Building a company is an experience that varies widely, depending on the nature of the product or service. If you’re a student, your company may share some of the challenges encountered by other student organizations. This section describes some coming-together experiences of companies, both student and non-student.
The NCIIA supports the development of E-Teams—teams of faculty and students working to move an invention or innovation from creative idea to commercial venture. To illustrate some of the key factors in creating a successful business from a bare-bones idea, and how a company’s attributes can change as the company grows, we’ll look at two E-Team-based companies: the 2Cam Rock Anchor team, led by Seth Murray, and the Guardian 2000 team, led by Steven Rhodes.
These teams each originated in a class or program at their universities. Once the initial framework for the product was set for the class exercises, the teams began to evolve into serious, revenue-seeking ventures.
Being a student
“Being students has really helped us through the project,” claims Seth Murray. Both Murray and Guardian 2000’s Steven Rhodes said that access to campus facilities was key to their success. Both teams worked with specially trained faculty, used campus labs and machines, and could choose from a field of students with a broad range of backgrounds and talents. (Note: intellectual property rights vary from school to school, so make sure you’re clear on your school’s policies before you get started.)
Transition can be tough
The two teams agree that the transition from a student-run activity to a real-world business is difficult. Some institutions, like the University of Colorado at Boulder, have an entrepreneurship program that helps students find angel investors—affluent individuals who provide capital for a start-up, usually in exchange for ownership equity. But Rhodes points out that one of the more realistic challenges of the transition is that some of the students working on the project need paying, full-time jobs, and although the experience of working in an E-Team is unmatched, not everyone can afford to dedicate themselves full-time.
A startup is a team effort. Hopefully you’re working with a group of people of diverse backgrounds and training. Initially, it’s likely that people on your team will share responsibilities. Starting out is a great time for team members to get familiar with all aspects of the business, and manage it together.
Lonely at the top
At some point—and you’ll know it when you reach it—the one-big-happy-team won’t be the best organizational model for your company. Someone needs to take charge and lead the pack. Steven Rhodes looked for a natural leader with motivating qualities, someone who wasn’t afraid to take on responsibility. Sometimes, leaders are chosen from the original team, but sometimes the right match comes from the outside.
The best leader may just need strong business experience. Or she may need to both reflect and complement the skills of the rest of the team. It’s crucial for the team to carefully determine what it needs in a leader.
Another essential component of your startup days is communication. This may seem obvious, but it can’t be overemphasized. The idea people and the action people need to work consistently to keep communication lines open. Rhodes encourages everyone on his team to remain in contact through email so that problems get immediate solutions, and don’t build up until they’re unmanageable.
Advisors and mentors
Mentoring plays a huge role in any young company. Faculty advisors or outside mentors can speak from experience on manufacturing, marketing, and other key issues. Rhodes says of his advisor, “He has allowed the group to remain independent and learn from our mistakes. If he senses anything catastrophic is going to happen, he’ll step in, but it has been a big plus to have someone who lets the group learn and grow on their own.”
So what makes an innovative company?
How do they do it? All of the innovative companies (Apple, Google, and Toyota among them) share one trait: they focus on their employees, their customers, and the people who constitute the market in which they operate. They realize that innovation comes from people, that these people need to be supported, and that everyone with an idea should be heard. They encourage creativity and free-thinking, even if it means that company employees will wander down the wrong path now and again. After all, the harsh reality is that experience is the greatest teacher, and learning from mistakes is a heck of a lot better than not learning at all.
I started the magazine because I had a passion for what I was doing. That’s also why I went into the airline business, even though everybody I talked to told me that there was no money to be made there. I felt that I could make a difference. That’s the best reason to go into business—because you feel strongly that you can change things.”
Richard Branson, Chairman of the Virgin Group. From “Training to Work: Unit of One,” by Jill Rosenfeld. Fast Company, August, 2000.
Nathan Baxter, Dean, Chief Priest, CEO of Washington National Cathedral. From “Training to Work: Unit of One,” by Jill Rosenfeld. Fast Company, August, 2000.