Learning to start a startup

Last week, I attended a Tri-Co Start-up event organized by Swarthmore’s Center for Innovation and Leadership, also known as CIL. The event featured participants from the Tri-College Consortium (Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford).

Let’s begin with why I registered for the event. I am an international student who is interested in Mathematics and Computer Science who has no background in business and social entrepreneurship. Attending the event, therefore, would educate me on both issues. Moreover, because every participant worked under the mentorship of many entrepreneurs, I learnt not only from my direct experience but also from the insights of experienced entrepreneurs. After all, there is no quicker way of learning than drinking from the firehose. The other reason is that I wanted to befriend fellow Tri-Co students. Although I have studied at Swarthmore for months already, I know only a few Tri-Co students who do not attend Swarthmore.

During the event, I needed to perform only two tasks: formulate a business model and present it to the judges and the other participants. However simple both tasks sound, they were not. When the event started, every participant received a piece of paper to write about the problems they wish to solve, their proposed solutions, and their products. According to Dr. Barbara Kurshan, an innovation advisor at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and one of the event’s mentors, solutions differ from products in that entrepreneurs design the latter as a means to realize the former. Among many proposed preliminary ideas, only four were selected. Afterwards, participants chose which among these four ideas interested them.

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Ideating: Each participant writes their ideas on a piece paper. Only four of these ideas will be selected.

I chose to work on a business that seeks to help students with distinct interests (such as K-pop music, anime, and so on) develop transferable skills. One of the biggest regrets high school students face is that they devote most of their extracurricular time developing non-transferable skills only to realize later on that they want to pursue another activity. For instance, I enjoyed playing Scrabble when I was a high-school student. To play Scrabble competitively, I devoted a significant amount of time memorizing uncommon words, such as “SEQUOIA” (a redwood coniferous tree), “XI” (Vietnamese currency), etc. Now that I do not have much opportunity to play Scrabble, I cannot apply those Scrabble words to journalism, admission blogging, or debate, which are the activities I am passionate about. My team wanted to solve that problem. As their interests may change in the future, they should develop such core skills as creativity, communication, or sympathy rather than some niche skills.

Brainstorming Process
Presenting preliminary ideas: The judges looked at the problem, the solution, and the product each participant proposed. Afterwards, they helped participants flesh out their ideas.

How? Initially, my team did not know how to proceed. We did not even know what we meant by the word “skill.” Fortunately, thanks to the mentors, we learnt how to ask the right questions (e.g. “Do high schoolers lack transferable skills?” and “Do they care about acquiring skills?”), how to analyze our competitors, and how to form a preliminary financial model.

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Developing: I was listening intently to the mentors when they advised how to formulate a business model. Within a few hours, I would be pitching my team’s model to the judges.

In the end, we decided our company should not focus on building transferable skills for students because doing so means competing directly with Coursera, EdX, Khan Academy, etc. Therefore, we positioned our company to connect all the dots. Students will tell us what they are doing and what interests them. Our company will guide them on how to develop those skills, be it which online courses they should take, what aspects of their extracurricular activities they should focus on, and so on. After we spent hours creating, testing, and developing our models, we were ready to present our result to the judges. Guess what? My team won 3rd place.

There are two major takeaways I have from this event.

First, it is important that one asks the right questions and uses appropriate methods to answer our questions. What we assume to be true from our experience may not necessarily be what the markets want.

Second, even if one has no background knowledge, one can still learn from attending any event. The key is the willingness to learn. Don’t be afraid to explore the unexplored.

Before this blog ends, I wish to thank CIL for organizing this enjoyable and educational event.

Photo credit: Patrick Montero and every other photographer in Tri-Co Start-up event I did not mention

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