This past week I caught up with a friend who happens to be a Thiel Fellow. We got to talking about how using your situation (whether it is being a Thiel Fellow, a college student, or something else) to get in front of someone is an important thing for people to learn.
We joked that no one is going to turn down an introduction to a Thiel Fellow. It’s an unbelievable vehicle to leverage.
For me, I’ve always used my “situation,” whatever that may be, to get in front of the people I wanted to. In college, I used the student angle to get meetings or introductions to people I wanted to know or talk to. When I interned at Viacom/MTV Networks, I used that situation to look up executives at CBS, Paramount, MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, and other subsidiaries to ask for meetings while I was there, to pick their brains, and make lasting connections.
The same situation at Aviary and Dwolla. Being a venture backed startup gives you the opportunity to have some legitimacy behind who you are and what you are working on. It’s a lot easier asking/getting an introduction when you are person X, from company Y that has $Z in venture funding from big investors- rather than person X, solo, looking to get connected.
So figure out what your situation is and use whatever it is to get in front of people you want to know.
Two skills learned in college can be honed for the startup workplace. They are, in no order of importance: how to ask good questions and how to effectively communicate.
Asking Good Questions
I am constantly impressed with individuals who ask the right questions. With every field there are thought-provoking questions that the other side can ask showing that they “get” it. In college, ask many questions of your teachers, peers, etc. It’s awesome because you can ask a lot of stupid and wrong questions and it won’t affect anything material. When talking to people I haven’t met before, there can be a question or two asked that helps me see that I’m going to like this person. I’ve written before about the best interview questions a candidate can ask. I truly believe good questions are what sets candidates apart at later stages of the interview process, because at that point everyone is qualified for the role. That it is time to weed out the people who think/question better. Use college as an opportunity to get better at asking questions.
When I think of effective communication, I think of writing and in-person speaking. If you learn how to properly express yourself and your thoughts, there is no more powerful tool. In the startup world, effective communication is key to a successful founder/team member. If you can’t get your ideas on paper or understood by others, it doesn’t matter how cool/smart/innovative your ideas are; they won’t go anywhere. In college, start writing and take some speech classes. Speak publicly as often as you can. The only way to get better at talking in public is by talking in public often. College is a great time to master the art of communication.
While these are two skills you can learn in college, if you haven’t mastered them by now, go for it. Start writing, speaking publicly, and asking everyone around you questions. It is never too late to improve these necessary skills. And once you are good, they will surely come in handy.
There are two ways of entering the startup world. One is by starting a company, the other is by joining a (startup) company.
There are some people who have the X factor and can go from zero to hundred. They start companies at young ages and can scale it up while finding the right people to work with. This is rare and few and far between. Think Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg.
Most times when young people start companies, they fail. The founders don’t know any investors, have no money to build out the product, and definitely don’t know anyone at TechCrunch or the New York Times to write up what they are working on. There are obviously exceptions to the rule, but this is the reality.
This is why I believe that when you are beginning in the the startup world you should join a well-oiled machine. Go to a startup that has raised its Round A or Round B and be the young superstar. Whether you are the product guy, BD guy or a tech master- you will learn the ropes and meet the right people. Now, when you are ready to go on your own you will be better positioned to succeed.