The Young Entrepreneur’s Guide, Part II: Getting Out There

Many people have written tips, guides and questions for aspiring entrepreneurs.  Many of them are excellent, but I don’t think anyone has captured the essence of the stages a young entrepreneur goes through and specific advice for what they should do at each stage.  As part of our efforts at GreenhornConnect.com, we want to create a central location that provides the information that an aspiring entrepreneur needs to go from starting out (Is this for me? What should I do?) to evaluating an idea (What goes into a business plan? How do I build a team?)  to being a real business (Do I need investment? What tools should I use?).

In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing different sections of this guide in my blog, pulling from my experiences, what I’ve read and advice I’ve heard from others. If you read this and think something is missing or disagree with any of the advice, please comment; I want this to be the best guide possible and will gladly give you credit for your contribution. Thanks.

Thus far: See Part I: Starting from Scratch

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PART II: Getting Out There

You’ve read a lot about startups and love every minute. You’re starting to take interests in specific industries and startups and may have a few ideas of your own. How do you get “plugged in” to the community?

1) What’s Out There?

If you ask any established entrepreneur what events are out there, they’ll tell you that there are too many to count.  If you ask the average aspiring young entrepreneur the same question, they’ll give you a blank stare.  So how do you go from nothing to trying to be 3 places in the same night?

First, take a look at lists of the entrepreneurial organizations in your area.  Pay particular attention to those in industries of your interest. Check out their sites and you’ll find out about any events they hold.  Use your twitter account (if you don’t have one, get one now), start following those organizations as they’ll tweet any new events they or their partner organizations are holding. You can then also find a number of great calendars listing specific events.

2) Where to Start?

Similar to reading material mentioned in Part I, there’s an impressive number of events to consider attending.  It can be intimidating to get out there at first, so to build your confidence up, here’s a list of the best organizations in Boston for young entrepreneurs:

DartBoston
Boston Young Entrepreneurs
Innovation Open Houses
Onein3
Web Innovators Group
Tech Tuesdays

There’s also some great competitions that welcome young entrepreneurs (Mass Challenge & MIT 100K), an organization that will help cover event costs and a site dedicated to delivering all relevant events, organizations and resources for young entrepreneurs.

3) Look the Part

Most events take place in the evening so it’s a slightly relaxed environment, but it still means you need to be prepared:

Dress the part: No one wears a suit or tie to the majority of these events, so don’t worry too much. Just make sure you’re not wearing that wrinkly, smelly shirt from the corner of your room and that you’re generally put together.  A good rule of thumb for dress is that the higher the cost of the event, the better the dress required and if the event is during the day on a weekday, it will also be more formal (usually suits or sports coats with no tie).  If in doubt, ask the event organizers or look at pictures from previous occurrences of the event.

Have a Business Card: The reason you’re getting out there is to make connections with others in the community.  Business cards are the currency at these events, so make sure you have one.  It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, and you’re not expected to have a startup even; simply having a card with your name, email, twitter id, and phone number is very effective.  If you don’t have a company, don’t be afraid to list some of your entrepreneurial interests on there (i.e.- “Cleantech Enthusiast”).  For about $15 you can get at home business cards that you can make with Microsoft Word and your printer. Most people won’t notice the difference or care.

Have a LinkedIn profile: LinkedIn is your online resume and contacts manager. After events, go on LinkedIn and look up the people whose cards you got.  Request to connect with them and mention something about meeting them that night in the request message; people appreciate personalization and it shows you were listening.  Don’t feel like you have enough to list on LinkedIn? Add all your work experience you can, including internships and if substantial, volunteer work.  If you’ve done any interesting side projects, list them. And of course, go into detail regarding your education, so people see what your skills and interests are.

4) What to Expect

Many of these events are crowded and overflowing with energy. There will be clusters of people talking excitedly about their startup or a topic of interest to entrepreneurs.  It can be intimidating at first, but try your best to be confident and extroverted.  Remember, if you’ve been reading about the community, there’s a great chance you are familiar with the topic they’re discussing, so don’t be afraid to jump into the conversation.  Cort Johnson, the leader of the young entrepreneur organization, Dart Boston, wrote a great piece about what most of the community is like. Be prepared for it and you’ll be fine.  Asking a good question will always impress older members of the community as it demonstrates your understanding of a topic and a desire to learn more.  Try to think of a few questions that come up as you’re doing your daily reading/skimming and bring them with you to an event.

5) Be Patient

Not every person you meet is going to be the perfect connection and not every event will be of great value to you.  Try to take away at least one good contact from each event you attend and make note of what events you like best.  Try to return to those events and similar ones.  When you meet people you do make a good connection with, ask them what events they like going to and try them out if you haven’t already.  After a while of doing this, you’ll settle in and find that there are certain events you look forward to every week and some people that you always see at events.  The great thing about seeing the same people is that you can “warm up” by saying hello to them at an event before going out and talking with new people.

6) Keep it in Perspective

Networking is an important part of being an entrepreneur; it helps build the connections that will help you find what you need to make your business successful.  It also introduces you to other people with the same “genetic defect” you have, which can be reaffirming. Remember, going to events should be enjoyable and provide some great learning opportunities; if you aren’t having fun, you’re either going to the wrong events or doing something wrong. And if you’re actually missing spending your nights in front of the TV, entrepreneurship may not be for you.

In the end, networking is just a small part of the process of being an entrepreneur. It’s a tool along with many others. Any startup is dependent on customers, which are usually not your fellow entrepreneurs.  So, don’t get too caught up in networking and forget about them.

Are you getting your feet wet by networking and attending community events?

Coming Thursday: Part III: Building a Reputation, Network and Following

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This is ongoing series to try to build a comprehensive, lasting guide for aspiring entrepreneurs. I would greatly appreciate any input in the comments below to make this the best it can be.  Thanks!

What is the Northeastern School of Technological Entrepreneurship?

When I’m networking at various entrepreneurial events in the city, my background often comes up in discussions.  When I mention that I’m a recent graduate of the Master’s program in the School of Technological Entrepreneurship at Northeastern University, most pose the question: “What’s that?”  I obviously don’t have the chance to go in depth to describe it there, so I’d like to talk more here about the seemingly little known program.

The School started 6 years ago thanks to a generous donation by Jean C. Tempel, a local education philanthropist.  I was just a freshman Electrical Engineering major when I took the first class they offered in the Spring of 2004.  This course was the seminar series showcasing local entrepreneurs that I’ve mentioned in previous entries.  Their stories really sparked the fire of my passion for entrepreneurship. Over the next 4 years, I took the necessary courses to gain a minor in Technological Entrepreneurship. As I moved closer to graduation, I realized that I was more passionate about the minor than my major, but I didn’t feel like I was prepared to pursue a career in entrepreneurship yet.  With this in mind, I decided to enter the Master’s degree program.

While at times I’ll quickly tell someone that my Master’s degree is a “MBA for Startups,” that’s a rather crude approximation.  The STE program is more compact (one year, 10 courses) and includes a year long development project that involves work similar to organizing the business aspects of a startup.  The classes are a crash course in all of the key business concerns of a start-up: Intellectual Property, Marketing, Accounting, Finance, Product Development, Business Management, Leadership, and Strategic Planning.   These courses give students a solid base from which they can build upon when they work on real world start-ups after graduation and they even cover many of the lessons some have been disappointed MBAs don’t learn.

The types of students enrolled in this program are different than most MBAs.  The majority of my classmates are foreign and fresh out of undergraduate programs. This had both benefits and drawbacks in my experience.  It was great learning to work with people with vastly different cultural backgrounds; I had many conversations with my classmates that helped me understand the Indian, Chinese and Taiwanese cultures.  Even cultural norms such as how to interact with your professor are very different in other countries.   Of course, a drawback of working with so many foreign students comes when working on projects.  Since English is not usually their first language, I found myself needing to do significant editing for most of their work. We all know how much a grammatical error stands out in a presentation, so this was always a key issue to address.  Personally, I saw a silver lining in this as it made me more critical of my own work and have a greater attention to detail; never assume a slide or paragraph is perfect until you’ve checked it twice.

The program does have its flaws.  Since classes are every night, it’s impossible to go to the majority of entrepreneurial events.  This put me behind the eight-ball in finding employment upon graduation and building a network. The program could also use a lot more marketing, as it would be helpful if more local entrepreneurs were familiar with it. I graduated from the 3rd class of the program, so I’m sure it will improve in years to come as myself and others work in the local community and the program expands.

Overall, I’m very pleased with my decision to enter the program.  Every professor in the program has startup experience, and they all incorporate their stories into their courses (the good, the bad and the ugly).  We also had a VC and an Angel involved in a pair of courses, which further diversified the perspectives presented to students. Topics in the classroom were supplemented by a monthly speaker series, which included local entrepreneurs, angels, bankers, and lawyers.  We were required to give many presentations and write a great deal, which led to significant improvement in those skills as well as time management and organizational skills.  Since classes were at night, I was able to work part time during the day at E Ink, which provided both invaluable experience and allowed me to avoid going into debt for living expenses in addition to the hefty tuition costs. Finally, for those of us who were able to pursue personal projects for the year long development projects, we were able to learn a great deal about what it really takes to launch a business (more on my project in a future entry) with some even launching.

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In the end, the Master’s program has vastly improved my business knowledge in just a single, intense year.  I look forward to continuing to build upon this knowledge for a lifetime.  As the great philosopher once said,

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” – Socrates