Today, we're very happy to have the opportunity to bring you an interview with author and entrepreneur, Donna Fenn. If you're involved with a startup or ever will be, you're going to want to see what Donna has to say. From being a Contributing Editor for Inc. Magazine and author of two previous books, Alpha Dogs and Upstarts!, to her latest Amazon Kindle book, Are You an Upstart?, Donna Fenn has devoted her writing to entrepreneurs and helping them get started right on the path to business ownership. Read the interview, check out her books, and let us know what you learned by leaving a note in the comments.
You recently released a new book for the Amazon Kindle, called Are You an Upstart? Please tell us about it.
I think of Are You an Upstart? as a follow-up and companion to the book I published a year ago,Â Upstarts! How Gen-Y Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business. This newest e-book is really a call to action for young people who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs. First, they should ask themselves a few questions:
- Do you play well with others?
- Are you prepared to bootstrap?
- Will you look for opportunities in unlikely places?
- Can you tap into your own generation's market needs?
- Can you be flexible and agile?
I talk about why these particular questions are important and, of course, the book is filled with examples of young entrepreneurs who have answered yes to these questions and who have been wildly successful. I think the current generation of people in their 20s, and even younger, are incredibly entrepreneurial, but that doesn't mean that all of them should start businesses.
In your 2009 book, Upstarts!, you refer to what you call the collaborative economy. Can you expand on what that means and how it is affecting today’s young entrepreneurs?
Young entrepreneurs are naturally very collaborative, and there are lots of reasons for that. They are a very social generation, they work extremely well in groups because they've been taught to do that since they were in grammar school and on peewee soccer teams, and they also are not a bit shy about asking for help from teachers, mentors, parents, and potential investors. This serves them extremely well in a collaborative economy, where very little gets done by lone wolves. It's easier than ever to start a business, but harder than ever to distinguish yourself from the pack. There's a lot of noise out there, and it seems to me that the way to be heard above the din is to aggressively seek out the right business partners – people who can fill in your knowledge gaps, who can connect you to the right people, who have the ability to access communities of customers that might be elusive to you on your own.Â Â Young entrepreneurs are great at building "tribes," as Seth Godin would say.Â It's fashionable to roll your eyes at Facebook these days, but I truly believe it's one of the most powerful business marketing tools out there.
There is a lot of discussion about whether or not an entrepreneur needs a formal higher education. What are your thoughts on that?
That's such a big question!Â As a parent with two children in college, I am a huge fan of higher education. But I completely understand why a young person with entrepreneurial ambitions would choose to drop out, as so many do. There are very few colleges now that offer the kinds of programs and support young entrepreneurs need to get started in their businesses. And as we know, they are an inpatient lot, and they're quick to bail out if they think their experiences aren't relevant to the future they envision. I think that's a real shame.Â College does so much more than prepare you for a career. It's a place where you're free to explore fields of study that you may not think are among your core interests, but that may ignite a spark you didn't know existed, and set you on a path you may have never dreamed of.Â There is no better preparation for life than a great liberal arts education. You may have an incredible business idea, but if you can't speak another language, if you don't have at least a rudimentary knowledge of world history, or have an appreciation for Bach and Picasso, then certain doors will be closed to you. That said, I think colleges and universities need to do a much, much better job of identifying and supporting their entrepreneurial students, and creating programs that keep them in college.
What three pieces of advice would you give young entrepreneurs interested in starting a new business?
- Spend less time planning, and more time launching.Â It's fine to put an imperfect product into the marketplace, and to then refine it based upon reactions from your customers. In fact, it's more than fine – it's absolutely essential.
- Find a partner who complements your strengths and compensates for your weaknesses. Your best friend in college isn't necessarily the perfect business partner – it's rarely a good idea to start a company with someone who is exactly like you. And make sure you spell out the terms of the partnership at the very beginning of the relationship.
- Forget about venture capital. Only about 4% of all startups get it, and you're probably not going to be one of them. I happen to think that bootstrapping is absolutely the best way to start a company. It teaches you discipline, how to manage resources, and it forces you to be very creative and innovative. There's nothing wrong with sleeping on a futon and eating Ramen!
Do you believe there is a formula for being a successful entrepreneur?
Being an entrepreneur is all about rejecting cookie-cutter formulas, so I would have to say no. However, after 25 years of writing about entrepreneurs, I've definitely noticed some common character traits. For example, they are huge optimists and they see opportunity just about everywhere. When I was in Florida a couple weeks ago, at the Future of Entrepreneurship Education Summit, one of the speakers told a great story. It's about an entrepreneur who makes shoes, and he travels to a remote village in Africa because he thinks there may be a market for his product there. He gets off the plane, and immediately notices that no one is wearing shoes. He calls the factory at home and says "cancel the order right away. There's nothing here for us because no one wears shoes." Then a second entrepreneur with the same kind of business makes the same trip, gets off the plane, and also notices that no one is wearing shoes. She takes out her phone, barely able to contain her excitement, and instructs her plant manager to double the size of the order. "There is an incredible opportunity for us here," she says. "Because no one is wearing shoes."Â For me that story says it all.
How do you define success?
That question is really a head game that too many people play with themselves. No one can tell you whether or not you're successful. You have to feel it in your gut. If you have a billion-dollar company, but your kids can't stand you, are you more successful than the guy who lives in Vermont, and makes a modest living hand carving birdhouses and is blissfully happy? I think we need to define success for ourselves, and not be too concerned about whether others think we're successful.Â For me, success means doing work that I love, feeling that I'm having some kind of meaningful impact on others, and having a happy family to share it with. By those standards, I am wildly successful!