing, Lenane learned some important lessons about working with angel investors.
“When I was first raising money, I didn't really know anything beyond the fact that I needed money,” said Lenane. So he created a slide deck and went to his first meeting with a well-known angel investor, someone who could have been an important asset to his new company. “[The angel] started asking me questions and I didn't know how to answer them. He asked a question about valuation, and I didn't even know what a valuation was! I shouldn't have gone to high-tier people first while I was still learning.”
Getting funding wasn’t the only bump in the road the entrepreneurs encountered as they worked to grow their businesses. Aaron Epstein is a co-founder of Creative Market, which he describes as “Etsy for graphic design.” In 2010, Epstein had the opportunity to be part of Y-Combinator, a prestigious Silicon Valley start-up academy. At the time, his wife had just taken a new job with the Food Network in New York City, and the couple were trying to both sell their Rockville, Md., house and find a place to live in New York. But Epstein still decided to grab the opportunity.
“Don't pass up opportunities,” he said, because you can always go back and get a job if your business doesn’t work out. “One of the misconceptions people have is that it is really risky to start a company, and it is in some ways. But you learn so much that you are more marketable if you need to get back into the corporate world later.”