Solving a Problem, or Two, or Three...
The idea for my first startup originated while I was a junior at St. Stephen’s. I was standing in the school bar having a coffee with Nicola, and all of a sudden a student came barging in and I nearly lost the grip of my brand-new iPad 1. As soon as that happened I started thinking to myself, “Why doesn’t a case exist that would allow me to keep my iPad securely attached to my hand,” and from there NutKase Accessories was born.
My second startup began from a problem that I was experiencing in my first startup, NutKase, and had to do with the way in which I was facilitating all my conversations and relationships with all my offshore contract manufacturers in China. There was no streamlined, simple, and centralized platform that could be used to manage all the ongoing discussions and manufacturing projects. So once again, I set out to go and solve this problem and Tim Draper, a well- known VC (venture capitalist), invested $50-thousand in my idea.
The idea for my third startup came to me while I was living between San Francisco and Rome. On a trip back to Rome, while visiting my family, I was waiting for the bus, which was late as usual. And while waiting for the bus, I saw dozens of scooters zip by me, and they all had one thing in common: only one person was onboard the scooter. So I thought, “Why couldn’t one of these people who had a free space on the back of their scooter give me a quick lift for a small fee in exchange?” And that is how the idea for Scooterino was born. The European Space Agency has backed us and invested €50 thousand into the startup to help get us going, but we are currently raising more capital and always actively seeking “smart money”.
The fear of failure holds a lot of people back from wanting to take risks and from getting out of their comfort zone. The reason I decided to take the plunge was due to a combination of things.
Unfortunately, during my elementary, middle- and high- school years, I was never taught how to code. I am currently in the process of teaching myself some of the basics, but so far, I have always depended on partnering with technical partners and contractors who don’t like to work for free, since they have expenses. As a result, for all of my ventures, I have had some level of investment whether it was personal money from my family (they invested in NutKase), early-stage venture capital as in the case of my startup in California, or in the form of a grant from the European Space Agency for Scooterino. The rule is, if you can raise capital, RAISE IT, unless you are one of the rare companies that can really scale their business without outside money. At the end of the day, it all depends on the type of business you are trying to start. Usually hardware startups require a lot more upfront capital for prototyping and early manufacturing runs. Software, on the other hand, can be a lot cheaper if you find a technical co-founder that really wants to partner with you and help build your idea.
My philosophy is that if you can solve the problem you have identified by building a rapid prototype, getting to market quickly and validating your idea, don’t even bother with the business plan. Just focus on building and scaling your business as quickly as possible. At the end of the day, all investors want to see is a growth curve that is up and to the right. You don’t need a business plan to do that; you can easily use a well developed investor slide deck instead. If you can’t do the above, then write a business plan.
I never really had a business plan for NutKase or my California-based startup, but we did need a business plan for Scooterino, because we were dealing with old school investors who needed to see something that covered all the elements of our business and gave them some form of long-term strategy over the next 3-5 years (that’s impossible to do when you just have a cocktail-napkin idea!).
Staying the Course
The only way to be able to really persevere when times get super difficult is by making sure you know why it is you’re building the company that you’re building. The motive needs to be deep and meaningful to you. Or, in other words, you need to be absolutely crazy passionate about the problem that you are trying to solve. Without that level of passion you won’t have the stomach to endure the roller coaster ride that lies ahead of you. Take Scooterino, for example. I just said, “Enough is enough. I am so tired of taking bad public transportation, getting stuck in traffic, or looking for parking, I have to come up with something that solves this issue. Scooterino needs to exist and I am going to be the one to make it happen. No matter how difficult it gets.”
Of course there will be multiple times where things get so tough you ask yourself, “Why even bother?”. But it all comes down to perseverance. If you’re starting a business you will encounter an infinite number of obstacles in your path to achieving your goals. From what I have learned, the number one deciding factor for an entrepreneur’s success is GRIT. Being able to persevere when everybody else around you thinks it’s over. That mindset of being able to keep your head down and ignore the naysayers and continue working towards your goals, even if the advances are minimal and everything seems like it’s gone to hell, is exactly the winning mindset that will ultimately get you to where you want to be.
Lessons Learned and the Importance of Coding
If we want to go back to the beginning, I would have told my parents as a child to enroll me in coding classes, since that would have been an incredible asset for me to have in all of my business ventures thus far.
Also, in the early stages of my business, I now realize that I should have looked harder to find a technical co-founder who shared the same passion for the problem I was trying to solve. Working with an external software development team or contractors is something that I will avoid at all costs. I made that mistake in the past and I will never make it again.
Until I have made a significant dent in the world, I will never be satisfied with my level of success. I am shooting to eventually be able to improve the lives of a billion people, and that will only come if I up my game a thousand times. That is why I am constantly trying to expose myself to people I can learn from and with whom I can grow.
I loved my St. Stephen’s education, and looking back wouldn’t exchange it for anything. But I think there should be a much wider range of technical and science classes to complement the liberal arts/classical studies. The liberal arts and classical education, in my opinion, is not what this new generation of millennials needs in order to get ready for the very intense and exciting future ahead of us.
Students need support and guidance to help explore their interests in order to eventually understand what their passion and true calling is. For students such as myself, having to investigate different technology interests alone, without the support and involvement of the school, is a shame. I would love to see that improve over the coming years.
If an initiative such as STEAM were introduced and integrated at St. Stephen’s, the impact on the school environment would be positive, because the culture of the school itself emphasizes embracing change and accepting differences. Time will be needed to help the integration process, but I am confident that the old and the new forms of teaching and learning can be combined, and can ultimately work in harmony. I think this is an important step which has to do with recognizing some of the global economic trends that are happening. STEAM will help St. Stephen’s adapt and better prepare its incoming classes of students for the new technological age that we are now living in.
Advice for Other Startups
Identify a problem that is really bothersome and that you experience personally. Then try your best to develop a “scalpel” and not a “Swiss army knife”. A Swiss army knife is decent at doing a lot of different things. A scalpel has a single purpose, and it’s awesome at executing it. Your startup needs to be a scalpel, not a Swiss army knife. PERIOD. Whatever your product or service is, make sure that at all costs it does at least ONE thing really, really well, and focus on executing that one thing to the best of your ability before considering other features or ideas.